Greg Fennell’s IMHO: These rebel leagues of the past had a cause

  • Greg Fennell. Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • Jim Kelly, football player quaterback for the Houston Gamblers, in action against Oakland Invaders on March 10, 1985. (AP Photo) ap file photograph

Valley News Sports Editor
Published: 2/13/2019 9:55:21 PM
Modified: 2/13/2019 9:55:29 PM

Confession time: I’m a wicked big rebel sports league nerd. Always have been. Always will be.

That guy who successfully tried to pick up World Hockey Association games on his AM radio when he was a teenager? Me.

The person who spent North American Soccer League nights (and occasional humid afternoons) in D.C.? Me.

The goofball who paced for three hours in an air-conditioned common room at a Utah campground watching a United States Football League semifinal game in the summer of 1985, instead of touring the adjacent Zion National Park? Me. (In my defense, it was about 100 degrees outside at the time.)

With that resume, you’d think I’d be excited about the arrival of the Alliance of American Football, one of several new gridiron leagues that are scheduled (finances willing) to sprout up in the next two years.

I’m not. It’s just not the same.

Blame old age and nostalgia, but reality also deserves some responsibility. The AAF — or as former Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser likes to pronounce it, the AAAAAAAAF — wasn’t designed to compete with the NFL. It’s meant to complement it by giving athletes seeking big-time football-playing opportunities a chance to show what they can do. And that’s fine.

But back in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s — yes, the dark ages, wise guy — rebel leagues such as the WHA and USFL challenged the norm instead. All ultimately failed because the boats they tried to rock were too big to sink. But they fondly remain in my memory, and that of the internet, because they still changed their rivals for the better.

Kind reader, I present five rebel-league cases, in descending order of their ultimate importance to their respective sports, which molded our current pro landscape:

USA/NPSL: The United Soccer Association and National Professional Soccer League were rivals of each other without another giant to slay, but without them soccer in this country wouldn’t be where it is today.

The two leagues hatched in the wake of American interest in England’s World Cup win in 1966, which birthed what passed for major-league soccer in the United States a year later. (Upper Valley note: The only USA final, in 1967, included a Scottish goalkeeper, Bobby Clark, who would later make Dartmouth College men’s soccer nationally relevant.)

The two associations merged in 1968 to form the North American Soccer League. It’s like playing Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon from there: With no NASL, no Pele; with no Pele, no explosion of interest in the mid-1970s; without interest, no attempt to bring the World Cup here in 1994; with no World Cup, no Major League Soccer two years after that.

We now have a competitive national league whose players are drawing eight-figure transfer fees from major European clubs and a national team that can compete against any in the world, at least when it’s not tripping on its own shoelaces. And it all started with two nondescript rivals more than 50 years ago.

USFL: Aside from providing top-end football players leverage against the big, bad NFL, the United States Football League delivered three lasting contributions to the gridiron.

The first was the run-and-shoot offense — the one-back, four-receiver, pass-happy set innovative coach Darrel “Mouse” Davis used with the Houston Gamblers and Denver Gold that presaged today’s wide-open pro game. The second was the 1985 adoption of instant replay, which is now integral to professional football now (although Saints fans will debate its usefulness). The last was the knowledge that New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump had no business running a football team or league, let alone a nation, and whose character flaws of more than 30 years ago are still obvious today.

ABA: Can you imagine what basketball was like before the 3-point shot? Possibly not, if you’re younger than, say, 50.

While various levels of the game horsed around with the 3-pointer in the 1940s and ’50s, it gained popularity when the American Basketball Association introduced it for its inaugural campaign in 1967. Even in professional leagues that banned zone defenses, the new long-distance line opened the game up for smaller players with accurate shots, ultimately — but not entirely — hastening the demise of the traditional 7-foot center. The ABA faded away after its 1976 merger with the NBA, which adopted its own arc three years later. The 3-pointer is now an essential part of basketball everywhere.

WHA: I put the World Hockey Association above the ABA for how it shaped its rival for two reasons: The WHA had an effect on multiple levels … and because hockey is cooler than basketball.

NHL owners in the 1960s and ’70s defined the term draconian, holding players’ rights for the lengths of their careers even when they didn’t have active contracts, limiting athletes’ abilities to earn what they deserved. The arrival of the 12-team WHA in 1972 changed that, starting with the $1 million contract Bobby Hull signed to leave the Chicago Black Hawks for the Winnipeg Jets that year.

In no particular order, the WHA also delivered regular-season overtime, quality players from countries other than Canada, meaningful regular-season games against international foes, franchises in the south (Houston, Phoenix, Birmingham) and teenage superstars (Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Mike Gartner, ad infinitum). The icing on the cake: the Minnesota Fighting Saints’ Carlson brothers, the inspiration for the Hanson brothers of Slap Shot fame.

AFL: I’ll bet you spent the first Sunday of the month watching the New England Patriots win another NFL title, whether you love or hate them. You probably hosted or visited a big party, or you headed to your local watering hole to bear witness. If you did, or even if you didn’t, give a silent thank you to the American Football League.

The AFL wasn’t the first rival to challenge the NFL, but it ended up as the most effective. It put football in cities the NFL ignored (San Diego, Denver, Miami, Kansas City, Boston, Oakland). It offered a more exciting and offense-focused style of play. It arrived at a time when television was just beginning to shape the presentation of the game. Like the WHA and hockey, the AFL’s presence drove up salaries and led to talent raids that forced the rivals to merge in 1966 and begin the AFL-NFL World Championship Game — you know it now as the Super Bowl — in ’67. With no AFL, you’d have been watching someone else in Atlanta earlier this month, assuming there was something worth watching at all.

As the AAF commences and other imitators like the XFL prepare for the future, there unfortunately will never be another period of rival leaguery like the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Sport has become too big of a business; the amount of money that would be required to form a new ABA, WHA or USFL today makes it impossible. There are so many ways to disseminate game information — websites, streaming, podcasts, email newsletters, fantasy leagues — and current leagues (not unlike certain despots) can control a message and manipulate an audience to suit their own purposes.

For fans, that’s too bad. True rebel leagues may not have had legitimate shots at enduring, but they showed there’s something better than the status quo. They made their games fun again.

AAF-ter all, isn’t that what being a sports fan should be about?

Greg Fennell can be reached at or 603-727-3226.

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