The Canadian Football League brought its brand of the gridiron game to the United States for a regular season contest in 1958. But did you know that 16 years later the World Football League returned the favor?
Yet just as Americans were cool to the historic Hamilton-Ottawa clash in Philadelphia, Canadians in London, Ontario, didn’t have much interest in what the WFL had to offer, either.
The September 2, 1974, contest between the Detroit Wheels and Portland Storm was hardly a memorable one, especially considering it featured two struggling franchises playing in a struggling first-year league. But it is notable in that it was moved from Rynearson Stadium in Ypsilanti, Michigan, to J.W. Wilson Stadium in London on less than a week’s notice – and gave the upstart circuit its only international appearance.
WFL historians will note that Toronto was granted an inaugural franchise (the Toronto Northmen), but faced so much pushback from both the CFL and the Canadian government that team owner John Bassett opted to move the club to Memphis.
With the Toronto team out, the 12-team WFL consisted entirely of U.S.-based franchises (although The Hawaiians, based in Honolulu, did provide the circuit with an exotic locale).
However, there was still a desire to plant a seed north of the American border.
“The league is anxious to play there for two reasons,” Tim Grandi, executive assistant to WFL commissioner Gary Davidson, told the Detroit Free Press. “We want to establish the precedent of having played in Canada since their Parliament never passed the legislation that would’ve banned American football leagues. And we want the people in that area to see what the World Football League is all about.”
The Wheels (0-8) played 35 miles away from Detroit in Eastern Michigan University’s 22,000-seat stadium, and drew just over 12,000 fans per game. They were already on their last legs in the Motor City, having been denied the chance to play at Tiger Stadium since the NFL Lions had exclusive football rights there. There was a strong rumor ahead of the game that the team was headed to Charlotte in a relocation move, so at this point it probably didn’t matter where the game took place.
“We approved Charlotte as a location for a World Football League team a couple of weeks ago,” Grandi said. “It is an acceptable location for us, but we have not approved the transfer of any team, anywhere. And there is no transfer setup at this time.
“Everyone knows the problems of the Detroit team, but they are still attempting to keep the team there and that is the way the situation stands now.”
A potential move wasn’t the reason for the venue change, though. Detroit and London might be separated by only 120 miles, but it was actually a Portland official who requested the game be played in Canada.
Bob Harris, a London businessman who was a major stockholder with the Storm, wanted to show off the league in his hometown. He had planned to put a CFL team in London for the 1974 season but couldn’t come up with the $2 million price tag. So, landing a WFL franchise in Ontario might be the next best thing, and a 2 p.m. game on Labor Day would be a chance to test the waters.
“We have a 180-acre site off Highway 401 where we hope to build a stadium one day,” Harris told the Associated Press.
Unfortunately for Harris – and anyone else who thought the WFL might find a home in Canada – there was little interest in the game.
Whether two winless teams and a sinking league were to blame no one knows, but only 5,101 tickets were sold (most for the equivalent of $2.50 in American money) and many news accounts suggest less than 3,000 fans were in the stands.
For the record, Portland won, 18-7. The Storm improved to 1-7-1 with their first victory and went on to finish the campaign 7-12-1.
The Wheels, on the other hand, didn’t move to Charlotte and didn’t finish the season at all.
They played one more game in Ypsilanti on September 6 and picked up their only victory on September 11 against the Florida Blazers in Orlando. Detroit contested its final four games on the road and folded following a week 14 loss to Shreveport. (Charlotte did get a team via relocation, but it was the New York Stars).
The 1974 WFL was buried in debt, and a reboot in 1975 only made it 12 weeks until the league went out of business.
In the end, the league that wanted to represent the world left American soil only once, playing a largely meaningless game in a small stadium in Ontario. Still, a few thousand Canadians got to see football history – even though it’s history that most fans have long since forgotten.