What Happened to the Leagues that Challenged the NFL? Pt. 1


Image via Daily News

Stanley Shivley, Writer

American Football is one of the largest sports in the United States; however, The NFL has held a monopoly over it for the last 60 years. The NFL has been the longest-running and most extensive American Football league, playing since 1920. Since then, many leagues have sprouted up, with most attempting to be a home for players who couldn’t land on an NFL roster. Some, however, try to compete with the big dogs directly. Some were successful, some not so much. Today, we’ll be looking back at the leagues that attempted to challenge the NFL.

All-America Football Conference (1944-1949) 

The All-America Football Conference was one of the first direct competitors to the NFL. The AAFC was created after World War II as a slew of football talent returned home. The NFL wasn’t too friendly toward their newest neighbor, opting not to acknowledge the league and discredit it. The AAFC didn’t have any necessarily notable selling points that set them apart from the NFL, besides having teams in Larger Markets than the NFL at the time. The league’s best franchise was the Cleveland Browns. They won all four Championship Games and only lost four games during their tenure in the league. The league tried but failed to compete with the NFL on a major league level and folded in 1949. A year later, The Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers, and Baltimore Colts joined the NFL. Also, several Los Angeles Dons players and personnel merged with the Los Angeles Rams of the NFL after the 1949 season. The Baltimore Colts folded after their first year in the league. However, a second Baltimore Colts franchise came to the NFL in 1953, after the sale of the Dallas Texans. This Colts franchise (now known as the Indianapolis Colts) was a rebirth of the original Colts. However, it did not keep any of the franchise or Texans’ records, acting as an expansion franchise instead. While the Seahawks and Bills were omitted from the merger, their names were used for Future NFL Franchises. The best player to come out of the AAFC was Hall of Fame Cleveland Browns quarterback Otto Graham. He won three NFL championships and three MVPs in Cleveland.

American Football League (1960-1969)

The American Football League was the most successful out of all NFL Competitors. The American Football league operated from 1960 to 1969. The AFL started when Texas entrepreneur Lamar Hunt tried to get a Professional Football Team in his home state. He attempted to buy the Chicago Cardinals and move them to Dallas and even approached the NFL about expanding in Texas; however, both failed. Eventually, Hunt got the idea to start an entirely new league. The NFL became hostile to this. In spite of the AFL, they offered an NFL franchise (which later became the Minnesota Vikings) to the planned Minneapolis team’s owners, expanded in Dallas, and moved the Cardinals to St. Louis to remove any potential of the league paving ground there. The AFL suffered financial hardship during its first few seasons, however after a large TV Deal with NBC and swaying some college stars in their favor, they had the NFL’s interest. In 1966, the AFL and NFL came to a deal where both leagues would play each other at the end of the season as a championship game, the Super Bowl. In 1970, the AFL and NFL ultimately merged. The AFL became the American Football Conference, and the remaining NFL teams became the National Football Conference. The Steelers, Colts, and Browns moved to the AFC to even out the conferences. All of the AFL’s franchises joined the NFL, and all are still active in the league. The AFL’s greatest player was quarterback Joe Namath, who chose the New York Jets over the St. Louis Cardinals. Namath won the league’s last two MVPs before merging and Super Bowl III, the AFL’s first-ever Super Bowl win.

World Football League (1973-1975)

During the 1970s, there was a rise in Sports League challengers. The NBA had the ABA, The NHL had the WHA, and the World Football League attempted to be next up. However, it ultimately became the worst out of them all. Unlike the Canadian Football League or National Football League, which only played in one nation, the World Football League wanted to expand American Football on a global scale and bring in players who could not land on an NFL/CFL roster. The WFL dreamed big in its first year as they announced teams in Hawaii, Toronto, and even Tokyo. Only Hawaii would receive a franchise (Apply titled, “The Hawaiians”) as the Tokyo franchise seemed a bit of a stretch to investors and became the Houston Texans, and the Canadian government compelled the WFL to stay out of Canada, so the Toronto Northmen became the Memphis Southmen/Grizzlies. The league was sporadic and unorganized. Teams would move or even fold halfway during the season. The best example of how the league was as a whole would be the Florida Blazers’ franchise. The Team only lasted 11 months in 1974, however in that time frame; they were initially known as the Washington Capitals before being kicked out of RFK Stadium by the Redskins, who had to change their name because of the NHL team of the same name; moved to Baltimore, Norfolk, and finally, Orlando, where they lost the first and only World Bowl, before folding due to their owner getting arrested for Tax Evasion and Cocaine possession. There was an overall sketchiness with the league and management. Many owners didn’t pay the total expansion fees and gave out free tickets to inflate attendance numbers. Due to low ticket sales, the Charlotte Hornets had to have their equipment impounded after not paying laundry fees and forfeit a playoff game. The Florida Blazers were paid in McDonald’s Meal Vouchers. The Portland Thunder relied on sympathetic fans for food. Teams’ debts got so bad that minutes after the World Bowl, the Birmingham sheriff’s department had to seize the champion, Birmingham Americans’ equipment, to pay off their debt. The WFL returned in 1975, but it folded before the playoffs started due to a slew of legal fiascos. After the league dispersed, the Memphis Grizzlies and Birmingham Vulcans submitted applications to become expansion franchises for the 1976 NFL Season and were denied. Interestingly enough, future NBA and NFL franchises would use The Memphis Grizzlies, Charlotte Hornets, and Houston Texans names.

United States Football League (1983-1985)

The United States Football League was the most recent league to try to challenge the NFL directly. David Dixon, a Louisiana Businessman who helped the NFL expand to New Orleans, envisioned a Spring/Summer Football league. The USFL expanded to markets that hadn’t been touched by the NFL yet, including cities like Birmingham, Memphis, Portland, San Antonio, and Jacksonville, to name a few. Unlike the WFL, the USFL presented itself as a league for College players to get bigger paychecks for playing bigger roles and getting drafted and sign with teams after their Junior season, as opposed to the NFL’s requirements at the time. The league lured in big names like Future Hall of Famers Steve Young, Herschel Walker, and Reggie White, to name a few. The league would change forever when New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump (Yes, Donald Trump) wanted the USFL to directly compete with the NFL by moving the league’s Spring/Summer schedule to the Fall, believing it to help force a merger with the NFL. The USFL changed its schedule; however, competing with the NFL during its regular season meant that viewers were more likely to tune into an NFL game than a USFL game. The USFL sent the NFL a $1.5 Million Antitrust lawsuit, based on the NFL’s broadcast and stadium access monopoly. The court ruled that the NFL had used predatory tactics and had a monopoly on Pro American Football; however, they also noted that the USFL’s seasonal change would’ve caused significant financial losses for teams in markets that already had an NFL franchise (Oakland, Tampa, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles). The USFL won the case, however instead of $1.5 Million, the league was awarded just $3.76. The league folded in 1986 before the season’s start. The USFL is planning a comeback in Spring 2022 with some of the old teams reintroduced and all games played in Birmingham, Alabama.