This post ties in with my previous one about rules changes for NASCAR that were announced earlier this week.
Once upon a time, the established sports leagues did not have the almost total control they now have over their respective sports. The possibility of competing with these leagues was real. Someone who challenged the then established order with enthusiasm is a gentleman named Gary Davidson. Davidson co-founded the American Basketball Association, the World Hockey Association and founded the World Football League.
It's worth noting that those first two leagues did well enough to have some of their teams eventually join the N.B.A. and the N.H.L., respectively. The W.F.L., however, crashed and burned, playing a full season in 1974 and then ending the 1975 season on October 22nd of that year. They had played twelve out of eighteen weeks that were scheduled.
The Birmingham and Memphis franchises were financially stable and enjoyed good fan support. Both teams asked to be admitted to the N.F.L. but were denied that option. The N.F.L., of course, had been challenged by the A.F.L. in the 1960s, a challenge that ultimately led to a merger of the two leagues.
Since the failure of the W.F.L., there have been more recent attempts to compete with the N.F.L., most notably in 1983 to 1985 when the United States Football League played three seasons of spring and summer football. A planned move to the fall proved to be disastrous, a move that Donald Trump, as owner of the New Jersey Generals, was the biggest advocate of.
The next challenge came in 2001, when Vince McMahon founded the XFL. McMahon did this after his attempt to buy the Canadian Football League failed. The XFL was widely perceived as not being serious, and though its games were aired on N.B.C, it played just one season.
And, most recently, the United Football League, an entity owned by Bill Hambrecht, played full seasons in 2009, 2010, and 2011. The league played four weeks of its 2012 season and then cancelled the remaining games.
Here is my take on these leagues:
The W.F.L. had several issues. Teams were underfunded, some teams played in stadia that were run down, and the placement of a team in Hawaii created a real nightmare in terms of scheduling. Some teams were caught inflating attendance by giving away several thousand tickets. The whole endeavor was a mess from the beginning.
The U.S.F.L. managed to do a lot of things right. Though there was some instability in terms of teams going defunct and some moving, the league was most certainly sustainable. I believe that it could have gone on successfully if it had continued to play its games in the spring and summer.
The X.F.L. was doomed from day one. It tried to establish itself as a renegade, but that just wasn't accepted by football fans.
The U.F.L. was, well, weird. The teams had coaches like Marty Schottenheimer and Jim Fassel, men who had coached with success in the N.F.L. and were well known to fans. But the league had financial issues from the start. It never had more than five teams, thus causing teams to rotate weeks off. I got to see a few of the games and though the quality of play wasn't up to that of the N.F.L., watching those games was fun.
I should also mention that in 1982, when a player's strike wiped out fifty-seven days of the N.F.L. season, the player's association staged two exhibition games. One game had an announced attendance of just over 5000 and the other had something like 3000 to 3500 fans in the stands. In spite of that, the players believed the games to be worth the time and effort involved.
That's when Ted Turner got involved, in that he was willing to finance a new league and air its games on his cable station TBS. Turner went so far as to make a formal presentation to the twenty-eight player representatives.
They voted the plan down, in what was reported to be a very close vote.
That was thirty-five years ago. What I would very much like to see is a serious challenge to at least one of the established leagues. Such an effort would require a lot of money, so whoever backed it would need to have very deep pockets. Let's assume that there is someone out there with the money to start and run a league.
The only problem is, as I see it, is that pretty much everyone who has the money either is unwilling to spend it or can't manage to pull together all of the different elements involved in starting a league.
That's too bad, because goodness knows there's an appetite for something better.