You’d think MLB, NFL, NBA and the NHL would be more then enough sports leagues for any sports fan but every ten years or so, a bunch of rich guys get together and decide they can do it better then the big four, but they never can. Why? A bunch of reasons like not having a big enough war chest, poor market research and out of control owner’s egos. The good news is that we, as sports fans, always win. Why do you think that the annual year end worst of lists are way more popular then the best of lists? Because we know how to appreciate a spectacular failure. We’re second only to the Germans in this regard. Before everyone writes letters complaining that we’re number one, Germany has a word, “schadenfreude” which literally means joy in the misfortune of others.
Failed sports leagues have many good points, like giving unheralded players a chance to play. They’re usually much more willing to try new, innovative things (the 3 point shot was invented in the ABA), then the established leagues. But my favorite part of new sports leagues is that towards the end, when things are really going south, the commissioner insists that everything is going great when they’re not. It’s like reading a yearbook for a bad team. For instance, the 1980 Mets yearbook insisted that it was going to be Pat Zachary’s year. Pat ended up going 6 and 10 that year. Here’s the 6 best failed sports leagues.
6. Coloured Hockey League (1895-1930)
The Coloured Hockey League was an all-black league founded in Nova Scotia which featured teams across Canada’s maritime provinces until 1930. I once co-write a short film about what I thought was a fictitious league called “The Negro Hockey League: The Other NHL” How did I not know this existed? Probably because it was in Canada more than a hundred years ago.
There were twelve teams with over four hundred players, all of Caribbean heritage whose fathers and grandfather’s were runaway slaves. The league can lay claim to such innovations as being the first league to allow the goalie to cover a puck. Some hockey historians credit Eddie Martin of the Halifax Eureka with the first slapshot.
5. American Basketball Association (1967-1976)
Arguably the most successful failed league in that four of their teams (the Pacers, Spurs, Nets and Nuggets) were absorbed into the NBA and three of those teams won their respective divisions their first year. More importantly, it opened up the game of basketball and made it more entertaining for the fans.
As mentioned earlier, the ABA invented the 3-point shot and the slam dunk contest. Plus they were the first to build an entire weekend around it’s All-Star game. In the NBA, the All-Star game was held mid-week with very little publicity. The ABA showcased such talent as Dr. J, Dan Issel, Artis Gilmore, George Gervin and Moses Malone.
Not every idea is a home run and the ABA had it’s fair share of strikeouts, like the idea of a regional franchise, the T.A.M.s which was owned by former Oakland A’s owner, Charlie O Finley. T.A.M.s stood for Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi. As Frederick the Great once said, “to defend everything is to defend nothing.” Because of the itinerant nature of the TAMS, no territory felt any connection to the team.
But, after ten years of fighting the good fight and losing a lot of money, the NBA finally forced the ABA to its knees. The NBA selected the four teams it wanted and the rest were forced to fold. Ozzie and Dan Silna, the owners of the Spirits of St. Louis, struck a deal where they would get a one seventh share of the four former ABA teams television money in perpetuity. As of 2008, the Silna’s have made $186 million. Not surprisingly, the Silna’s have nothing but fond memories of the ABA, as do many others.
4. World Hockey Association (1971-1979)
The WHA had a novel idea of placing teams in cities that didn’t have NHL franchises like Cincinnati, Houston, San Francisco and Dayton. What they failed to take into account was that maybe there was a reason why those cities didn’t have NHL teams.
In the cities where the NHL competed directly with the WHL, the NHL aggressively tried to screw over the new league. The New York Raiders, which was supposed to be the league’s flagship franchise, encountered many problems like not being able to get a decent arena to play in. The Raiders were bounced from Madison Square Garden to the Nassau Coliseum to Cherry Hill, New Jersey where they were rechristened the Jersey Knights. The Cherry Hill arena was slanted, so after most passes, the puck would fly above the ice plus there was no Plexiglas surrounding the rink, just a chain link fence.
The WHA did manage to steal some key talent from the NHL, but they vastly overpaid. Derek Sanderson was paid $2.6 million which made him the highest paid athlete in sports. One thing in the WHA’s in the favor is that they gave more superstars then any upstart league. Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Rod Langway and Rick Vaive, among others, got their start on WHA ice.
By 1979, it was all over. The NHL took in the Whalers, Oilers, Jets and Nordiques. All four teams had different levels of success, with the Edmonton Oilers becoming a dynasty but the other three became respectable in time. If nothing else, the WHA allowed NHL legend Gordie Howe to play on the same line as his son, Mark.
3. USFL (1982-1985)
So many lessons here, like if you take the time to come up with a plan you should try and stick to it, along with never having Donald Trump as your partner. This league was a spectacular failure in many ways.
The USFL was conceived in 1965 by David Dixon. The idea of the league was if you love something, why wouldn’t you love it all-year long? Football in the spring was an interesting idea. Dixon was determined not to make the same mistakes as the WFL, which competed directly with the NFL, but without deep pockets or a television contract. His league would be modestly budgeted with a television contract. Both ABC and a fledgling ESPN signed on and Hershel Walker signed with the New Jersey Generals so things were looking pretty good.
During the off season, the owner of the L.A. Express went bankrupt and turned his franchise over to the league. Other team ownership problems crept up and there was a lot of turn-over. Plus the USFL did something that was never part of the plan, they got into a talent war with the NFL signing Steve Young, Reggie White, Doug Flutie, Jim Kelly, etc. While ABC and ESPN were thrilled, it caused the league to lose money at a much faster rate then was originally budgeted. Then came “The Donald.”
On paper, it seemed like having Trump would be a blessing. He was rich, charismatic and the media loved to cover him. Problem was he wasn’t much of a team player. For instance, while the value of buying a USFL expansion franchise was ten million, Trump bragged that he hadn’t paid anywhere close to that for the Generals, in essence undercutting the value of the league as a whole. USFL commissioner Harry Usher begged Trump to shut his yapper but that proved to be a fruitless exercise. Then the Donald decided that playing football in the spring was “a joke” and that they should compete directly with the NFL in the fall. Clearly, he was angling for his team to be taken into the NFL and for his partners that would be left behind, well, that was their problem.
Huge mistake number two was filing an anti-trust suit against the NFL. While a lot of sports fan know that the USFL was awarded $1 in damages (tripled to $3 because of anti-trust laws) from the NFL, what they may not know was that, before the suit, ABC offered each USFL team $67 million per year to stick with playing in the spring. So, to summarize, each of the remaining eight USFL teams gave up $67 million for forty seven cents. Kind of a bad decision in hindsight. Because of the puniness of their award, the league closed its doors officially in 1987.
Still, the USFL does have some things it can point to with pride. They were the first football league to have instant replay as well as the two point conversion and they gave a lot of very good football players like Reggie White their first opportunity to play pro ball. In fact, there is a movement to have USFL statistics counted for Hall of Fame eligibility. Plus, USFL footage is used in TV shows that don’t want to pay NFL or NCAA prices like “1st and 10” and “SpongeBob and SquarePants” and you can’t put a price on that. Well, you can, but it’s pretty low.
2. XFL (2001)
In 2000, Vince McMahon was on quite a role. The WWE was the highest rated show on UPN and it did very well on NBC. Dick Ebersol, NBC Sports chairman, considered Vince the greatest marketeer since P.T. Barnum which is why he decided to partner up to create the XFL.
How was the XFL different from the NFL or the “No Fun League?” It would be more “in your face” and “extreme” which are code words for “we have no idea.” One of the “innovations” was having sideline reporters ask the cheerleaders if they did “the wild thing” that night with any of the players. They also had “fun” team names like the Outlaws, Rage, Hitmen and Enforcers.
Also, instead of the traditional coin flip to determine first possession, the XFL had the referees place the ball on the 50 yard line and then have a player from each team scramble from it’s own 30 to get it (pictured above). Not coincidentally, this led to the first injury in the XFL. Congratulations, Hassan Shamsid-Deed, you just made sports history! At the start, the ratings were through the roof. By the end, the ratings were abysmal. The season mercifully ended on April 21st, 2001 during “The Million Dollar Game.” After the game, Vince McMahon said that the league was in great shape and would definitely be back next year. See “Pat Zachary” in the second paragraph.
All told, NBC and the WWE lost a reported thirty five million dollars and the XFL was ranked number three on TV Guide’s worst television shows of all-time and ESPN ranked it number two on it’s biggest busts of all-time list, just behind Ryan Leaf. Now that I think about it, how did Ryan Leaf not play in this league?
1. The Continental League (1960)
How can the Continental baseball league, which almost no one has heard of, be number one on the list of best failed sports leagues? Because to be the best failure, you have to be the biggest failure. The Continental League never played a game. That’s a record that can be tied, but never beaten for a failed sports league. So, what happened?
The Continental League was the brainchild of New York attorney, William Shea. The Dodgers and Giants had decamped for California leaving a void in New York. Shea wanted another team in New York and a bunch of teams in the mid-west. Houston, Denver, Toronto and Dallas were targeted by the new league and new owners stepped up.
Major League Baseball caught wind of this and preempted the Continental league by awarding teams to Houston and a National League team for New York, the Mets. Since getting a National League team in New York was Shea’s goal in the first place, Shea allowed the Continental League to fade away. So, in it’s own way, the Continental League was very successful.