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On This Date in Sports December 5, 1974: The Fate of the World

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The Birmingham Americans edge the Florida Blazers, 22-21 in the only World Bowl, claiming the inaugural WFL Championship. Founded by the same group that started the ABA and WHA, the World Football League was started as a rival for the NFL. The league was able to lure NFL stars but failed to draw fans as they were unable to find a television partner. The league would fold in the middle of the 1975 season.

When it came to renegade leagues, there was no more significant figure than Gary Davidson, who was behind the NBA rival American Basketball Association and the NHL rival World Hockey Association. Looking to challenge the NFL, Davidson created the World Football League. Much like the ABA, the WFL went with a more colorful orange ball and had several rules to help bring more fun and excitement. One of these rules was the elimination of the PAT kick, as touchdowns were worth seven points with teams running what was called an action point for an eighth point. Instead of chains, first downs were measured with a device called a dickrod, named after inventor George Dicker. The dickrod would be placed two yards away from a first down spot making it easier to determine if a first down was achieved.

There were 12 teams in the WFL, including one planned for Toronto, called the Toronto Northmen. That team would never see the field as the CFL successful blocked the league from ever playing a game in Canada, the team instead became the Memphis Southmen. To make its mark, several WFL teams tried to lure stars away from the NFL. This included the Chicago Wind, who nearly got Joe Namath to leave the New York Jets in 1975 before re-signing in New York at the last minute. The Southmen were successful in breaking up the Miami Dolphins as they signed Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick, and Paul Warfield. Though all three would not join the rival league until 1975.

The WFL was plagued with problems as they were unable to land a good television deal, having most games air in syndication on Eddie Einhorn’s TVS network. The Houston Texans became the Shreveport Steamer in the middle of the season, while New York Stars became the Charlotte Hornets. In Week 14, both the Detroit Wheels and Jacksonville Sharks folded. The Chicago Fire meanwhile forfeited the final game as they were unable to make payroll.

The playoffs were nearly canceled as the league began running out of money. Eventually, a six-team playoff would be held, with two teams from each division qualifying as the top two sides had a bye to the semifinals. The Birmingham Americans beat the Hawaiians 22-19 in one semifinal, while Florida Blazers beat the Memphis Southmen, who had the best record in the WFL regular season 18-15.

Initially, the World Bowl was to be played at Gator Bowl, home to the Jacksonville franchise that folded. Instead, the game would be played at Birmingham’s Legion Field. Trouble still surrounded the game as the Birmingham Americans coached by Jack Gotta had not been paid in several weeks. The Americans took a vote on the eve of the game and decided to play despite the league’s financial peril. The league promised to give the Americans a portion of the gate receipts, as the team was unable to make the payment due to an IRS lien.

After a scoreless first quarter, the Americans scored twice in the second quarter as Joe Profit had one-yard run, and Art Cantrelle had a four-yard run to build a 15-0 lead. In the third quarter, Birmingham extended the lead to 22-0 when George Mira connected with Bob Brown on a 26-yard pass. The Florida Blazers coached by Jack Pardee made a furious rally in the fourth quarter, as Tommy Reamon scored on a 39-yard pass by Bob Davis. Greg Latta later caught a 49-yard pass from Davis, but the Blazers were unable to get the action point on either touchdown. Later, Rod Foster had a 76-yard punt return but missed the action point again as the Birmingham Americans held on for a 22-21 win.

Financial troubles continued in 1975 as the WFL despite adding star players from the Miami Dolphins was unable to complete the season, folding on October 22nd days before Week 13 was set to begin.