A League of Their Own

Dead sports leagues live again online.

With all the money and excitement generated by the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball it’s easy to forget that professional sports leagues don’t usually survive over the long haul. The United States Football League (USFL, 1983-86), World Football League (WFL, 1974-75), American Basketball Association (ABA, 1967-76) and World Hockey Association (WHA, 1972-79) are all pro leagues that fell by the wayside within the last 25 years. But thanks to their colorful histories, these leagues—and others—live on through dedicated tribute Web sites.

As one might expect, stability was not the hallmark of any of these leagues. In the WHA, things were so touch-and-go that four of the 10 charter franchises moved before the inaugural season. In its seven-year history, no more than 14 clubs competed at one time, yet the league registered more than 30 different franchises—four of which ceased operations in mid-season.

Problems weren’t isolated to the front office. Catastrophes took place on the ice as well. The Philadelphia Blazers first-ever home game was canceled when the Zamboni destroyed a portion of the ice. And, in the ’75 playoffs Calgary Cowboys forward Rick Jodzio instigated an infamous bench-clearing brawl by attacking Marc Tardif of the Quebec Nordiques. Tardif suffered severe head and brain injuries (not to mention the obligatory loss of teeth) and Jodzio later pled guilty to the attack in a court of law.

Turbulent times coupled with ill-conceived innovations were the norm for the World Football League, which lasted only two seasons. Some teams didn’t even make it that long, including the Chicago Fire, which forfeited its last game in ’74 following 10 consecutive losses. WFL players and coaches never knew what to expect. In the two days before the first and only post-season tournament, the league revised the playoff format three times. And before the 1975 campaign, owners considered instituting a wacky rule that would require offensive lineman, receivers and backs to wear different color pants, with defensive lineman, linebackers and backs also required to don contrasting colors.

Of all the tribute sites, the most colorful and comprehensive is remembertheaba.com, which pays homage to the ABA—best known for its distinctive red, white & blue ball. Featuring an “ABA Fashion Guide” and an “Only in the ABA” section, the site highlights the eccentricities of a league that frequently orchestrated silly off-the-court events in an effort to attract attention. One franchise—the Floridians (1968-72)—changed team colors three times, called six different arenas “home,” and possessed ball girls who were arguably more famous than the team.

Perhaps the most notable link on the “Remember the ABA” site is one to aba2000.com—the official site of the ABA. That’s right, the ABA is coming back in November of this year, with at least eight teams and a 60 game schedule. Like its forefather, the new (and presumably improved) ABA will feature its own innovations. For instance, the players won’t have to be concerned about illegal defense or fouling out, and teams will receive a bonus point for every basket scored following the creation of a turnover in the opponents’ backcourt. Referring to the spirit of the original ABA and the parity that it soon achieved with the NBA the official site notes, “History is about to repeat itself.” Hopefully, not including the part about the league folding.