When football historians eye October 22, 1975, they probably see little more than a blip in gridiron history.
For fans like me, though, it marked the end of an all-too-brief era – one that gave us pro football one year and snatched it away the next.
On this day 44 years ago the World Football League died, buried under a mountain of debt and largely abandoned by fans who stayed away from games in droves.
Founded in 1974 with 12 franchises and a dream of one day fielding teams in such exotic locales as Tokyo, London and Madrid, the WFL never ventured further than Honolulu. It also burned a lot of goodwill by spending money it didn’t have and folding or moving franchises in the middle of its inaugural season.
By the time it breathed its last only 10 teams were in business – and business in 1975 was never very good at all.
“Our decision not to proceed is due primarily to our collective inability to penetrate markets in WFL franchise cities,” WFL commissioner Chris Hemmeter told United Press International after six of its 10 owners voted to dissolve the league. “The financial control concepts of the Hemmeter Plan have worked and we believe that the future of professional sports lies in a type of revenue sharing plan.”
Ah yes, the “Hemmeter Plan.”
Following the 1974 season that saw many players go unpaid because some of the owners didn’t have the money to match their moxie, original founder and Commissioner Gary Davidson was forced out. Hemmeter – owner of the franchise in Honolulu – was installed as the new commissioner in 1975 and put strict financial constraints in place.
The “Hemmeter Plan” was designed to make as many of the team’s costs as possible variable. And when it came to players, the standard contract was based on each man on the team receiving one percent of the gate – guaranteed.
If owners wanted to spend more money on a “star” player, they would have to put money in escrow to cover it.
So the season began with 11 franchises – the Birmingham Vulcans, Charlotte Hornets, Chicago Winds, The (Honolulu) Hawaiians, Jacksonville Express, Memphis Southmen, Philadelphia Bell, Portland Thunder, San Antonio Wings, Shreveport Steamer and Southern California Sun.
Four of the teams (The Hawaiians, Memphis, Philadelphia and Southern Cal) kept their original names from 1974 but only two – Philadelphia and Memphis – maintained ownership from 1974. In fact, the original WFL actually folded and was replaced by “New League Inc.” which assumed the name and did business as the WFL.
Regardless, the rebuilt version of the league might’ve had the best intentions when it came to fiscal responsibility, but it had no TV contract, no team in the No. 1 media market of New York and no long term prospects.
The Winds had hoped to sign Joe Namath – believing a TV deal and renewed credibility for the circuit would follow – but Namath wisely passed and the Winds folded just five games into the season.
After Week 12 it was obvious that the end was near.
In fact, the end came before there could be a Week 13.
“Our gate receipts have been disappointing,” Hemmeter told UPI. “Our league average through last week’s games is 13,371 paid admissions. Furthermore, attendance over the past five weeks has declined 28 percent on a league-wide basis, causing severe financial drains on each franchise.”
Philadelphia drew only 3,705 fans per game and Portland’s last home contest – a 28-25 victory over San Antonio – marked its lowest turnout ever when only 3,818 people showed up at Civic Stadium. Players were getting paid, but at one percent of a very small gate, it was basically beer money.
The ownership groups at Memphis, Charlotte, Jacksonville and San Antonio voted to play out the rest of the season, but when they were outnumbered, the league officially closed up shop.
I fell in love with the Birmingham Americans in 1974, and thought the colorful WFL – with its seven point touchdowns and “action point” conversion – had the best rules this side of Canada.
And when the Ams went under and were replaced by the Vulcans, I embraced them as well – especially after my dad bought $25 worth of stock in the team (making me a kinda/sorta owner).
But while I was a wide-eyed 13-year old when the WFL started, I was 14 and world-weary when it ended. In fact, seeing the handwriting on the wall, I had distanced myself a bit from the team when it became apparent neither the league nor the franchise were built to last.
I still rooted for the Vulcans, but I knew they weren’t going to be around much longer. It was painful to get emotionally involved in something that was bound to break my heart.
It wasn’t until years later when I really started to think about the impact the WFL had on me – putting a pro football team in my hometown for the first time, and providing so many terrific football memories that still make me smile.
So forgive me for getting a bit wistful when October 22 rolls around.
I’m just missing a friend I didn’t have nearly enough time with.