The troubles besetting the World Football League reached a ridiculous point last week at New York's Downing Stadium. Before a game between the New York Stars and the Detroit Wheels, the Wheels were told that their team had filed for bankruptcy. After the game the Stars were told that their franchise was moving to Charlotte, N.C.
This bleak-news doubleheader marked a week in which the WFL had more things happen to shake its credibility than all previous disasters combined. First, the league office was obliged to take over control of the Houston Texans from R. Steven Arnold, one of the WFL's founding fathers, and move it to Shreveport, La. (where the Texans were renamed the Steamer). Owner Arnold's get-rich-quick scheme had turned into a nightmare. On the Texans' final day of practice in Houston, a bus driver refused to take the team to Rice University for its workout unless he was first paid the $61 bus-rental fee. The temporary suspension of Coach Jim Garrett was made permanent after he called the team's new city "rinky-dink," and an interim coach was hired after a league-appointed temporary coach had run things for a few days. Quarterback Mike Taliaferro declined to move from Houston to Shreveport and retired. A Houston newspaperman said, "The Texans left town just like they came: broke, disorganized and unwanted." The sardonic syndicated column The Bottom Ten, which purports to rate the worst college football teams in the country, had Houston-Shreveport ranked 16th.
Some 700 miles east of Shreveport, the WFL took over control of the Jacksonville Sharks, which had been unable to meet player payrolls for four weeks, even though the team was second in the league in attendance. Shark players said they would not make the trip cross-country for a game with the Southern California Sun unless they got their pay. WFL Commissioner Gary Davidson lured them West with a promise of a payday then came up with a game's salary. The league was trying to peddle the Sharks to anyone who would assume the team's debts.
South of Jacksonville, the Florida Blazers were suffering in Orlando's pathetic Tangerine Bowl. They, too, had missed a payday. Ticket prices for end-zone seats had dropped from the $7 range to $2.50, but attendance sagged anyway. Managing General Partner Rommie Loudd, who had been hassling with city officials, was trying to schedule his team's remaining home games in Tampa and Atlanta. Neither place was interested.
As the league met this week to decide the fate of the shaky franchises, the picture was, to say the least, gloomy. The Eastern Division was a shambles. Beyond the two troubled Florida teams and the peripatetic New York/Charlotte club, there was only the Philadelphia Bell, still suffering from the adverse publicity of a ticket-count scandal earlier in the season, in which it was disclosed that of 120,000 people who had attended the team's first two games, more than 100,000 got in free.
Southern California was running away with the Western Division, but its owner, Larry Hatfield, had been indicted by a federal grand jury on three counts of making false statements to obtain bank loans, one of which went to the Sun. Portland needed a new stadium. The Hawaiians had to switch their games from Sunday afternoon to Wednesday night because of poor attendance. And then there was Houston/Shreveport.
Only the Central Division held any promise. The Birmingham Americans and the Memphis Southmen, the WFL's two strongest teams at the bank and on the field, were fighting for first place, but the Chicago Fire, after an encouraging start, and encouraging support in Chicago, was hovering near .500 and attendance was diminishing. The Fire was trying out new players as though the team were still in training camp. Departing Tackle Steve Wright, a 10-year NFL veteran, said, "Our locker room looked like a bus station."
And the Central Division's fourth team was dismal Detroit. With only one win in 13 games the Wheels would have been the league's laughingstock even if they had been making money, but tales of their financial woes were beginning to rival those of the infant New York Titans of the old AFL. The Wheels ran out of adhesive tape and had to borrow some from opposing teams. Once they could not afford to get their uniforms out of the laundry and had to cancel practice. One player said he could not even get a shoelace when he needed one. The team could not afford to have its games filmed. The Wheels did not pay a printing bill and had to do without programs at one game. Attendance at Rynearson Stadium in Ypsilanti, 35 miles from downtown Detroit, was pitiful. During the second half of one game, fans amused themselves by playing frisbee. When the P.A. system blared, "The Wheels will play out of town next week," spectators cheered.
Then there was the news that the New York Stars had fled to Charlotte. One reason given for the switch was the condition of the turf at Downing Stadium, which was bad. But the stadium was dimly lit, too, and all but inaccessible by mass transit. Attendance was lousy. Even so, leaving New York defied the axiom that a new league must have a team in that city. The wire services are based there, the three big TV networks have their headquarters there, and so do most of the advertising agencies whose purchases of air time make lucrative TV packages possible. A New York area franchise keeps a new league in view, although the early history of the Titans, the ABA's New Jersey Americans and the WHA's Raiders-Golden Blades makes it clear that no new league has easy going in the big city. Even as it moved the Stars out, the WFL awarded an expansion franchise to New York, supposedly to become functional when a rebuilt Yankee Stadium is ready in 1976.
In the meantime, noting that there were franchises currently in Birmingham, Memphis, Shreveport, Charlotte, Jacksonville and Orlando, some officials were worrying out loud that the WFL was becoming a Southern League, which would condemn it to minor league status, at least from television's point of view.
Yet with all the trouble, reports of the WFL's imminent death seemed exaggerated. The turbulence was similar to the growing pains common to most new leagues. The more immediate problem was acquiring capital, the prime ingredient in any business.
Davidson got the WFL off the drawing board and onto the playing field in less than a year by sidestepping most problems of capitalization. Realizing that it would take ages to locate and interest "12 Lamar Hunts," who could sustain losses for years, he settled for finding 12 people or groups with enough money to get the product on the field. He then hoped to sell the product so hard that the promise of success would bring the Lamar Hunts out into the open, eager to buy. In effect, he put the cart before the horse.
For a time Davidson's plan worked beautifully. He found backers, although he admits, "We made mistakes in ownership selection. We let people come into the league because of the time frame that we might have held back on if we had decided to start play in 1975 instead of 1974."
Still, the selling of the league was sensational, highlighted by the signing of Miami Dolphin stars Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield. A few days after that breakthrough, the WFL scored another coup by signing contracts with the TVS sports network that guaranteed it a nationally televised game each week. (The ABA and the WHA do not have that yet.) Huge crowds the first week made the WFL seem an instant success.
Here, unfortunately, Davidson's plan ground to a halt. The Lamar Hunts did not materialize. "The timing for the WFL was right and wrong," moaned Jacksonville Owner Fran Monaco, who quickly began to take his lumps. "It's right for football, but this is the wrong time in the economy." Monaco was resourceful. He managed to meet one payroll by borrowing $27,000 from his coach, Bud Asher, whom he then fired. And now Monaco is gone.
"Any new league is going to have problems," said John Bassett, the Canadian who owns the Memphis Southmen, one of the few WFL teams that seemed to have no financial worries, and the man who signed Csonka, Kiick and Warfield. "The only thing that scares me is something I never anticipated, the general economic condition of the country. Money is tight, whether you're running a shoe factory or a football franchise. A couple of years ago people were lined up in droves for the chance to finance a professional team, for ego or whatever purposes. Those people aren't around anymore."
The franchise difficulties ended Davidson's talk of worldwide expansion to an intercontinental league. "I'm more for consolidation and solidification in 1975, rather than expanding to new cities," he said last week. "We probably should have started with 10 teams instead of 12 and made them all solid in ownership and funding."
The remedy the WFL was attempting for its woes—franchise shifts to smaller cities where there is high interest and little or no competition from other professional sports—is common in new leagues, and it was not a sign that total collapse was inevitable. The ABA has endured 12 franchise shifts, yet it is about to start its eighth season. Even Lamar Hunt had to move a franchise. His AFL Dallas Texans became the Kansas City Chiefs.
Relatively speaking, the WFL still seemed a success story. Its television contract with TVS achieved highly satisfying results: during its first 10 weeks approximately 10 million people tuned in WFL action every week. ABC's Monday night show attracts four times as many viewers, but it charges almost six times as much for a minute of advertising. WFL telecasts drew larger audiences this past summer than the National Hockey League did on NBC last winter and had about 75% as many viewers as CBS's NBA telecasts. Advertisers were pleased, and TVS said it expected to pick up the option year on its contract with the WFL—at an increase in fees. Even if WFL ratings did not measure up to the NFL's, they demonstrated to potential investors that football is king.
Moreover, not all WFL teams were drowning in red ink. The Birmingham Americans, in fact, hoped to finish the season in the black, which would be a record of sorts for a new team in a new league. New cities greeted dying franchises with open arms. Charlotte gave the Stars a sweetheart lease on Memorial Stadium and long lines were reported at the ticket windows. Shreveport welcomed Houston with a picnic, two beer parties and a parade. Signings of NFL stars continued. And there still seemed to be a supply of people with at least some capital who wanted to own a professional sports team. One of these was Upton Bell, son of Bert Bell, the late NFL commissioner, who was once general manager of the then New England Patriots. The Patriots fired him in 1972, but Bell became head of the syndicate that bought the Stars and moved them to Charlotte.
Bell was bullish, and so was Davidson. Bullish, if not wildly optimistic.