The World Football League was an American football league that played in 1974 and part of 1975. Although this pro grid circuit's proclaimed ambition was to bring American football onto a worldwide stage, the farthest the WFL reached was placing a team – the Hawaiians – in Honolulu, Hawaii.
The fledgling WFL did succeed in raising stagnant salaries in the NFL. Average salaries of NFL players were among the lowest in the four major sports. Davidson's league garnered major news when the Memphis Southmen, led by John F. Bassett, signed three Miami Dolphins players, fullback Larry Csonka, halfback Jim Kiick, and wide receiver Paul Warfield to what was then the richest 3-player deal in sports, an astounding US$3.5 million to start in 1975. The pact was a guaranteed, personal services contract, so the three would be paid even if the WFL did not survive its first season.
Immediately, the NFL took notice as did its players when they were approached to jump leagues. The Oakland Raiders lost both their quarterbacks, Ken Stabler who signed with the Birmingham Americans and Daryle Lamonica who penned a contract to play for the Southern California Sun, starting in 1975. The Dallas Cowboys also took roster hits when WFL teams in Hawaii and Houston signed running back Calvin Hill and quarterback Craig Morton respectively. The Hawaiians also signed Minnesota Vikings Pro Bowl WR John Gilliam and San Francisco 49'ers All-Pro TE Ted Kwalick. However, Gilliam would end up with the Chicago Winds and Kwalick signed with the Philadelphia Bell prior to the 1975 season. By early June 1974, the WFL claimed they had some 60 NFL stars and regulars under contract.
Playing a 20-game regular season schedule in 1974 – six games longer than the NFL's then 14-game season – the WFL staged no exhibition games (although its teams did participate in preseason scrimmages). The season was to begin on Wednesday, July 10 and ended on Wednesday, November 13. This was a 20-game season in 19 weeks --- a schedule accomplished by having double games (primarily Monday and Friday) on Labor Day weekend. Some complained that the schedule was poorly drafted. For one thing, although most teams played on Wednesday nights with a national TV game slated for Thursday nights, the Hawaiians played their home games on Sunday afternoons. This meant that when the Hawaiians had a home game they played an opponent who flew to Honolulu after having played just four days earlier. In addition, back-to-back meetings between two teams were common.
The original schedule called for a four-team playoff, with semifinal playoffs held on Wednesday-Thursday November 20-November 21, and the World Bowl on Friday, November 29th (the night after Thanksgiving). League officials boldly discussed plans for expansion teams in Europe and Asia.
In the first few weeks, the WFL looked to be a resounding success. Attendance outpaced the first week of the American Football League of 1960, averaging just under 43,000 a game. The box office numbers proved to be the beginning of the WFL's undoing. In Jacksonville, the Sharks admitted that 44,000 tickets were giveaways. The Philadelphia Bell whose first two home games totaled 120,000 fans, told the press that over 100,000 had been sold for almost nothing. Presumably the giveaways were intended in part to pique the public's curiosity and interest, but the attempt was unsuccessful. Six games into the first season, WFL franchises were in serious trouble. The Detroit Wheels were looking to move to Charlotte, North Carolina and the Florida Blazers made overtures of bringing the first place club to Atlanta.
By September, the barely one-year old league had bottomed out when two franchises relocated. The New York Stars relocated to Charlotte, North Carolina as the Charlotte Hornets, and the Houston Texans, the first WFL team to relocate in mid-season, moved to Shreveport, Louisiana as the Shreveport Steamer. In October, the league pulled the plug on the Detroit Wheels and the Jacksonville Sharks after 14 games. The folding of the Jacksonville franchise meant that the Gator Bowl would not host World Bowl I. (Ironically, Jacksonville was also slated to be the host of the 1986 USFL Championship Game, but that game was never played. It would not be until February 2005 that the city would host its first championship pro football game, Super Bowl XXXIX.)
Reports of financial hardship abounded. Most of the teams were badly undercapitalized (notable exceptions being Birmingham, Memphis, Southern California and the Hawaiians), despite league officials' bold plans. There were stories of Portland Storm players being fed by local citizens, and of the Charlotte Hornets having their uniforms impounded for not paying a laundry bill from the time the team was located in New York. The Florida Blazers players reportedly survived on McDonald's meal vouchers.
Late in the year, the league announced that it was going to award its MVP a cash prize at the World Bowl. It was literally a cash prize. Rather than endure the embarrassment of media sneers about whether a WFL check would clear, the league neatly stacked cash high upon a table in the middle of the field. The MVP award was a three-way split, and the players involved split the cash.
Despite the disasters, many thought the WFL performed fairly well, though below NFL standards. Many games were tight, decided by seven points or less, and the Action Point, the one-point conversion run or pass attempt after a touchdown, was favored among WFL coaches and critics. The league championship – the World Bowl, or World Bowl I – was staged in Birmingham between the hometown Birmingham Americans and Florida Blazers. The Action Point proved to be the equalizer as the Americans won the championship by a single point, 22-21. The day after the World Bowl, the champions' uniforms were confiscated by sheriff's deputies. (Sports Illustrated referred to the game, prophetically, as "The first, and possibly only World Bowl".)
Though many predicted the WFL was dead, the league returned for the 1975 season, with a new leader, president Chris Hemmeter, former co-owner of the 1974 Hawaiians franchise, and some new owners with new names. The deceased Sharks of Jacksonville came back as the 'Express.' The Portland Storm became the Portland Thunder, the Birmingham Americans renamed the Vulcans, and the Chicago Fire became the Winds. The World Bowl runner-up Florida Blazers folded; its franchise rights were relocated to San Antonio, Texas as the San Antonio Wings. Only two teams, Memphis and Philadelphia, returned with the same ownership from the prior season.
The league changed its scheduling format from 20 games without exhibitions to 18 games (played in 20 weeks due to the odd number of teams) with exhibitions. Gone were weeknight games; the new schedule had games on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. But the league still was snake-bit. Although the original plan called for a July 5 preseason opener and August 2 regular season openers, the regular season had to open a week earlier, with a single game on Saturday, July 26, due to a stadium conflict. This meant that a single regular season game was played in the midst of the last weekend of preseason play (with some preseason games being played the next night).
Several more NFL free agents including Calvin Hill and Ted Kwalick signed on with the struggling WFL, and the Chicago Winds made an offer to aging Super Bowl III MVP Joe Namath, who seriously considered the offer before refusing and resigning with the New York Jets. The embarrassing rejection by Namath, after they had invested so much effort in signing him, seriously hurt the Winds, who folded five weeks into the season. Shortly afterward, the entire league shut down and the Birmingham Vulcans, with a league best record of 9-3 were awarded the league championship.
With the relative financial stability of the Birmingham and Memphis clubs, both attempted to join the NFL but were refused. In 1979, the Memphis club owners filed an anti-trust suit against the NFL. Their case was ultimately dismissed on May 30, 1984. Although the NFL expanded in 1976, that expansion had been planned before the WFL's first season.
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Notes: (1) Jacksonville and Detroit folded after 14 games; each week thereafter, the teams that had games against those teams played each other. (2) Shreveport Steamer began season as Houston Texans. (3) Charlotte Hornets began season as New York Stars; upon moving to Charlotte, played one game as Charlotte Stars, and remaining games as Hornets. (4) Chicago forfeited its 20th game to Philadelphia, 2-0.
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The WFL, for all its embarrassing miscues, is remembered for producing a number of coaches who would find success in the NFL: notably Jack Pardee, Lindy Infante, and Marty Schottenheimer. Memphis head coach John McVay went on to become head coach of the New York Giants, but had more success as general manager of the San Francisco 49ers during the 1980s dynasty years. Several players, most notably Pat Haden, Danny White, Alfred Jenkins, Greg Latta and Vince Papale, later found success in the NFL as well.
The league's most severe impact was on the Miami Dolphins, who had just won consecutive Super Bowls before the WFL's snagging of three of their star players. This changed the course of NFL history, by opening the door to dominance by two other AFC teams, the Steelers and the Raiders, during the remainder of the 1970s.
While by no means the pioneer of "singular" team nicknames, which had been used by some college and professional sports teams since the 19th century, the quantity of them in a single league ("Fire", "Sun", "Bell", "Storm", "Steamer", "Thunder", "Express") was rare in professional sports at the time, and was a distinguishing mark of the league.
The NFL's Houston Texans revived the name of the WFL's franchise for that city (although "Texans" was used by an NFL Dallas team in 1952 – the remnants of which became the Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts, by an AFL Dallas team in the early 1960s – who became the Kansas City Chiefs, and by a CFL San Antonio team for one year in the 1990s). There is also a Major League Soccer team called the Chicago Fire, and there are/were also NBA teams called the Memphis Grizzlies (2001-present) and Charlotte Hornets (1988-2002) (although the nickname "Hornets" for minor league baseball teams in Charlotte long precedes the WFL entry, and the "Grizzlies" name for the Memphis NBA team was selected when the franchise was still in Vancouver).