The United Football League Finally Hits the Field on Thursday
By Evan Weiner
October 7, 2009
12:30 PM EDT
(New York, N. Y.) – Troy Aikman, the former Dallas Cowboy quarterback and now lead analyst for FOX’s National Football League’s TV presentations, doesn’t seem all that impressed that the United Football League is getting off the ground starting a six-week schedule on Thursday with a match up between the California Redwoods and the Las Vegas Locomotives. Aikman, who has the Dallas Cowboys-Kansas City Chiefs game this Sunday, remarked on Tuesday that the American Football League was the only successful rival to the NFL and doesn’t think any league can mount of challenge to the NFL.
Aikman is probably correct although the UFL has yet to establish just what the league will be. An NFL rival or eventually a place for NFL retreads and some young players with limited ability to get some playing time and then try to make an NFL roster.
The Kansas City Chiefs franchise was not an original AFL team. Lamar Hunt’s team started out in Dallas in 1960 and could not compete with Clint Murchinson’s Dallas Cowboys. The Texans franchise came about after Hunt and seven other others launched the league. Murchinson’s franchise was admitted to the NFL in 1960 in an effort to block the AFL in Dallas and strangle the league. The AFL wasn’t an original name either as they were three different AFL. AFL I lasted one year. AFL II played two seasons and AFL III also lasted two years.
Hunt’s AFL IV remains the only football league that successfully took on the venerable NFL. The AFL and the American League in baseball are the only two “rival” leagues that made it and in Hunt’s case, it was really the right time, right place as in 1960, the American sporting public was ready for more football unlike 1926, 1936, 1940 and 1946. Hunt was also able to get TV money and exposure which was the key to success eventually. In 1964, the AFL got a big money deal from the National Broadcasting Company which allowed them to operate virtually on the same level as the NFL in signing young talent. By 1966, the two leagues merged.
The NFL has seen many rival leagues come and go, three AFLs, one All American Football Conference, one World Football League and one United States Football League. United Football League operators have not overstated their ambitions, right now it is a low key league that might be in a good spot to grab attention in 2011 if there is a labor stoppage in the NFL. That is if the UFL lasts that long.
The UFL will lose money in 2009 and the investors know this. The league has teams in New York, Las Vegas, Orlando and San Francisco and is a scaled down entity compared to the original plans which called for a 2008 start.
Michael Huyghue, the league’s commissioner, said the football circuit’s backers have research the failures the six leagues that played a full season and have learned lessons from the financial wreckage that was incurred. The financial river of the United States Football League’s three years between 1983 and 1985) flowed with red ink and the league’s plight was further exasperated by Donald Trump’s urging that the league move into the fall after finding a niche of fans and TV viewers during the spring. Trump, who did not understand how football operated, and others reckless spending killed the USFL something that was not lost on Huyghue.
“We have a governor switch on that in the sense that as the Commissioner I set the salary cap each year,” he said. “And I also control what the budget is each year. Even if an owner elected to try to do something crazy outside the threshold we have set, he is not authorized to do so. The league signs all the players to a contract and then assigns them to the clubs. So a club cannot initiate that kind of situation plus every contract has to be approved by my office. I think we have the right kind of parameters in place to eliminate that autonomy that the USFL had that ultimately led to its demise.”
Overpaying stars has been the downfall of NFL rivals since 1926. The struggling NFL got a boost when Chicago Bears owner George Halas signed America’s most famous college player in 1925, Red Grange, to a contract after Grange played his final college game that year. The Galloping Ghost Grange finished out the regular season and went on a 19-game, 67 day barnstorming tour of the country after the season and made money for Halas and other NFL teams. Grange is credited with single handedly saving the financially struggling New York Giants franchise owned by Tim Mara.
Chicago played the Giants in the Polo Grounds in Manhattan and some 65,000 people showed up to see Grange, not the Giants on December 6, 1925. The revenues generated by Grange’s appearance gave Mara financial stability and the 19-game tour solidified gave the NFL a badly needed cash infusion.
Grange and his agent C. C. Pyle used the tour as leverage trying to get more money from Halas. Halas would not budge and that started a chain of events that led to the formation of AFL I in 1926.
Grange and Pyle wanted to buy a piece of the Bears but that was rejected by Halas, Grange and Pyle then petitioned for the league to put a team in New York’s Yankee stadium. All the NFL owners were in wanted Grange except Mara. At the time, expansion decisions needed 100% approval from the owners and Mara voted against Grange’s entry into the league.
Grange and Pyle responded by forming original American Football League, in 1926. The AFL decided to directly compete with the NFL in its largest markets, and to try their hand at the medium-sized markets that were accessible by public transportation. Franchises were formed in New York, Brooklyn, Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Boston, Newark, New Jersey Rock Island, Illinois and Los Angeles.
Grange’s new league was a money loser and taught the NFL a valuable lesson. A war over players with a rival league could quickly escalate salaries to a point where both leagues would be losing money. The AFL went out of business with only two teams surviving. Grange’s Yankees and the Philadelphia Quakers.
Grange’s Yankees did enter the NFL in 1927 but only after NFL owners made a side payment to Mara and in order to get his vote to allow Grange’s Yankees in the NFL. The NFL made Grange pay a steep price as his Yankees had to play 13 of their 16 games on the road. Grange’s Yankees folded in 1928.
AFL II in 1936-37 was another financial loser. The league did not go after NFL talent but went head to head with the nine team NFL in various cities. The NFL did entice one successful AFL II team, the Cleveland Rams to join the older league in 1937. Cleveland paid $10,000 for the right to join the NFL.
AFL III lasted two years, big money was spent on Heisman Trophy winner and All American running back Tom Harmon but it was not a good investment of money and the league quietly faded into oblivion after a two-year run in 1940-41.
The All American Football league started operations in 1944 and got onto the field in 1946. The new league seemed to have money as AAFC owners signed top name players. Reportedly, the AAFC and NFL lost $5 million and $3 million, respectively, during the 1946-1949 seasons.
Both leagues were anxious to end the war between them, and merger talks between the leagues began during the 1949 season. The AAFC-NFL merger was announced in December 1949. Under the agreement, the San Francisco, Cleveland, and Baltimore teams moved from the AAFC into the NFL. The NFL was not interested in Buffalo despite the city’s support of the Bills. The NFL’s New York Bulldogs closed down, with owner Ted Collins purchasing the New York Yankees of the AAFC and moving them into the NFL. As reciprocation for having their territory invaded, the NFL’s New York Giants were allowed to choose six players from the New York Yankees line-up. Washington Redskins owner George Marshall received $150,000 for the invasion of his team’s local territory by the Baltimore Colts. The Colts franchise went under a year after the merger, and, after reforming in 1951, the team became financially successful in the NFL.
After receiving a 25% interest in the Cleveland Browns, James Brueil, owner of the Buffalo Bills, merged the two teams.
The NFL further consolidated after the folding of the Los Angeles Dons, Chicago Hornets, and New York Yankees. Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney said the NFL-AAFC merger deal made sense. “They were going out of business and we just felt that getting a west coast team was important and getting Cleveland was important. We also brought in Baltimore but they didn’t make it. But the 49ers and Cleveland Browns and were very important at that particularly time to get a national scope,” Rooney explained. “That was a good move.
The lessons of 1926 were ignored 47 years later by another group of football backers. In August 1973, Gary Davidson, the founder of the American Basketball Association and the World Hockey Association, started talks with investors about potentially starting a world-wide football league. By January 1974 the first meeting of what would become the World Football League was held, with representatives from Anaheim, Birmingham, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Honolulu, Memphis, New York, Orlando, Philadelphia, Toronto and Washington attending. Soon after, the 12- team World Football League (WFL) commenced, beginning its 20-game season in July 1974 in order to get a head start on the NFL. The season would conclude in November, ending in a “World Bowl” championship, which also occurred before the NFL championship game.
The league was divided into 6 large market teams competing directly with NFL franchises and 6 smaller market teams (with populations less than 1 million). The investors in the league were under-financed from the beginning. Each of the initial 12 franchises cost $100,000, with subsequent franchises fees ranging from $250,000 to $1.6 million. Although the league did not get a major network contract, the WFL did get a television contract with Eddie Einhorn's TVS network. The large market teams helped to secure a national television contract that paid each team $130,000 per year, compared with $2.2 million per team for the NFL television contracts that year.
The league's first major coup was the signing of the Super Bowl Champion Miami Dolphin's three top offensive stars, Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield by the WFL Toronto franchise for unprecedented amounts at a time when top NFL players were making $60,000 a year. The trio signed their contracts on a Sunday afternoon in March 1974, televised on ABC, and would begin play in the WFL in 1975.
Ron Mix, who was briefly involved in the Portland Thunder franchise, thinks the WFL could have had a major impact on football 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. “What ruined that league was that individual owners went crazy and started signing players at outrageous amounts like Larry Csonka I think received $1.3 million to sign. You cannot 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 been able to. But they spent the league into absolute bankruptcy when the country was ripe for another thing.”
There were others who wanted to start football leagues but never got them past the drawing board stage. Starting an NFL rival is difficult and generally ends up in failure.
That is what Huyghue and his owners who include Paul Pelosi, the husband of the Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, the Tampa Bay Rays owners and William Mayer are facing. There is a long history of financial ruin but the UFL is cautiously optimistic.
If the six week schedule goes well and the championship game comes off, there are plans for year two and beyond.
“We won’t expand to more than 12 teams,” said Huyghue. “We really believe the talent pool would be diluted at that. If we only had 10, we probably be satisfied with that. We have an ownership group from Monterey, Mexico for next year, Los Angeles and Hartford are also vying for teams. We have been to London and met a number of people there that have a stadium on the Thames River, a soccer stadium, so I think there are a lot of opportunities. We certainly are going to be an international league.”
Huyghue needs to be careful about what he wishes for internationally. The World Hockey Association went belly up in 1979 after exploring the possibility of establishing a European Division and the Arena Football League had plans to go start a European Davison and that league too folded. In six weeks, Huyghue and the UFL will have an answer to their question. Does the sporting public really have a need for more professional football? The only answer they have at the moment is that they know they will be losing millions of dollars as they seek to get their query answered.