With the AAF coming and going, and XFL2 due next year, the monolithic monopoly that is the NFL seems once again under challenge. This will not be the first time, and a look at what became of the many leagues that have tackled the NFL, with degrees of success ranging from merger to none, might be instructive.
New leagues have sprung up as the NFL has evolved. In the early years, as the NFL grew from a loose association of clubs into a structured league, pro football was similar in status to rugby league in Britain today – a hard game played on Sundays for pay – while the glamour version was played by amateurs (in colleges) on Saturdays. Pro teams were centred in the industrial north, existed solely on the gate and, in the era of single-platoon football, didn’t need a lot of players. Regional leagues often had teams that could – and did – compete with NFL teams, as barnstorming was common, and the first few full-scale pro leagues that arose before World War II often had players of NFL quality.
After World War II, America was expanding quickly, and football followed suit, moving to the West Coast and integrating. The post-war boon included an explosion of leisure activity: minor league baseball thrived down to Class D and, before television, local pro teams would often be the best you could see. But it was the growth of television, and the realisation – after the famous 1958 NFL Championship Game – pro football was perfectly suited for television that sparked the next great growth of interest. The AFL came along to bring the pro game into areas without NFL teams, as well as to fill the TV schedules on otherwise dreary Sunday afternoons. And, once the AFL and NFL merged, it seemed that, with almost each decade, some new league would come along looking for a piece of the pie.
So what follows, taken from all three eras of the sport, is part one of a First XI of football’s ‘other’ major leagues – convenient as I’m not sure any other leagues could claim to be ‘major’!
11. AMERICAN FOOTBALL LEAGUE (1940-41)
AFL 3 grew out of a minor league, the American Professional Football Association, taking the Cincinnati Bengals (who had also been members of AFL 2), Columbus Bullies and Milwaukee Chiefs, while adding new teams in Buffalo, Boston and New York (called the Yankees in 1940 and the Americans in 1941); when were teams going to think of trademarking their names?
The league was the first to play a double (home and away) round-robin schedule, and was relatively solid in its first two seasons, but folded with the advent of World War II, which took away its player base and made travel difficult. To make things even more confusing, the minor-league American Association was called the AFL for a while, and another AFL had started on the West Coast but was absorbed into the Pacific Coast Football League.
10. AMERICAN FOOTBALL LEAGUE (1926)
AFL 1 was also known as The Red Grange League, because it was started by Grange’s manager C. C. ‘Cash & Carry’ Pyle, with his client as its showpiece. ‘The Galloping Ghost’ was college football’s biggest-ever star; he signed with the Chicago Bears the day after playing his last game for Illinois in 1925; they then went on a 67-day, 19-game, barnstorming tour, including a sell-out of the Polo Grounds which is supposed to have saved the Giants from bankruptcy.
Grange made more than $100,000 on the tour but, when the fledgling NFL refused his request to start a second New York team, he and Pyle decided to start their own league. Grange co-owned (with Pyle) and starred for the New York team, inevitably named the Yankees. They were the league’s spotlight team, but the Philadelphia Quakers won the only AFL championship.
Grange and Pyle also owned the Los Angeles Wildcats, a team based in Rock Island, Illinois that played only road games (none in California!). Their players, all from the West, included University of Washington star Wildcat Wilson, hence the name. The league also included the Brooklyn Horsemen, which featured two of Notre Dame’s famed Four Horsemen. When the league broke up, the Yankees were absorbed into the NFL; after missing a season to injury, Grange wound up with the Bears.
9. UNITED FOOTBALL LEAGUE (2009-12)
There were some serious investors behind it, including Bill Hambrecht, Nancy Pelosi’s husband Paul and Mark Cuban, but their plan of midweek games in secondary markets without NFL presence floundered on the very smallness of those cities coupled with a lack of TV money.
The New York Sentinels played in three states before becoming the Hartford Colonials; one of the two best teams, the Florida (Orlando) Tuskers, wound up moving to tidewater Virginia, which last saw ‘major’ league football with the Continental League.
The Colonials, coached by Jerry Glanville, included QB Josh McCown, DE Simeon Rice and former WLAF and NFL punter Scott Player, with his old school single-bar helmet. The UFL used a version of the NFLE ‘guideline’ prohibiting blitzing more than six rushers.
The other dominant team was the Las Vegas Locomotives, coached by Jim Fassel; other coaches included Dennis Green (Redwoods/Sacramento), Jim Haslett and Jay Gruden (both Florida). The league collapsed midway through the 2012 season.
Part II coming soon….