xfl, memphis maniax, los angeles xtreme
AP/Lance Murphey
The XFL’s Memphis Maniax and Los Angeles Xtreme, April 1, 2001.

Long History of Failed Football Leagues Casts Doubt on Viability of UFL

July 22, 2009 06:00 PM
by Denis Cummings
As a new professional football league, the United Football League, prepares to begin play this fall, we look back at the professional football leagues that have failed in the last four decades.

UFL to Play Six-Game Season This Fall

The United Football League made news this week when it signed quarterback J.P. Losman, a former first round pick and starter for the Buffalo Bills who had a chance to sign as an NFL backup. Losman becomes the upstart league’s “marquee” name, though the league could possibly lure former first overall pick Michael Vick if he is suspended by the NFL.

The UFL will begin play Oct. 8, with four teams—Las Vegas, New York, Orlando and San Francisco—playing a six-game schedule ending with a championship game on Thanksgiving weekend. It intends to serve as a minor league where players can develop and potentially earn NFL contracts.

Las Vegas coach Jim Fassel, former head coach of the Giants, explained the upside of the UFL for players like Losman: “Listen, if he'd have went back to the NFL and sat on the bench this year, then he'd have been no better off next year. … Instead, you go in this league and you play. The risk you take is you don't play well. But if you're an aggressive person, you say ‘I'm going to play well, people are going to see me, and maybe I can erase some of those negatives that were in the past.’”

The UFL is one of three professional football leagues planning to begin play over the next year. The All-American Football League, which is open only to players with a college degree, and the “new” United States Football League both claim to be preparing to hold a season in spring 2010.

Each of these leagues will have difficulty in finding financial success, especially in an economic climate that forced the popular Arena Football League to suspend operations for at least one year.

A number of professional outdoor football leagues have been started since the AFL-NFL merger of 1970, but most have folded after a few years. Here’s a look at the most notable:

1974-1975: World Football League

The WFL was formed in 1973 by attorney Gary Davidson, who had co-founded two successful “rogue” leagues, the American Basketball Association and the World Hockey Association. The WFL attracted several prominent NFL players, including Larry Csonka, Ken Stabler and Daryle Lamonica, with high salaries.

The league began play in 1974 with 12 teams play a 20-game schedule in just 19 weeks. Ownership of teams changed constantly, and two teams moved mid-season, while two others folded. The WFL folded 14 weeks into its second season, having lost an estimated $30 million.

1983-1985: United States Football League

With a collection of very wealthy owners and a lucrative television contract, the USFL was able to sign some of college football’s best players, including Herschel Walker, Doug Flutie and Jim Kelly. It was the first professional league to use the two-point conversion and the first to use instant replay. With a more wide-open style of play than the NFL, the USFL had some success drawing fans.

However, at the urging of owner Donald Trump, the league announced in 1984 that it would begin in 1986 to hold its season in the fall, hoping to force a merger with the NFL. Knowing they couldn’t compete against the NFL, several owners backed out and several teams in NFL cities would relocate or suspend operations before the ’85 season.

The USFL filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL, which it won in July 1986. But the jury owner awarded the league $1 in damages, not nearly enough to survive the ’86 season. The league suspended operations and never returned.

The league did have a lasting impact on the NFL, though. Competition from the USFL drove up NFL salaries, and many USFL players and coaches would go on to make a mark in the NFL.

1991-1992: World League of American Football

The NFL funded the creation of the WLAF, an international football league that placed teams in London, Barcelona and Edinburgh along with seven U.S. cities. The league played two seasons in 1991 and 1992 before suspending operations.

The league was reformed in 1995 as the World League, a six-team league based entirely in Europe. That league was later renamed NFL Europe and NFL Europa before the NFL shut it down in 2007 as part of a new marketing approach in Europe.

1993-1995: Canadian Football League’s U.S. Expansion

The CFL, founded in 1958, is Canada’s second most popular professional sports league, after the National Hockey League. In the mid-90s, it made an ill-fated move into the U.S., with the intention of one day having a 20-team league with teams split between the U.S. and Canada.

Between 1993-1995, seven U.S. cities—mostly those that had WLAF teams—hosted CFL cities, but only Baltimore had any success. By the 1996 season, all the U.S. teams had folded or been moved to Canada.

2001: XFL

The XFL was the creation of WWF head Vince McMahon and NBC sports chairman Dick Ebersol, who wanted to create a “smashmouth” spring league to appeal to a young male audience. The league had rules to encourage hard-hitting and scoring, and featured gimmicks such as allowing nicknames on players’ jerseys (the most memorable example being “He Hate Me”) and placing cameras in the cheerleaders’ dressing room.

The heavily hyped opening week was played before large crowds and a large television audience, but fan interest dropped dramatically as the season progressed. The gimmicks couldn’t hide the poor quality of play and the league developed into a joke in the media. By the end of the year, its Saturday night games were receiving record-low ratings. The league folded after just one season.

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