Spring Football: A Very Abridged History


by Ryan McCarthy, BBM Staff Writer

The Barcelona Dragons were a founding member of the WLAF
After Sunday’s Super Bowl, professional football goes dormant until NFL training camp begins in late July.

Or does it?

This weekend, the Alliance of American Football begins its inaugural season as eight teams will play in cities across the South and Western U.S. to satisfy the absence left by the NFL. Next year, Vince McMahon will make a second attempt at launching a pro football league with the second version of the XFL in eight cities.

This is not the first time that professional football has been tried in the spring. The AAF has had me reminiscing about leagues of Spring football past: The United States Football League and The World League of American Football, later named NFL Europe. (I'll shoot thoughts on the XFL reboot in another column.)

The USFL 

On March 6, 1983, the United States Football League kicked off. At first, the league did not want or need to compete with the NFL. Its primary purpose was to continue America’s increasing fervor for professional football. The league was very successful both on the field, in the stands, and on television during the 1983 season. But then the league made the first of several very unwise decision: vast and fast expansion. In 1984, the league would jump from 12 to 18 franchises. One of the league’s charter franchises, the New Jersey Generals, was sold to New York City real estate tycoon – and future POTUS – Donald Trump. He and other owners made the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad decision to try to compete with the NFL.

By the end of the 1984 season, the league hemorrhaged money despite securing a major television deal with ABC and ESPN. The league was forced to have several franchises relocate or merge and two teams folded. It continued on for the 1985 season, but cancelled the 1986 season as the league waited out the verdict in their antitrust suit against the NFL. Despite winning their case, the league won a total of $3.76 and would fold altogether. (For a more detailed history of the league, check out Jeff Pearlman’s excellent book Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL.)

The league still produced breakout stars that would later go on to play in the NFL such as Herschel Walker (who broke the professional rushing record in 1985 with 2,411 yards), Jim Kelly, Steve Young, Bobby Hebert, Nate Newton, Irv Eatman, Kelvin Bryant, Sam Mills, Sean Landetta, and Reggie White. Kelly, Young, and White are members of the NFL Hall of Fame. 

The World League of American Football (aka NFL Europe) 

In 1991, the NFL launched their own spring football league with a dual goal to create a developmental league while expanding game globally. The World League of American Football (WLAF) debuted on March 23, 1991 with three franchises based in Europe, one in Canada, and six in the United States. The European teams were remarkably better than their American counterparts both on the field and in the stands. The London Monarchs defeated the Barcelona Dragons, 21-0 in the first World Bowl at Wembley Stadium.

Even with the emerging might of the NFL behind it, the WLAF lost money. Undaunted, it continued on for another season in 1992. The Sacramento Surge, lead by future CFL all-time leading rusher Mike Pringle, defeated the Orlando Thunder, lead by future Detroit Lion QB Scott Mitchell, 21-17 at Olympic Stadium in Montreal. Two franchises – Sacramento and San Antonio – withdrew their affiliation after the season and applied for CFL franchises as the league expanded South. Other league investors would sell their shares and the NFL suspended the WLAF’s operations.

The NFL reactivated the World League in 1995 and rebranded it as NFL Europe. The charter European teams in Barcelona, Frankfurt, and London were joined by new franchises in Amsterdam, Dusseldorf, and Edinburgh. NFL Europe expanded into primarily German cities with teams in Berlin, Cologne, and Hamburg before ceasing operations altogether after the 2007 season.

Notable players who would go on to play in the NFL are Kurt Warner (NFL HOF Class of 2017), Jake Delhomme, Doug Marrone (now head coach in Jacksonville), Adam Vinatieri, David Akers, Jason Garrett, Brad Johnson, James Harrison, Dante Hall, and Jon Kitna. Actor Terry Crews and professional wrestlers Bill Goldberg and John “Bradshaw” Layfield also played in the league.

Will the AAF fizzle into obscurity and memories like Football Leagues of Springs Past and leave us with notable players that could make a name for themselves in the NFL someday? Or will the AAF – and for that matter, XFL 2.0 – be the success that the USFL and NFL Europe once hoped to be?

It might take some time to catch on, but I am hopeful that Spring football will finally be successful.

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