History of Failed Pro Football Leagues

Cover Image

The modern era of the National Football League is considered to have started in 1969, when the NFL officially merged with the AFL to create the league we've all come to know. Originally meant to compete with the NFL, the American Football League was the closest thing that the behemoth has had to a true "competitor". Since 1969 there have been plenty of upstarts to come in and try to either steal the spotlight or become a minor league of sorts, and just about all of them have failed.

The XFL just did it for the second time. The coronavirus was too much for the new league to overcome, and late last week it suspended operations with no plans for a 2021 season. It joins a laundry list of other short-lived efforts to expand pro football beyond the NFL's shadow.

 

World Football League (1974-75): Promoted as a league that would expand beyond the borders of the United States, the WFL didn't quite live up to its name. Of the 13 teams to play a game, all were within the U.S. and just one (The Hawaiians) was off the mainland.

It was a disaster from the start. There were poor ticket sales, they rushed to get games started without having money to pay players, so many fought to get out of their contracts. An owner was arrested for drug trafficking. Somehow it started a second season in 1975, but in Week 13 of a scheduled 18-game season, it finally folded.

 

USFL (1983-85): The United States Football League didn't directly compete with the NFL, playing its games in the spring and summer. Similar to the WFL - and, frankly, most of these pro leagues - money was a problem from the start for some franchises, and it was self-inflicted. With no salary cap, teams splurged trying to bring in big-name talent.

After three seasons of successful enough football, the league took a big step after the 1985 season by agreeing to move to a fall schedule, to directly compete with the NFL. The man largely behind the drive? New Jersey Generals' owner Donald Trump. The league filed an antitrust lawsuit, claiming the NFL had a monopoly. The USFL won... and was awarded $1 for its efforts. Out of money, it never played a game in 1986.

 

XFL (2001): Vince McMahon's first foray into professional football was more publicity stunt than real football. Over a decade before concussions became part of the normal discourse, the XFL promoted its rough play, had scantily clad cheerleaders and everything surrounding the actual game had the feel of a then-WWF fight. The eight-team league lasted just one season, with NBC and WWF losing $35 million each before the league closed its doors.

It did, however, bring the skycam to the world of television.

 

United Football League (2009-12): The longest-lasting of all these leagues, the UFL tried to take former NFL players and ex-college stars to draw interest in the fall. Between high school, college and the NFL, it lost that battle.

Though it lasted for three full seasons and part of a fourth, the league never had more than five teams active at once - including the Hartford Colonials, who played at Rentschler Field. In October 2012 the league ran out of money and ceased operations immediately, with plans to return in fall 2013. Those plans went unfulfilled.

 

Alliance of American Football (2019): The Alliance had the right idea, saying from the beginning it hoped to become a minor league system to the NFL. The spring league debuted last February to decent ratings, but those quickly waned as the novelty wore off. 

Almost immediately there were reports of financial woes. After just a few weeks there were reports the league needed a bailout to make payroll. Just nine days after its first games were played, Hurricanes' owner Tom Dundon invested $250 million into the AAF and received a majority share. It quickly turned into a bad investment, and by April 2 - just seven weeks into playing football - the league folded. When it filed for bankruptcy it had $11.3 million in assets, $536,000 in cash and a whopping $48.3 million in liabilities.

XFL (2020): Back with a very toned down message compared to its 2001 sister league, the XFL looked much better when it debuted in February. After just five weeks, though, it had to shut down like everyone else because of COVID-19. Unlike the much more established leagues, though, such a young operation couldn't withstand not playing. On April 10 it suspended operations, and this week filed for bankruptcy.

Like in 2001, however, it brought innovations that at some point could come to the NFL, notably the kickoff rule and the in-game interviews with players and coaches.