Before the United States Football League, World League of American Football, XFL, United Football League and Alliance of American Football, we almost had the North American Football League.
And by “almost” I mean “it was discussed.”
And by “North American Football League” I mean what better name for a proposed league that was to incorporate all the existing Canadian Football League franchises with new United States-based teams to form a 16 or 20-team league?
We all know what happened when the CFL dipped south of its border in the mid-1990s, but would an early 1980s USA/Canada gridiron hybrid have fared better?
Since we’ll never know I can pretend it would’ve.
The concept first came to my attention when I read a 1981 story in the Birmingham News (picked up from the Boston Globe) about a possible pro football league returning to the Magic City.
Since the demise of the World Football League in October, 1975, my hometown had to settle for glorified semi-pro circuits. I was excited about the prospects of a new “serious” NFL alternative.
The good news (I thought) was that this league was the brainchild of Nelson Skalbania. I knew him as the guy who owned the World Hockey Association’s Indianapolis Racers and engineered the signing of Wayne Gretzky, and by 1981 he was the owner of the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes.
Not only that, he was set to turn the Als into a super team thanks to luring quarterback Vince Ferragamo away from the Los Angeles Rams and inking several other NFL and NCAA stars.
Aside from having a name worthy of a James Bond villain, I was young enough and naïve enough to believe he was a real mover and shaker in the sports world.
“Nelson has recited to various people his concept of expanding the Canadian league into certain American cities,” Skalbania attorney Grant McDonald said. “The CFL would have a better revenue base by including the larger American cities.”
The story went on to say that Skalbania was working on some big money cable television deals and had reportedly talked to New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner, and Oakland Raiders managing general partner Al Davis about joining the league.
The story also quoted Alouettes vice president Bill Putman as enthusiastically supporting Birmingham as a flagship U.S. franchise.
Putnam was the owner of the WFL Birmingham Americans which – like the league itself – left a lot of bills unpaid. The World Football League was forced to reorganize after a financially disastrous first season and the Americans, meanwhile, folded and were replaced by a new franchise under new ownership.
Putnam’s possible involvement harshed my buzz somewhat, but I was able to overlook it because I already loved the CFL and badly wanted Birmingham back in the pro football biz.
A mixture of major markets (New York and Los Angeles) and small markets (Syracuse and Shreveport) would serve as U.S. franchise locales, while the British Columbia Lions, Calgary Stampeders, Edmonton Eskimos, Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Montreal, Ottawa Rough Riders, Saskatchewan Roughriders, Toronto Argonauts and Winnipeg Blue Bombers would jump from the CFL to the NAFL.
I was pumped.
It would be a callback to the WFL days in that the season would start in the summer, and with the TV money that would inevitably come and geniuses like Skalbania plotting strategy, the NFL would have some real competition and I’d live in a pro football city once again.
Would U.S. fans embrace CFL rules?
Would the owners have deep enough pockets to raid the NFL for stars?
Would I fall harder for the NAFL than I did for the WFL?
I couldn’t wait to find out.
There were a couple of problems, though.
One, the rest of the CFL wasn’t interested in any of this and two, Skalbania wasn’t really, um, “solvent.”
“In theory, it sounds great for us to expand,” CFL commissioner Jake Gaudaur said. “However, it’s not an anti-American feeling, but we feel certain that if we lump in the big American cities, some of the Canadian cities in the league would drop by the wayside.”
The Canadian Football League constitution requires that all teams be based in Canada, and that rule could only be overturned if seven of the teams voted in favor of it.
The motion to even vote on the matter wasn’t seconded.
“We have problems in our league to solve without expanding, and Montreal is one of them,” said Jim Spavital, who was general manager of the Roughriders in 1981 and former head coach of the WFL’s Chicago Fire. “Skalbania should concentrate more on improving the Canadian talent on his Alouettes.”
While Skalbania was known for real estate “flipping” he did the same to sports franchises, and in a one-and-done season with Montreal he flipped the franchise into oblivion. The Alouettes finished 3-13 in 1981, Ferragamo was a flop (he had the worst completion percentage in the CFL and the most interceptions), and ultimately the franchise folded – millions of dollars in debt.
There was no internet back then so much of this happened out of the spotlight, but as a CFL fan I kept up with CFL news. When I heard what happened with Skalbania in Montreal, my hopes for the NAFL (or whatever it might’ve been called) were dashed.
The USFL came along in 1983 as a spring “major league,” and ultimately that would become my favorite football circuit outside the CFL and NFL.
Still, I remain fascinated by the might-have-beens of a 1980s CFL/American football blend.
Ultimately it didn’t work in the 1990s – and will likely never happen again – but in a different time and different sports landscape, who knows?