A very good Saturday morning, Uni Watch readers. I hope everyone has had a pleasant week.
I’m rejoined today by the inimitable Chris Diamond, who graced us with another of his fantastic “What if…” pieces a couple weeks ago, What if the AFL Never Existed (Part 1). Chris is back today with Part 2 and it’s a doozy. I’ll just turn it over to him right now as he asks…
What if the AFL Never Existed — Part 2
by Chris Diamond
In Part 1 of this piece, I posed the question “What if the AFL Never Existed?”. I looked at the period from 1959 to 1968 where the NFL would then still be the only pro league and what might have happened based on contemporary documents that show the NFL’s pre-AFL expansion plans. By 1970, this alt-reality NFL consists of 16 teams just like the real one, albeit with some different cities and different owners.
But unlike reality, the other 10 teams of the AFL don’t exist and the south and mid-west have no teams. In 1960 the NFL expansion committee decided for expansion. But now, with an agreement with Marshall’s Washington not to place teams in the south still in place they vote against any further expansion in the 1970s. Because of population growth there are large cities without teams that could support one. But with no NFL expansion, potential owners are left with no option but to create a rival league. But what would this new league look like?
In reality there was a pro league in the 1970s to rival the NFL – the World Football League (WFL). The actual WFL was a sorry affair filled with insolvent owners and poor planning that lasted barely two seasons. But it gives us an idea of what a 70s era league teams might look like, particularly that a lot of its teams were in the south, an area in this alt-reality that is empty. So for this What-If? I will imagine a more solvent and better run WFL begins play in 1970 – mirroring the rise of the AFL in reality but 10 years later. I’ve kept the look of any real WFL teams in a given city to give us something familiar to hang on to. I’ve assumed the alt-reality WFL puts teams in these real WFL cities – Anaheim, Charlotte, Birmingham, Orlando, Jacksonville, Memphis, New York, San Antonio. All non-NFL markets apart from the two marquee areas of LA and NY.
But what about cities that in real life by 1970 had teams in the AFL or NFL but don’t have them here? Which of these might have been in this alt-WFL? As I said in Part 1, in 1960 Miami had already been identified as a prime candidate for NFL expansion so it is natural that a WFL team would be there, but what would they be called? The Dolphins name was simply pulled out of a hat, so there isn’t much momentum there. Prior to the real-life Dolphins, there was an AAFC team called the Miami Seahawks so here I go with that instead.
In real life the NFL gave a franchise to Atlanta in 1965 (to start in 1966) directly to counter the AFL, so it makes sense Atlanta would also be a choice for the WFL here. The Falcons name came from a name-the-team contest, but unlike the Dolphins, it was chosen by the owner so I stick with it here. I’ve given the helmet more gold than the original as I felt it now more evenly reflects the Georgia/Georgia Tech colours than the actual helmet.
In 1966 in real life, the final pre-merger NFL expansion franchise was awarded to New Orleans to being play in 1967. The circumstances around the choice are mired in the overall merger deal and pacifying certain congressmen. But it would be odd for the WFL to not put a team in such a large city too so they make it in. The real life Saints are named for the fact that they were created on All-Saints Day, which is quite random. So here I chose name reflecting the musical roots more – the Jazzmen. I also gave them the official Mardi Gras colours of Green, Purple and Gold, but stick with the fleur-de-lys logo.
Finally, what of the other missing cities – Boston, Cincinnati, Denver, Kansas City, Oakland and San Diego? When the real WFL was being planned, there was going to be a team in Boston called the Bulldogs. They merged with the NY Stars before play began, but here I assume they were a WFL team – a local rival to the Stars. The other cities don’t get teams… for now.
So the alt-reality WFL begins play in 1970 with 12 teams in two divisions east and west. It steers clear of NFL markets for the most part to avoid competition for fans and so is south heavy. For the next few years the WFL and NFL compete like the AFL and NFL did in the ‘60s in real life. By 1974 the success of the WFL leads them to look to expand.
Having an effective monopoly on pro football in the south, the WFL now looks to press its advantage and expand in to the gap between the eastern teams and the west coast. They announce teams for Kansas City and Denver to begin play in 1975. Finally stung into action, the NFL retaliates by offering franchises to both potential WFL groups (much like the real NFL did with Dallas and Minnesota in the ‘60s). Both cities announce they accept the NFL offers and the WFL is forced to look elsewhere. They choose San Diego and Phoenix instead, giving more local competition with the Southern Cal Suns who are isolated on the west coast. But what would these four new teams look like? We are now 15 years distant from the split of our branch of alt-history so it’s less likely they would be the same as the teams we know from then.
In real life, the Truman Sports Complex in Kansas City was built to house the Chiefs and Royals. Here the Chiefs don’t exist because the Texans never relocated there. In this reality, the group bidding for the KC franchise owns the Royals and are trying to get a franchise for the new football stadium. In a mirror to St. Louis having the football and baseball Cardinals, the new NFL team is also named the Royals. I have given them a logo based on the Royals new City Connect logo as it has real ‘70s vibes and feels like something that could have been designed back then.
The Denver Broncos were charter members of the AFL and their name was chosen in a name-the-team contest so doesn’t feel inevitable. So here the franchise instead takes the name Rockies and has a look and colours based on the Flag of Denver.
So by 1975, the NFL has grown to 18 teams and no longer has a huge gap between the eastern and western teams. But of course it still has no teams in the south due to the agreement to not expand there. But the WFL has made that moot and because of its success it isn’t going anywhere and the competition is hurting owners more than any possible loss of territorial revenue. Note – to reflect the more modern era, I’ve changed to 70s style helmets from now on.
From 1961 to 2016, the Chargers were San Diego’s team. The name was inspired by owner Barron Hilton’s charge card (mixed with lightning and horse mixed metaphors) and was very specific to him so it’s unlikely another team would use it. In this alt-reality WFL, the San Diego franchise takes the name Tomcats. There is a strong naval presence (Navy and Marines) and tradition in the area, and in 1974 the F-14 Grumman Tomcat fighter became operational with units based at NAS Miramar north of San Diego. The logo features a grey/black striped cat so the team take those as team colours.
In real life it took until 1988 for an NFL team to arrive in Arizona when the Cardinals relocated there. But by 1975 Phoenix was the 20th most populous city and Sun Devil Stadium had just been expanded to 57k – enough for a pro team. The Flag of Phoenix is unsurprisingly a Phoenix! But calling the team Phoenixes would be too much (although it works for the LA Angels!). A nice synonym is Firebird (and of course the real-life minor league baseball Phoenix Giants changed their name to that in 1986). I’ve gone with copper and shades of red as the team colours as it always seems to go with Arizona based teams.
So by 1975 we have an 14 team WFL (now split into three divisions) that is competing with the NFL in the same was as the AFL did in the 1960s in reality. The alt-reality NFL didn’t learn from its positive experience with expansion in the 1960s and is now paying the price for that. The same circumstances that caused the real AFL and NFL to come to a merger agreement in 1965 in reality would likely be repeated here with the alt-reality WFL and NFL. So that is what I assume happens – the league agrees to merge in 1980. The two new teams adopt a new coloured facemask prototype instead of the standard grey (as the KC Chiefs did in 1974 in reality). With the addition of two new teams using them, the future looking WFL transitions en-masse to using coloured facemasks league wide.
Now we reach 1980 in this alt-reality with a merged NFL-WFL. The league retains the NFL name but incorporates the WFL logo into a new version of the shield. The league has 32 teams – four more than the real NFL had at the time – the same number as we have now. Due to the uneven franchise distribution of the WFL, no attempt to keep them in a separate conference is made and the league sticks with Eastern and Western Conferences, but with four divisions each now. Graphically I’ve followed the observed changes in the real NFL fairly closely but with a few exceptions. In 1975 the whole WFL changed to coloured facemasks and this is adopted by the whole merged league in 1980 (in the same way that names on the backs of uniforms were started by the AFL and copied league wide after the merger in 1980 in real life). Unlike real-life the Giants stick with the “disco” NY because the Stars have NY on their helmet and it would seem like giving up the city to them. The Grizzles, Wings, and Blazers update their helmets, the Blazers because dark blue helmets in Florida is a bad idea!
As the new merged league moves forward into the 1980s, what will happen? There are 32 teams (the same as now) but there are also still quite a few large cities without teams – Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Seattle, Nashville, Oakland, Columbus to name a few. It seems likely that relocation may happen, especially for teams with old/small/empty stadiums and/or owners with itchy feet – Baltimore Colts, San Antonio Wings, Houston Oilers, St. Louis Cardinals, LA Rams, Boston Bulldogs. I look at what might happen going forward in Part 3!
Thanks for reading, and I look forward to your comments, Chris 😊
Thanks, Chris! Another great think piece and looking forward to the forthcoming Part 3! Readers? What do you think?