Today challenging the National Football League would be a fool’s errand. The NFL is a multi-billion dollar money maker that could (and would) crush any competition. But in 1953 it was a 12-team league still looking to find its way, and J. Curtis Sanford thought he might have a way to take it on.
Location, location, location.
Sanford was a major mover and shaker who was the originator of the Cotton Bowl as well as an investor in the Dallas Texans, the ill-fated club that played one NFL season in 1952. With Dallas no longer part of the league, pro football had no teams in the South or Southwest, and that gave Sanford an idea: why not form a small league located entirely in that region of the continent?
So on January 24, 1953, he unveiled plans for the six-team Southern Football League, which would have franchises in Atlanta, Birmingham, Dallas, Houston, Mexico City and New Orleans. The idea came 15 years after another Texas promoter, Bennie Strickland, proposed a similar league in many of the same locales.
“I don’t think the new league would have any trouble getting players,” Sanford told United Press International. “And I think the league will go over, with the proper promotion. We will have a strong promotion program here, you can bet. The Texans would’ve gone over last year with better promotion.
“Mexico City is a fine spot for professional football and will strengthen the league. Mexico City has the finest stadium in the world and just last month a (soccer) game there drew 122,000 paid admissions.”
But Sanford suggested climate and lifestyle would be the big draw for top-quality players.
“Money isn’t everything to a football player,” he said. “The players now take into consideration such things as weather conditions, living conditions and a lot of little things that go toward a happy, satisfied life.
“Here in the south we can offer the best of all these things and my talks with some professional football players bear this out. The response from those I’ve talked to has been terrifically enthusiastic, especially the idea of having Mexico City as a member of the circuit.”
(Editor’s note: Jim Crow laws were still in effect in the Deep South so African-American players would strongly disagree with the “happy, satisfied life” assessment. The 1952 Texans featured two Black players, Buddy Young and George Taliaferro, but Dallas was a segregated city along with the rest of the American southern cities considered for the league).
Sanford also said he had learned valuable lessons from the Texans debacle, and that knowledge would help make the SFL a success.
“Football is a big business and to succeed it has to be operated as such,” Sanford said. “The Dallas Texans’ brief fling in the pro league provided us with a lot of examples of things not to do. But there have been many other examples of unsound business practices involving even the long-established clubs.
“We hope to profit by these mistakes and minimize our chances of making any fatal errors.”
Another advantage for the SFL would be that it wouldn’t have to battle with the NFL for stadiums or fan support since it was going into mostly new markets.
“We would not be competing for attendance at the gate, for choice dates or use of the same stadiums, factors which struck heavy financial blows at everyone concerned,” Sanford said. “We’re going to do it right or not do it all.”
Sanford didn’t name any propspective team owners, but said he had been in touch with several interested parties and promised to line up heavy hitters for all the franchises. He even hoped to lure some former Texans to the new league.
“The Texans never released the players,” he told Associated Press. “Of course, we can’t make the players play for us, but I’ve talked to some of the players from last year’s team and their reaction to the Southern League, with its international flavor, is terrific.”
In February an exhibition game was played between the Politecnico All-Stars and American All-Stars in Mexico City, which was seen as something of a test run for a SFL team there.
It did not go well.
Although the home Politecnico team defeated the American contingent, 31-6, in front of 30,000 fans, many of the patrons spent the afternoon booing the players. They also threw trash on the field and – according to a UPI news report – set fires in the grandstands.
Whether that changed Sanford’s plans or not no one knows for sure, but nothing else was heard from the entreprenuer concerning the formation of the Southern Football League.
By the time the 1953 NFL season began the Texans assets had been turned over to the new Baltimore Colts franchise, and the NFL didn’t face head-to-head competition until 1960 when the American Football League hit the field.
Ironically, it was the new Dallas Texans of the AFL – as well as the Houston Oilers – that gave professional football a southern presence it has maintained ever since.