Friday, July 24, 2009

A History Lesson for the United Football League

A History Lesson for the United Football League

By Evan Weiner

July 24, 2009

10:00 AM EDT

(New York, N. Y.) – Football training camps are opening around the country and this year there will be a competitor to the National Football League as the United Football League plans to operate with the new league’s training camps opening around September 1 in Casa Grande, Arizona. The UFL’s first season will start in October with teams in Las Vegas, New York, Orlando and San Francisco. It is unclear what the organizers of the UFL eventually plan for the league which will not only compete for attention with the NFL but also college football.

UFL backers understand that there were three American Football Leagues, one All American Football Conference, one World Football League, one United States Football League, one XFL and even an NFL branded league which started as the World League of American Football and ended as NFL Europa which failed. Two planned leagues never got off the ground another played two weeks in 2000 and folded. Even the non rival Arena Football League failed financially. Only Lamar Hunt’s American Football League succeeded and ultimately the NFL and Hunt’s league merged. The NFL did take three All American Football Conference franchises, Baltimore, Cleveland and San Francisco in 1950.

Football is a tough business.

On August 2, 1973, Gary Davidson started talking to investors about putting together a world-wide football league that would challenge the NFL. Davidson had been involved in the founding of both the American Basketball Association in 1967 and the World Hockey Association in 1972. By January 1974, Davidson was able to hold the first World Football League meeting with representatives from Anaheim, Birmingham, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Honolulu, Memphis, New York, Orlando, Philadelphia, Toronto and Washington attending. The league's first major coup was the signing of the Super Bowl Champion Miami's three top offensive stars, Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield by the Toronto franchise. The trio signed their contracts on ABC TV’s on a Sunday afternoon, March 31, 1974. The trio would start playing in the WFL in 1975. The move gave the league credibility and put the league on the map in terms of publicity. But the signing went only so far as the WFL could not get a TV deal from the three American TV networks, CBS, NBC and ABC possibly because the three networks had partnerships with the NFL and that was a major blow. The WFL did get a TV agreement with Eddie Einhorn's TVS network and opened training camp in June 1974 with 12 teams. Toronto owner John Bassett relocated his planned hometown team to Memphis after members of the Canadian Parliament objected to the importation of American football and how it might harm the Canadian Football League. The WFL started with teams in Anaheim, Birmingham, Chicago, Detroit, Florida (Orlando), Hawaii, Jacksonville, Memphis, New York, Philadelphia, and Portland on July 19, 1974. The WFL came out of the chute with impressive figures. The six games drew 258,624 people. More than 53,000 showed up for the Southern California Sun-Birmingham Americans game at Legion Field. In Jacksonville, 59,112 attended the New York Stars-Sharks match. The Philadelphia Bell drew 55,000 to its opener against the Portland Storm. But the bloom was quickly off the rose. The American magazine Sports Illustrated revealed that 100,000 of the Philadelphia Bell's 120,253 tickets distributed were freebies. The Detroit Wheels filed for bankruptcy in October, The Jacksonville Sharks could not meet their payroll. Houston moved to Shreveport, the New York Stars ended up in Charlotte. The league, which boasted of a "Stylized" look with uniform color coordination augmented by some big name talent, Csonka, Kiick, Warfield, Ken Stabler, Calvin Hill, Bill Bergey, Daryle Lamonica and Ted Kwalick, was sinking rapidly. The league's only championship game featured the Birmingham Americans and Florida Blazers. The Americans were receiving paychecks; the Blazers had not been paid for months. "My first experience was a head coach in the World Football League," said Jack Pardee years after that 1974 season. "I knew I was taking a little risk when I left the NFL as far as the financial stability. But to have a chance to be a head coach, I thought it was worth the risk." Pardee could even name the date when the Florida Blazers financial problems began plaguing the team. "September 6 was the first paycheck that bounced and players could not get paid," he recalled. "We would have to get advance money to fly or to put a game on. But meantime, how do you live day to day when you can't get your laundry done, or buy toilet paper for the bathroom or get your cleaning supplies around the facility. "Without money you can't afford to do all of that. You know we had a good team going by then. We were one of the better teams in the league and we had a group of young players that were trying to prove that they could play professional football. "As a coach if the bathrooms needed a cleaning, or if you are out of toilet paper, if the laundry had to be done and the soap to be bought as a way to keep the team together, if a light bulb burns out, or is going to replace it? Pardee did just that. He kept the team alive with his own money to daily necessities. "The people in Orlando were great to them," said Pardee. "Everybody knew the plight of the Florida Blazers. I know there were apartment owners who cut guys slack. There were a little bit slow around Orlando then. The restaurants would pop for meals for guys and we got Mc Donald's gift certificates and laundries gave the guys free cleanings. It was kind of a community effort to keep the team going." Somehow Pardee held the Blazers together and the team went 14-6 and won its first two playoff games. They traveled to Birmingham to face the Americans in the championship. They lost 22-21 when they failed to convert a two-point play. But losing wasn't the big story as far as the financially floundering league went. After the game, the Americans celebration was muted. "All the Americans’ equipment was seized after the game," Pardee said talking about law enforcement officials entering the Birmingham locker room after the game and sheriff's impounding the equipment. "There were questions about the gate receipts from that game. Our players pretty well got screwed on that too." The Blazers returned home and Pardee got a tip from the local sheriff in Orlando. Get all of your personal belongings out of your office. "Our office was padlocked the next day, I got advanced notice," he said. "I told the players get all of your personal things out, don't wait until the next day and come and pick up your personal items. If there is something you need you better take it." Pardee said he learned one lesson. You need ownership to have professional football. Pardee did think other owners would come in and rescue the WFL, and it did occur but as Pardee pointed out, "they ended up biting the boot too." Davidson had hoped that would comprise an American division and eventually the WFL would field teams in Tokyo, Madrid, London, Munich, Paris, Düsseldorf, Rome, Mexico City and Stockholm. By April 16, 1975, Davidson's plan to become the dominant brand in football worldwide was shattered. A new World Football League called the New League, Inc. was formed with Hawaiians owner Christopher B. Hemmeter as the Commissioner of the WFL. WFL II would have 10 teams, Anaheim, Birmingham, Charlotte, Chicago, Hawaii, Jacksonville, Memphis, Philadelphia, San Antonio and Shreveport. Portland was added as the 11th team on April 30.Hemmeter came up with a proposal that the WFL adopted. The Hemmeter Plan was designed to make as many as of a team's costs possible "variable costs," that is costs which vary directly in relationship to that team's revenues. According to the 1975 World Football League Media Guide, the league gave an example of how the plan would work. "If Company A agrees to pay Company B revenues for some service, then the amount of money Company A pays out varies directly with the amount of money it takes in. If Company A makes a lot of money, both it and Company B make a lot. If it makes no money at all, both it and Company B get nothing. The important point to understand, however, in that in the latter case, if Company A agrees to pay Company B a flat sum, say $10,000 for the service, it would have to pay out $10,000 despite the fact it had no money." Hemmeter Plan called for making player and coaching salaries, stadium rentals and league assessment variable costs. The plan allocated 42 percent to players salaries, 3% to the injured reserved pool, 10 percent to stadiums, and six percent to the league. The remaining 39 percent went to office rent, staff and utilities. There has a ceiling of $650,000 attached to these costs. "What is truly revolutionary in the WFL in 1975,” the league's media guide stated, "is the idea of paying player salaries based on a percentage of revenues. The average salary in the WFL in 1975 will be one percent of the team's income after taxes. WFL team incomes in 1974 ranged between $1.1 and $2.85 million. With gate sharing grouped much closer in 1975. If a team takes in $2 million, its average player would earn $20,000. On the other hand, if WFL teams earned the $7 million that many NFL teams did last year, the average player would earn a ‘whopping’ $70,000 a year. WFL teams need only earn half as much as NFL clubs for the average WFL salary to equal the average NFL salary." When the WFL reorganized, only two of the original owners were left, Hemmeter and Bassett. The WFL made it very clear that the only the name, the World Football League and the league logo, remained from the old entity. As a good will gesture, the new WFL offered to pay some of the debts that the Davidson league incurred by offering 1.5 percent of all ticket and TV revenues over a 12-year period under a court administered program. The majority of the debts owed were to players. Hemmeter also required all 11 teams to put up $545,000 before the season started to cover fixed costs. The Chicago Winds, a team that courted Joe Namath, folded on September 2. By October 22, the entire operation went down.

There was no TV deal in 1975. The league drowned in a sea of red ink. "The football was an orange or yellow football. That was a fun league but we knew right away in that league it was over almost before it started we quit getting paid. Marty Schottenheimer was on my staff, that's where we really started his career as a coach. So there was something good that came out of that league also," said Dick Coury, who coached the Portland Storm in 1974. The World Football League tried gimmicks to entice the fans to come. "It was a fun league. They tried to do as much as they could to get some of the fans to say this is a fun league and do as much as they could to get some support that way." Coury's situation in Portland didn't differ much from Pardee.The Storm didn't pay the players after a while and the players stuck with Coury and the team "We just tried to live day to day and every once in a while we would get a little money to spread amongst our players to keep them going," Coury recalled. "It was really tough for everybody. The city of Portland was great. A lot of the people chipped in and helped our players financially and with food. The people were great to our players. The World Football League almost folded within three or four weeks of starting." Ron Mix, who was involved in the Portland Thunder franchise for a brief time thinks the WFL could have made a major impact on the football scene had the owners shown some fiscal responsibility. "My impression of it is that league absolutely had a chance to become successful, if ever a league did," said Mix. "At the time when that league was formed, great football players in the National Football League at the top of their peak were making $60,000 a year. Larry Csonka was making $60,000 a year. "What ruined that league was that individual owners went crazy and started signing players at outrageous amounts like Larry I think received $1.3 million to sign. You can not tell me that if the team had made a drop date offer of $100,000 bonus and $100,000 a year in other words, a couple of hundred thousand they could not have signed Larry. I know they would have able to. But they spent the league into absolute bankruptcy when the country was ripe for another thing." Mix is reluctant to talk about his WFL days and thinks some World Football League coaches and executives carried a "WFL stigma" on their back and weren't necessarily offered NFL positions once the league folded. One WFL player/coach who was not stigmatized was one time New York Giants coach Jim Fassel believes he took the last snap in WFL history in a Southern California Sun-Hawaiians game in Honolulu. How Fassel ended up quarterbacking a game is an interest tale in itself and illustrated just how poorly the league was faring at the end. "I was a player coach for the Hawaiians the first year and I didn't go back the second year. I went into business," he explained. "I told them if I could ever help them, I would. Right at the end, before the league folded their quarterbacks (Rick Casata and Sonny Sixkiller) came in and made a power play for some more money or they wouldn't play. So they got rid of them and called me at two in the morning the day before the game and asked if I would fly over and play quarterback. "I hadn't played a game in a year and a half and my wife thought I was crazy. I said I do it as a favor; it wasn't what I wanted to do. The only thing I ask is a round trip prepaid ticket and I want a guarantee that the insurance policy has been paid and enforced because if I got hurt I didn't want to pay for it myself and I don't care how much they pay me for the game. "So I jumped on a plane at six in the morning and flew over there and played in that game. The only reason that the Hawaiians phoned me was I was with the Hawaiians the first year and (Coach) Mike Giddings told me when he phoned me that you are the only guy that knows this offense and can play quarterback. The problem was I had a bad knee that needed fixing and I never got it fixed and I hadn't played in a year and a half. "The league folded the next day or the following day that's why I wanted a prepaid ticket. Once the league folded I was on the next plane."

Fassel is now coaching the Las Vegas team in the UFL.

Bassett had hoped he could get the Memphis Southmen to join the NFL with the Birmingham Vulcans in time for the 1976 season. Bassett would eventually sue the NFL accusing the league of conspiring to boycott them by refusing Memphis an NFL franchise. The suit was dismissed. Hemmeter conceded that there was little possibility a second league could survive. Bassett would own another football team years later in the United States Football League, the Tampa Bay Bandits. The NFL for its part tried to keep WFL players out of the NFL for the1975 season after the league folded. The players sued in Minneapolis federal court, where John Mackey, (and eventually Marvin Powell, Freeman McNeil, and Reggie White would filed) and got an injunction to prevent this from happening.

The WFL completely vanished when Bassett’s suit was dismissed. A handful of WFL players entered the NFL in 1976 with Danny White being the best of the group as he had a number of good years quarterbacking the Dallas Cowboys. Hemmeter became a successful real estate developer in Hawaii and the NFL put the Pro Bowl in Oahu. Hemmeter was proven right over the years, there is little possibility that a second league could survive.

The UFL is hoping to prove Hemmeter wrong.

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