First the president interrupted the luncheon to announce his resignation. Then he joined with the press in a platter of cold tuna fish.
That was the scene in Philadelphia's Warwick Hotel last Thursday when John B. Kelly Jr., president of the World Football League's Philadelphia Bell, bowed out in the wake of the so-called papergate scandal. This heinous affair centered around Bell Vice-President Barry Leib's admission that of the 120,253 people the club claimed attended its first two home games, 100,000 or so were let in for free. "Barry Leib basically did a fine job," Kelly said in resigning, "but he should brush up on his mathematics."
Around the WFL, sportswriting gumshoes turned up more giveaways, although nowhere were the numbers as staggering as Philly's. The league's credibility, however, was suddenly very much in question. And so were its resources. In the absence of a major television contract, WFL teams live off gate receipts, and in an operation one newspaper dubbed "the World Freebie League," gate receipts are crucial.
As if to showcase the financial extremes that exist in the WFL, last week's schedule called for a game in Birmingham between the Americans and the Detroit Wheels. On the field the two teams were nearly even, which was surprising in light of the fact that Birmingham's 28-22 win made the Americans the league's only undefeated team and the Wheels the only team to lose all five games. At the bank, on the other hand, Birmingham and Detroit came off like Croesus and the church mouse.
The Americans are clearly the financial success of the WFL, with very close to $1 million in gate receipts in three home games. They have fibbed a little, of course. The announced 40,367 who showed up in a rainstorm to see them play the Wheels was closer to 37,000. Skeptics should have been alerted on opening night five weeks ago, when the P.A. announcer said, "Tonight's estimated attendance—53,231."
But people, like butter, spread out in the heat, and official Park and Recreation Board figures now reveal that only 43,031 were actually there, with 41,799 paying. The cash crowd at the Americans' second home game was 54,413, nearly 7,000 fewer than the announced attendance of 61,319. Still, not bad.
In contrast to these substantial throngs, Birmingham has been paid the league minimum of $20,000 for both its road games. One of these was in Detroit, where attendance is averaging only 12,600 and the talk is that the Wheels will be rolling down to Charlotte, N.C. before the season ends.
If so, this would be only the first WFL instance of a pattern that has plagued the other new leagues, such as the American Basketball Association and the World Hockey League. In both cases, some little cities, like Birmingham, have thrived, while franchises in larger cities (where the fans are used to bona fide major league teams) have been rejected and passed on down to smaller metropolises: the Los Angeles Stars to Salt Lake City, the Whalers of Boston to Hartford, Conn., etc. The problem is that while the Salt Lakes and Birminghams may draw, the networks buy population figures.
Traditionally, in big cities the new leagues' teams have not been able to come up with heavy backers. The Wheels are a classic case. The team has 32 owners who chipped in for $1 million, but the financial base for the franchise was supposed to come from a public stock offering that would have raised an additional $4 million. It never materialized.
And then again, like so many other new franchises in larger cities, the Wheels were locked out by stadium arrangements already made by existing franchises. In Detroit, the Lions held an exclusive pro football lease to Tiger Stadium, so the Wheels had to play in a 22,000-seat field in Ypsilanti, 35 miles away.
In Birmingham, Wheels Coach Dan Boisture singled out the Americans' running backs to point up the difficulty of his task. "Charlie Harraway and Paul Robinson cost the Americans more than our entire offense cost us," he said. Still, his team has come close to winning four of its five games. "Our kids love the game," Boisture said. "They have to because they sure aren't being paid much." The Wheels' players didn't receive a paycheck for their first game until after they had played their second.
Detroit-at-Ypsilanti is also the only WFL team that hasn't signed any NFL players for future delivery. "My own ethics aren't going to allow me to promise something I can't deliver," says General Manager Sonny Grandelius.
On the other hand, the Americans' owner, Bill Putnam, has put the cart before the horse in making his deliveries. "This is the entertainment business," he says, "and you have to spend money, money for talent and money for advertising, in order to make money."
Putnam worked for Jack Kent Cooke Enterprises, founded and became president of the NHL Philadelphia Flyers and later became part owner and president of the Omni Group, which owns the Atlanta Hawks and Flames. His methods have seemed radical to some, and along the way he earned a reputation as a superpromoter but a bad bottom-line man, criticism he suffers wearily. "Everybody I've been in business with has made money," he says.
To his credit, Putnam spotted Birmingham as a perfect new-league city—it was virgin territory with a top spectator facility, Legion Field (capacity 68,821). Putnam believes that the WFL can survive in large stadiums in such cities as Birmingham if it can be anchored with a franchise axis in the three big apples: Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, where Anaheim Stadium, Soldier Field and a refurbished Yankee Stadium provide high-capacity sites.
Putnam has already exceeded his original budget, which called for $400,000 in bonuses. "That figure was shot to hell because there were so many more NFL players available than we thought," he says. Putnam now claims to have invested $900,000 to lure such top players as Oakland's Ken Stabler (for '76) to Birmingham.
But not everyone on the Americans is a former NFL star. In fact, neither of the heroes in last week's win ever made an NFL team. The winning touchdown pass was thrown by a 6'4", 225-pound black quarterback from Grambling, who had NFL tryouts as a tight end and a wide receiver, to a 5'9½", 153-pound wide receiver, who returned punts and kickoffs in his only NFL camp.
Alfred Jenkins, the wide receiver, had to write to all 26 teams just to get a chance to field kicks for the Oilers. Matthew Reed, the quarterback, was so disgusted with his NFL experience that when the Americans found him, he was "running the streets." If Reed has a problem it is that his arm is too strong, particularly for WFL play, since he says he can throw farther at night. "Matthew's gonna concave a chest one day," says Doug Layton, a local radioman.
While NFL castoff George Mira has recovered from a sprained ankle, Reed has started the last two games and become a huge favorite.
In last week's game, the Wheels scored to go ahead 22-20 with a minute remaining. Then, after the kickoff was run back to Birmingham's 41, Reed hit Wide Receiver Dennis Homan for gains of 14 and 19. Next he rolled left and bootlegged nine yards to the 17. Then, with 26 seconds on the clock, Reed rolled left again but this time stopped short and lofted the ball to Jenkins for the winning score.
"The WFL's not going to fold," an exuberant Putnam exclaimed. "I'm chairman of the expansion committee and there's high interest in a lot of places. That means there's an outlet for our trouble spots. And as long as we're this successful," he nodded toward the crowd, "somebody in Podunk or someplace is always going to look at us and think, 'Hell, I can do that well.' "
Owner Putnam chats with the injured Mira.
Matthew Reed, the Americans' new starting signal caller, prepares to hand off to Art Cantrelle in Birmingham's 28-22 victory over Detroit.