At some point in 2009, the oft-delayed All American Football League might actually start playing games. With any luck, the upstart league will be able to carve away a little bit of the NFL's massive market while giving players like Eric Crouch and Peter Warrick another shot at gridiron glory. It's a tough proposition, though; history is littered with the tales of fledgling professional sports leagues that flamed out quickly. Here are a few of our favorites:
1. The National Bowling League
Most people probably only think about professional bowling when they flip past ESPN on a Sunday afternoon. In 1961, though, professional bowling seemed like such fertile ground for fans that one league wasn't sufficient. Enter the National Bowling League. That's right: league. The NBL wasn't going to be a bunch of solo hotshots out only for their own glory. Instead, the bowlers would play as teams from different cities, and at the end of the season they would compete in the World Series of Bowling. The bowlers really did work as teams; although the rules were largely similar to league bowling, at certain points of the game a bowler could swap himself out for a "wild card" sub to pick up a tough spare.
Unlike its main competition, the Professional Bowlers Association, the NBL didn't have a television deal, so it had to make the bulk of its cash on ticket sales. Matches took place in specially designed arenas that allowed spectators to perch around the lanes. These arenas could only hold 3,250 spectators at the most, though, and the owners had spent millions building the arenas and paying bowler salaries.
And top bowlers didn't want to leave the fledgling PBA to join the NBL. As a result, the mainstream sports media was largely indifferent to the league, and fans didn't show up in the expected throngs. The league debuted on October 12, 1961, and by December 16, the San Antonio Cavaliers franchise had gone under. The rest of the league unceremoniously followed suit five months later.
Although it was short-lived, the NBL had its own scandals. Legendary PBA bowler Don Carter was allegedly offered a bribe to join the rival league. As you'd expect in bowling, the bribe itself was decidedly unglamorous; Carter was supposedly promised a pig farm.
2. The World Football League
Many secondary leagues suffer due to inferior player talent, but the WFL apparently sidestepped that problem by bringing in a number of big NFL stars for its inaugural 1974 season. By offering salaries well above the relatively low NFL wages of the day, league organizers lured stars like Larry Csonka (pictured below with Memphis Southmen teammates Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield) and Calvin Hill (Honolulu Hawaiians) into the league. Moreover, the WFL had several new rules that made the game more exciting. The league moved the goalposts from the front of the end zone, where they resided in the NFL at the time, to the back. Touchdowns were worth seven points instead or six, and in lieu of a kicked extra point after each score, teams played an "action point" from the five yard line. (Scoring on this play was worth a point.) The WFL seemed set to offer a fan-friendly alternative to the NFL.
With this star power and the novel rules, the WFL got off to a hot start in 1974. Teams averaged over 40,000 spectators for their first few games, and it looked like the NFL might have some real competition. The league's organizers talked optimistically of expanding the league to Europe and Asia.
Unfortunately, though, much of this success was illusory; most the people in these booming crowds had gotten their tickets for free or at extremely cut-rate prices.
Actual full-priced tickets proved to be a somewhat tougher sell. While the league had brought in some high-profile stars, the rank-and-file players were mostly guys who weren't good enough to make it in the NFL. The quality of play wasn't terrible, but basically, fans were only willing to attend these games as long as they didn't have to pay full fare for the experience.
By the end of its first twenty-game season, the league was teetering on the brink of insolvency. The lack of funds led to some pretty amusing stories: the MVP of the World Bowl (the league's Super Bowl equivalent) was to receive a cash bonus. Why cash? Supposedly the league didn't want sportswriters sneering that a check from the WFL would surely bounce. The money was piled on a table, and the game's MVPs pocketed the stacks after the game. According to legend, local citizens fed the Portland Storm's roster, and the Charlotte Hornets had their uniforms impounded for failure to pay a laundry bill.
Despite these dire financial straits, the WFL tried to make another run at the NFL's throne in 1975, but its owners ran out of money midseason. The league folded, and the Birmingham Vulcans, owners of a 9-3 record, won the championship by default. Several WFL personalities found NFL success, though. Portland Storm linebackers coach Marty Schottenheimer had a long career as an NFL head coach, and Philadelphia Bell wideout Vince Papale inspired the film Invincible by catching on with the Philadelphia Eagles.
3. Roller Hockey International
Remember inline skating? Vaguely? Back in 1993, it wasn't a fad; it was a new youth movement that was never going to die. And thus, the RHI was born to capitalize on it. The league had teams across the U.S. and Canada, and played with rules that were subtly different from the NHL's. Aside from the obvious lack of ice, teams had four skaters and a goalie instead of the NHL's five, and games consisted of four 12-minute quarters rather than three 20-minute periods. Teams competed for the Murphy Cup, which the Anaheim Bullfrogs won twice, cementing their place as the Red Wings of roller hockey.
The league operated from 1993 to 1997, took a year off in 1998, and then returned in 1999 for a final season/death wheeze. Like most leagues, it produced some quality players; Saint Louis Blues goaltender Manny Legace put in some time with the Toronto Planets.
4. International Volleyball Association
It's tough to find many specific details on this short-lived volleyball league. Teams competed from 1975 to 1979, and the IVA was revolutionary for being a coed pro sports league. The league's teams were all located in the western United States, although the El Paso-Juarez Sol made good on the "international" part of the association's name by paying tribute to the Mexican side of the border.
By all accounts, some truly world-class volleyball players spiked and set in the IVA, including Polish Olympic gold medalist Edward Skorek. The most famous player in league history, though, was undoubtedly former NBA star Wilt Chamberlain, who played for the Orange County Stars in 1977, possibly because of the coed rules. Chamberlain also served as the IVA's president and was enshrined in the IVA Hall of Fame.
5. The XFL
The NFL may have good football, but does it have attitude? Pro wrestling mogul Vince McMahon thought not, so in 2001 he launched the XFL, an alternative, rougher football league. Almost everything about the eight-team league was designed to be edgy, unlike that stodgy old NFL. Who needs a coin toss to determine possession when you can throw a ball on the ground and have players scrap for it? Why not let the public-address announcers trash talk the opposing team and its fans? Why not just let defensive backs push receivers at any point until the ball is thrown? And can't we finally let football cheerleaders play up their sex appeal after centuries of confining them to shapeless burlap robes? The XFL sought to answer all these questions.
Unfortunately for McMahon, the answers weren't quite what he anticipated. Having a pre-game scrum to determine possession is a fantastic way to injure players, trash-talking PA announcers are incredibly obnoxious, and receivers generally can't catch passes if they've been pushed to the ground. On top of that, there are certainly many reasonable complaints one could make about NFL cheerleaders, but "not skanky enough" doesn't appear anywhere on that list. The second-rate talent, combined with the rule allowing defensive backs to eviscerate receivers, kept scoring low and games excruciatingly boring. Even after the "you're allowed to bump receivers" rule was changed four games into the season, things didn't get much better. Grammarians everywhere turned up their noses at the league's rampant, inappropriate overuse of the letter "x," particularly in the names of the Memphis Maniax and Los Angeles Xtreme.
This wrestling-style attitude did little to bring in fans, and after the Xtreme won the inaugural season's Million Dollar Game, the league ceased to Xist. League MVP Tommy Maddox spent some solid years as the Pittsburgh Steeler's quarterback, and league icon Rod "He Hate Me" Smart enjoyed some success as a kick returner for the Carolina Panthers. Perhaps the league's most enduring effect, though, was introducing the flying Skycam to football coverage. The aerial camera has since become an integral part of NFL and college football broadcasts.
Why did Mr. Smart put "He Hate Me" on the back of his jersey? Here's what he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2004:
"Basically, my brother's my opponent. After I win, he's gonna hate me. It is what it is. It's a saying I was saying when I'd feel something wasn't going my way. For example, (when) I was on the squad in Vegas and coach was putting other guys in, (if) I felt I'm better than them, you know, hey, 'he hate me.' See what I'm saying? Give me a chance. That's all I ask. It came from the heart. Within. The way I felt."