I wasn’t a history major in college, nor did I ever work for the World Football League. But when it comes to the history of the WFL, I’ve always considered myself to have a pretty good working knowledge of its timeline.
Yet when you let research take you in whatever direction it happens to go, you sometimes end up with a surprise. And thanks to a happy accident, I recently learned something new about the formation of the league.
Namely, a “World Football League” was proposed by Louis P. Roberts in early 1973.
Now, you ask most people who they think conjured the idea of the World Football League and if they have a passing knowledge of it they’ll say Gary Davidson.
Look a little further, though, and you discover that Tony Razzano and Louis S. Goldman planned a global circuit about the same time as Davidson, if not before. Both groups announced their organizations in October, 1973, but Razzano and Goldman had to change the name of theirs to Universal Football League since Davidson beat them to the WFL punch when he held the first press conference among the competing leagues.
The UFL decided to step back and regroup for a 1975 spring/summer season (that never happened, with Razzano joining forces with Davidson in 1974 and eventually becoming administrative director for the Jacksonville Sharks).
I had no clue, and the only reason I found out was when I was researching old newspaper clippings on an unrelated topic and just happened upon a Philadelphia Inquirer article.
The headline – World Football League May Give Boo-Birds a Choice in ‘74 – drew me in, but the date is what really caught my attention. It appeared in the newspaper’s February 27, 1973, edition, which was almost eight months before the historical WFL was introduced to the public.
According to the story, written by Gordon Forbes, Roberts was an insurance executive based in Anniston, Alabama, who was looking to line up some millionaires to invest in a 10-city World Football League. The inaugural franchises in 1974 would be chosen from Birmingham, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Honolulu, Jacksonville, Jersey City, Los Angeles, Memphis, Mexico City, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Seattle, Tulsa and Wichita.
“The cost of a team will be at least $5 million,” Roberts told the Inquirer. “But we prefer the man to have $10 million in backup capital. We expect to line up eight to 10 teams in the next few months and sign the articles of association.”
Apparently Roberts had placed an advertisement looking for investors sometime in 1972, and gave the newspaper a list of several big money business figures he had either already contacted or hoped to get in touch with.
One of special interest to me was Hugh Morrow III, a wealthy Birmingham banker and politician who had been trying to bring big-time pro football to the Magic City since the 1960s. However, he had no interest in the WFL and said Roberts was trying to pull off what American Football League founder Lamar Hunt had done.
“He’s playing the same game Lamer did,” Morrow told the Inquirer. “But he hasn’t got the muscle Lamar has. Very few of us do. Our particular organization is not interested in his league, just the NFL. We feel that’s where our Birmingham commitment is.
“We know we’re competing with Tampa and Memphis (for an NFL expansion team) but we still think this town is a real hotspot for professional football.”
Zip Viracola, a Dallas businessman who had played for Vince Lombardi at Fordham as well as Washington and Green Bay in the NFL, said he wanted to make sure the WFL would have a national TV contract before making a commitment.
“Starting a football league isn’t that easy,” he said. “If you don’t have a TV contract, you might as well start another Continental League, be another Pottstown.”
Jump to October 23, 1974, and Davidson announces that the World Football League would play in 1974, with Chicago getting the first franchise and New York, Honolulu, Toronto, Boston, Los Angeles and possibly Tokyo expected to join soon.
One man not at the press conference was Roberts.
The WFL started without him – and without any acknowledgment that he had a World Football League in the works.
Ultimately for Roberts, it might’ve been a good thing. By the time the WFL reached the finish line in 1974 it was buried under a mountain of debt. And with franchises folding and/or relocating during the season and some players waiting for paychecks that never came, it was considered one of the greatest sports business debacles in history.
But Roberts was bitter.
Again talking to Forbes for a November 20, 1974, piece in the Inquirer, Roberts said WFL owners Robert Schmertz (New York Stars) and John Bassett (Memphis Southmen) stole his idea.
“They took my concept and three of my people that would’ve been in the league,” Roberts said. “That was enough to put me out of the picture momentarily.”
Roberts said he had met with Schmertz, a representative of Bassett, and two other men on August 10, 1973.
“We didn’t have enough owners to get any progress,” he said. “But that was the night Schmertz and Bassett began to make their move. In one respect, yes, I’m bitter.”
The WFL media guide has August 2, 1973, as the date Davidson began making plans for the WFL, which was more than a week before Roberts held his summit. But there’s no denying that Roberts’ vision of a World Football League was revealed in February, 1973.
“It makes me bitter because everything happened so fast,” Roberts said in the 1974 article. “They quickly signed the articles of incorporation in Santa Ana County. I wiped my eyes when it went down because I had worked three years. I had left no stone unturned. I researched and researched and priced uniforms, contacted people …”
While an interesting cloak and dagger tale, we’ll never know if Roberts’ version would’ve ever gotten off the ground or – if it had – would’ve lasted longer than the WFL’s one and a half year run.
But if he had lined up owners with $5 million or $10 million to spare, it most certainly could’ve made a world of difference.