Playing the “What if?” game is pointless, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. And when applied to sports, it often opens up a whole new conversation.
When I wrote The Home Team: My Bromance With Off-Brand Football, I came across some great information that went unused because it didn’t really fit into the book. One tidbit concerned the first few months of the World Football League, which coincided with a National Football League strike that lasted just over five weeks.
And that got me thinking … what if the NFL work stoppage had wiped out or diluted its 1974 season? Would that have given the upstarts the opening they needed to establish themselves as a legitimate threat to the pro football establishment?
The strike began on July 1, 1974, which was just nine days before the start of the WFL’s inaugural season. Picketing began on July 3 at the San Diego Chargers’ training camp (they were the first of the 26 NFL teams to open workouts) and demands included elimination of the reserve clause, waiver system and “Rozelle Rule,” which allowed NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle to order compensation for a franchise if one of its players played out his option and signed with another team.
Meanwhile, everything was all rainbows and unicorns for the 12-team WFL – at least as far as the general public knew. The Southern California Sun, New York Stars, Philadelphia Bell, Chicago Fire, Detroit Wheels and Houston Texans gave it a presence in major media markets, while the Portland Storm, Birmingham Americans, Jacksonville Sharks, Memphis Southmen and Florida Blazers were franchises designed to tap into new pro football hotbeds. The Hawaiians, based in Honolulu, rounded out the flagship clubs and provided an exotic touch to the WFL.
It had already rocked the sports establishment by signing NFL standouts such as Larry Csonka, Calvin Hill, Jim Kiick, Paul Warfield and Ted Kwalick for 1975 and Ken Stabler for 1976. In fact, nearly 70 NFL players had either jumped or were set to make the switch by 1976.
The WFL played four weeks of its regular season schedule while the strike was under way, and the NFL’s preseason games were contested by rookies and non-striking veterans in front of small crowds.
Perhaps owners would’ve fielded “scab” teams during a lengthy strike, but it’s quite possible the NFL season would’ve been wiped out had both sides dug in their heels. With the 26 traditional franchises sitting idle, the new league would be the only domestic pro game in action and would’ve almost certainly benefited at the box office. Plus, the future WFL players could’ve claimed they were being locked out by NFL owners and free to sign with the competition right away.
In that scenario, it would’ve also been interesting to see if the WFL could’ve managed to wrangle some kind of temporary network TV deal (with the resulting infusion of cash) during the NFL work stoppage.
The syndicated TVS network televised a game of the week each Thursday, and most teams had local market coverage for road games. That offered some national exposure, but was hardly a financial boon compared to a major network contract. In fact, the TVS deal was worth only $1.5 million to the league.
The NFL, on the other hand, was set to start a four-year, $400 million contract with NBC, CBS and ABC in 1974. But with no games to televise, might one of the “Big 3” been tempted to get the WFL to move games to Sunday and/or Monday and fill their gridiron void?
As a longtime fanboy of the World Football League, I’ve often wondered about that alternate reality and how it might’ve changed the pro football landscape. But while an NFL strike would’ve certainly put the WFL in a much bigger spotlight, the newbies were headed for self-destruction from the outset.
Built on a financial house of cards, many WFL owners spent money they didn’t have and hundreds of players went months without a paycheck. Stability problems existed long before play began on July 10, and hindsight points to a league that went to market when it was nowhere near ready for prime time.
Despite the fact that most issues remained unsettled, the NFL’s striking players went back to work on August 10 and by the end of the season the labor strife was mostly forgotten by fans. The WFL, on the other hand, limped to the end of the 1974 campaign. Along the way two of its franchises folded, two more changed cities, and the entire league went under only to be reformed in 1975 as New League Inc. (doing business as the WFL). The rebooted circuit went out of business for good on October 22, 1975.
And although people like me are always happy to discuss the “What ifs?” of the renegade league, ultimately it proved to be more of a short-lived inconvenience to the old guard rather than a major threat.