Rival Leagues of the NFL
The National Football League is far and away the king when it comes to professional football. The popularity of the NFL has grown immensely in recent years, but it has been the main force in pro football since the 1920s. Every so often, a rival league will form to challenge the NFL’s dominance.
The Canadian Football League and the Arena Football League have both operated for years, but cannot really claim to be rivals of the NFL as they do not compete for the same players and, especially true for the Arena League, there are significant rule differences making the games much different. Both the CFL and the Arena League have developed fans of their own. Likewise, NFL Europa cannot be considered a rival league as it is owned and operated by the NFL itself.
The most recent rival pro football league was Vince McMahon’s XFL of 2001. Lasting only one season, the XFL attempted to loosen up the rules and institute a more modern professional football game. Everything from replacing the opening coin flip with a scramble for a loose ball to less emphasis on the kicking game by eliminating extra points, the XFL did try to mix things up a bit. For a number of reasons, the XFL failed and would not be heard from again.
Prior to the XFL, the United States Football League was the last major alternative professional football league to play in the United States. The USFL played spring football games in 1983, 1984, and 1985. Though the league had major financial and operational issues, it also was able to compete in some areas right along with the NFL. The USFL was able to draft and lure away many hot college prospects from the NFL; Herschel Walker, Steve Young, Reggie White, Doug Flutie, and Jim Kelly all started their professional careers in the USFL. The USFL also was able to lure away some quality NFL players to play in their league; Brian Sipe, Archie Griffin, Doug Williams, and Joe Cribbs. On top of that, the USFL was also the breeding ground for many coaches that would go on to experience success in the NFL like Marv Levy and Jim Mora. Though no teams were absorbed into the NFL when the USFL went under, the upstart league still has had an affect on the NFL. Many rules and in-game features later adopted by the NFL were pioneered by the USFL; instant replay reviews, overhead cameras, players having microphones on them, sideline interviews, and more.
The last upstart professional football league before the USFL would’ve been the World Football League. The WFL was started in 1974 and lasted just one complete season and one partial season, disbanding in 1975. The WFL made a big splash by signing top talent away from NFL teams, the biggest steals being Memphis’ signing of the Dolphins stars Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick, and Paul Warfield prior to the 1975 season. The WFL had little lasting effect on the NFL, other than along with the USFL showing that football could succeed in Tennessee and Jacksonville, both cities that the NFL ended up moving to or expanding to years later. The World League also placed their field goal posts at the back of the endzone, up until that time the NFL had them placed near the front of the endzone, in the same year as the World League debuted (1974) the NFL moved their goal posts to the rear of the endzone.
1960 saw the establishment of the most successful alternative football league to the NFL with the beginning of the American Football League. The AFL was founded by future Hall-of-Fame owner Lamar Hunt with other investors who had wanted to buy NFL expansion teams but were denied. The AFL began with eight teams and eventually grew to include ten clubs, all of which were absorbed into the NFL in 1970 as part of the AFL-NFL merger. The AFL competed toe-to-toe with the NFL for both fans and players. Some of the great AFL players include Joe Namath, Len Dawson, Lance Alworth, Fred Biletnikoff, and more. The AFL aggressively marketed itself to television with the addition of players names on the backs of jerseys and team access granted to reporters and networks. The AFL also promoted a more wide open style of football, while the NFL at the time was focused primarily on a controlled ground game the AFL was throwing bombs down the field to their wide receivers. The AFL proved themselves so adept at both playing the game on the field and marketing the game to the fans that the NFL was left with no other option than to merge with the AFL and integrate the AFL’s history, stats, and records with its own.
In 1946, the All-American Football Conference was started as an alternative to the NFL. The AAFC lasted only four years, but when it folded three of its teams were granted approval to join the NFL; the San Francisco 49ers, the Baltimore Colts, and the Cleveland Browns. Incidentally, the Cleveland Browns won the championship each year in the entire four year existence of the AAFC.
Before World War II, there were a number of startup leagues competing with the NFL, many lasted only one season and then fell by the side. But, after World War II no other professional football league was successful enough on its own to still be a competitive league today on its own. Only the AFL with ten teams and the old AAFC with three teams were ever successful enough to have some of their teams end up joining the National Football League. History shows that this won’t stop people from trying in the future to start new football leagues, where the next one comes from and how it will be different is anybody’s guess.