Beyond the AAF: American Football Leagues that Didn’t Make the Cut

Competition is said to be the lifeblood of the economy. When there are more than one companies offering the same type of product or service, each one works hard to be more innovative and efficient to sell more than the competitors. While this is true in most other areas, though, it doesn’t always apply to sports (which, by the way, is one of the most lucrative branches of the entertainment industry). Sports fans are not customers looking for the best value for their money – they are people who want to cheer for their favorite teams and have a great time doing so. This may be one of the reasons why initiatives like the Alliance of American Football fail: they can’t win the hearts of their potential fans. The AAF is just the most recent example of sports leagues that tried and failed to break the status quo. Here are some earlier examples that should have served as a warning.

The World Football League

The AAF is not the first alternative league to challenge the dominance of the NFL – back in the mid-1970s, a California businessman called Gary Davidson proposed to take American football worldwide by the introduction of the World Football League. He had some experience in this matter – earlier, Davidson helped create the American Basketball Association and World Hockey Association, both of which survived long enough to enter their respective established leagues later on. This wasn’t the case of WFL, though. This in spite of the fact that it was created at a time when the NFL and CFL players’ salaries were at their lowest, triggering strikes across both countries.

The WFL managed to survive for one and a half-season, spawning only one team not based on mainland USA – the Hawaiians. Its successor also called the World Football League, returned briefly in 2008 – this time, it survived for three seasons before all its teams folded or defected to other leagues.

The XFL

If there is a flashier version of Greek wrestling that attracts millions of devoted fans, why wouldn’t this be a thing in football? This was probably what NBC and the WWF have thought when creating the XFL, a catchier version of the traditional football involving pro wrestling tropes like heat, kayfabe, barely dressed cheerleaders, and guest appearances by WWF personalities. The league planned to start its season just as the NFL season ended, making use of the hole left in the TV schedules – and the fans’ hearts – by the ending of the NFL season.

While the first game night was a surprising success, the viewership of the new league’s matches took a nosedive shortly after. Ultimately, NBC and the WWF cut their losses ($30 million on a $100 million investment) and ended it. WWF owner Vince McMahon maintained control of the brand and has recently announced that it may be revived for a new season in 2020.

The World League of American Football

Finally, here is one American football league that failed to take off despite being backed by the NFL itself. The World League of American Football (WLAF) was invented by NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and founded in 1989 by the owners of the franchise, with its inaugural season starting in 1991. It was a league for US and European football teams with six teams coming from the USA, three from Europe and one from Canada. The WLAF served as a proving ground for new rules in the NFL, it seems – the two-point conversion rule, the shorter kickoff tee, and the helmet-mounted cameras and the one-way radios were also introduced here first.

After two seasons, the number of teams was reduced from 10 to 6. After the third season, the league was renamed to “NFL Europe”, then rebranded again as “NFL Europa” in 2006. Then, it disbanded completely in 2007. Reportedly, the league was nowhere near as successful a business as its American counterpart, producing losses of up to $30 million per season.

AFI
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