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From USFL to AAF: A History of Spring Football

Alliance of American Football

Spring football is coming, and not for the first time.

On February 9, six days after Super Bowl LIII, the Alliance of American Football (AAF) will officially kick off its inaugural season, starting an opening weekend with games in Arizona, Birmingham, San Antonio, and Orlando. The second iteration of the XFL will arrive in 2020. And at some point, yet to be announced, the Freedom Football League also plans to begin play, adding a third outdoor spring football league to the sports calendar. Will professional spring football last?

The Trans-American Football League (TAFL), perhaps the first official pro spring football league, did not. Its franchises came from the Continental Football League, which was begun in 1965 as a fall feeder league, a step down from the NFL and its direct challenger, the American Football League. The San Antonio Toros and Texarkana Titans among others, left the Continental Football League for the Texas Football League at the end of the 1969 season, the Continental Football League’s last in existence. In 1971, Arthur S. Arkush, the founder of Pro Football Weekly, renamed the league the Trans-American Football League and shifted its schedule to spring, after the NFL’s season had ended. The Toros defeated the Titans for the first Trans-American Football League title, 20-19, on June 19, 1971. After the season, the San Antonio-based league office released word that it would be moving the season back to the fall come 1972. There never was a 1972 TAFL season.

The Rise and Fall of the USFL

The most famous spring football league of the 1980s was David Dixon’s United States Football League, which was announced in May 1982, opened play in 1983 and signed a broadcast contract with ESPN, the first time that a professional football league had agreed to a broadcast deal with a cable network. Wrote Ira Kaufman for the UPI, “[Acting USFL chairman Peter] Spivak, co-owner of the Detroit franchise, cited a study conducted by Frank N. Magid Associates, Inc., which found an ‘overwhelming’ public interest to view football games during the spring and early summer.”

There were three memorable seasons of USFL football, chronicled in Jeff Pearlman’s Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL. Pearlman counted down his Top 25 USFL players on his website, leading into No. 1, the brilliant, diminutive linebacker Sam Mills, who went from D-III Montclair State to three All-USFL Teams to five-time NFL Pro Bowler to New Orleans Saints Hall of Famer. Future Hall of Famer Jim Kelly also made Pearlman’s list, as did superstar running back Herschel Walker.

The USFL’s chief obstacles were the National Football League and its own ownerships, whose philosophies became divided between those franchises who spent modestly and those who did not. One owner in particular caused things to come to a head. In 1984, Donald Trump purchased the New Jersey Generals and set about using the Generals to gain a National Football League franchise. When NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle rejected his overtures, he challenged the NFL head on, both on the field, with the USFL switching from its 1983-85 spring schedules to a fall schedule in 1986 – “If God had wanted football in the spring,” said Trump, “he wouldn’t have created baseball”– and in the courtroom, in an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL that sought to end the league’s powerful hold on national professional football. Trump and the USFL centered their case around the USFL’s lack of a TV offer from ABC, NBC, or CBS, each of which had an agreed-upon partnership with the NFL to switch off in airing the Super Bowl.

But on July 30, 1986, Michael Janofsky wrote in the New York Times, “The United States Football League suffered what both sides considered a resounding defeat in United States District Court in Manhattan yesterday when a jury found that the National Football League had violated antitrust law but awarded the U.S.F.L. only $1 in damages.”

“My reaction is that the jury was very, very astute in that it saw through the case,” said NFL attorney Frank Rothman afterward, “a case built on nothing but smoke and not very good smoke at that. The dollar verdict is an insult to the U.S.F.L. It tells exactly what this jury thought about this lawsuit.”

In August, the USFL announced that without the money it expected to receive from the lawsuit and without a network television contract, it would not hold a 1986 season. What would the players do? “I can call Buffalo and talk to Ralph Wilson this week,” Jim Kelly told New York Times writer Gerald Eskanazi. After all, Buffalo had drafted Kelly in 1983 and still held his rights. A year later, the USFL was no more – and Kelly was the starting quarterback for the Buffalo Bills. Five years later, in 1991, he began his stretch of leading the Bills to four consecutive Super Bowls, albeit all in defeat.

An International Effort

It was also in 1991 that the World League of American Football (WLAF) – later renamed NFL Europe – began play. It was the exact opposite of the USFL’s challenge toward the NFL’s supremacy; it was a full NFL-backed league televised by ABC, spearheaded by NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue. Week 1 was held on March 23 in cities as varied as Sacramento (USA), Orlando (USA), Birmingham (USA), Frankfurt (Germany), Barcelona (Spain).

Barcelona’s opening kickoff was threatened by inclement weather. “Their soccer tradition,” said WLAF president Mike Lynn, “is that when it rains like that, you postpone the game. I told [Barcelona owner Josep M. Figueras], ‘Well, in football, we just don’t cancel.’” The Barcelona Dragons reached World Bowl I (“World Bowl ‘91”), falling to the London Monarchs, 21-0, at Wembley Stadium on June 9.

But the league lost $7 million that first year. Wrote Timothy W. Smith, “None of the league’s 10 teams made a profit.” There was another money-losing WLAF season in 1992, and then a two-year hiatus. It returned in 1995 televised by Fox (which joined the league as a co-owner) and was entirely based in Europe, with the Amsterdam Admirals, Rhein Fire (Düsseldorf), and Scottish Claymores (Edinberg) joining the previously existing franchises in London, Barcelona, and Frankfurt.

Three years later, the WLAF was rebranded as NFL Europe, with future Rams and Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner under center for the Admirals. Another rebranding came in 2006: NFL Europa, or “Europe” in Dutch and German, the home tongue for fans of the Admirals, Cologne Centurions, Berlin Thunder, Hamburg Sea Devils, Rhein Fire, and the Frankfurt Galaxy. The Galaxy deserved a special nod, the sole franchise to play every year of the league, from 1991 through 2007, when the NFL shuttered NFL Europa’s doors for good. The games had long since ceased being televised, even in Germany and the Netherlands, and the league was costing up to $500 million per season. It was a losing investment and an ultimately failed experiment.

Throughout the WLAF/NFL Europe’s tenure, other smaller spring domestic football leagues lasted for even shorter spans. The Professional Spring Football League never made it out of training camp in 1992. The Regional Football League passed in a blink in 1999. Also in 1999, the International Football Federation was announced but never played a game. Spring Football league Inc. featured the backing of Bo Jackson, Eric Dickerson, Tony Dorsett, and Drew Pearson, but only made it through two contests of its proposed four-game test run in 2000. The All-American Football League had big dreams of an inaugural 2008 season but shut down having never played a game. The A-11 Football League had high hopes to air on ESPN in the spring of 2014, but it, too, was deep-sixed.

The Original XFL

The first Xtreme Football League vaulted off the ground in 2001, with the full force and bluster of Vince McMahon, a TV contract with NBC, and a host of attention-grabbing aspects – no fair catches, nicknames on the backs of jerseys, and a one-on-one midfield scramble for the football to determine the opening possession – bringing attention to the circuit for week 1 on Saturday, February 3, drawing a TV rating of 9.5.

And then the ratings fell, as the Associated Press remarked presciently, “reminiscent of the viewer erosion experienced by the U.S. Football League.” Said NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol, “We remain a work in progress and our numbers… are exactly where we said they would be the last six months.” But the numbers continued to worsen and the minds behind the league turned to ratings-grabbing ideas from the professional wrestling world, including a purposefully envelope-pushing cheerleader commercial and a forced feud in early March between governor/broadcaster Jesse Ventura and unwilling New York/New Jersey head coach Rusty Tillman.

On March 21, the Chicago Tribune reported that the XFL was delivering NBC the worst ratings of any prime-time program on one of the four major networks. As Eisner Communications senior VP Abe Novic noted, “It was supposed to be rougher on the field and more risqué with the cheerleaders. In fact, it is plain old boring. There’s no there there.”  There was no XFL there, either, after the season. It lost its NBC and UPN television contracts as well as $70 million.

Is there still an “‘overwhelming’ public interest to view football games during the spring and early summer,” as Frank N. Magid Associates, Inc. reported nearly four decades ago? The AAF, with the XFL 2.0 waiting not far behind, is next up to try to buck history and deliver successful, profitable post-Super Bowl football.

This article first appeared in the weekly Football Stadium Digest newsletter. Are you a subscriber? It’s free, and you’ll see features like this before they appear on the Web. Go here to subscribe to the Football Stadium Digest newsletter.

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August Publications