American’s love their football. It’s just that what they call football, and what most other nations call football are very different things. To an American, football is played with an egg shaped ball, by teams of armour clad men, who often run with the ball under their arm to the other side of the field.
What we call football, Americans refer to as soccer. Contrary to popular belief, soccer is actually popular in the United States. It’s top flight competition, Major League Soccer, is the fastest growing leagues in the world.
That said, American football still dominates in the United States, with the NFL having a monopoly on the professional game. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been other leagues. Several have tried to challenge the NFL’s position, although all but one have succeeded.
That exception is the American Football League, which was founded in 1959 to rival the NFL. The present day NFL’s two conferences (the NFC and AFC) stem from a merger between it and the AFL in 1970.
Here is a look at some of the other leagues that tried to take on the NFL.
Canadian Football League
The Canadian Football League is the only other professional outdoor football league to have succeeded in North America. It was founded in 1958, and has a total of nine teams. Like the NFL, the teams are split into two divisions, with teams competing in a 21-week regular season which is followed by playoffs. The CFL’s Grey Cup is equivalent to the Super Bowl in the United States. Like the Super Bowl, bookmakers accept futures bets on The Grey Cup throughout pre-season and when the action gets underway.
The CFL does not play American football though. It plays to Canadian football rules, which although very similar, have an extra player and a slightly longer and wider field. There is also one less down, with three instead of four. This is perhaps the biggest reason why the CFL has been able to coexist with the NFL.
The CFL even tried to expand into the United States in the early 1990s, but this was quickly reversed. The first team was the Sacramento Gold Miners in 1993, with the Las Vegas Posse, Baltimore Stallions, and Shreveport Pirates joining the league in 1994. Two more joined in 1995, and a separate division was created for them.
Just one team, the Baltimore Stallions had any commercial or sporting success, and all US teams left the league from the 1996 season.
United States Football League
The USFL began life in 1982 and was intended to operate after the NFL had held the Super Bowl. This meant that there would be no direct competition that would result in fans splitting their attention between the two leagues.
The plan for the USFL had been in development in 1965, and in that time the league’s owner, David Dixon, had managed to secure a national broadcasting contract with ABC and ESPN.
The league got off to a good start, with 18 teams and some top quality players, including Herschel Walker and Jim Kelly. It attracted praise from fans and critics, and TV broadcasters were offering increased sums.
The plan to schedule games in the spring instead of autumn worked well for the USFL until 1986. Team owners Eddie Einhorn and Donald Trump pushed for the games schedule to be changed to the autumn so that it rivaled the NFL.
This began the league’s downfall. Several teams folded before the season began and the USFL eventually failed in trying to sue the NFL for monopolistic behavior. They technically won, but were only awarded $1 in damages.
Like the USFL, the XFL began its debut 2020 season by playing games after the NFL’s Super Bowl. However, this isn’t the first time the XFL has attempted to rival the NFL’s hegemony.
Launching the first XFL in 2001, the league promised more exciting games, innovation in TV coverage, and putting microphones on the players. The opening game saw record viewing figures, but it slowly dwindled over the season and the league folded after just one year.
The XFL returns in 2020 with several new rules designed to address complaints fan have about the NFL. This includes changes to overtime, a shorter half time, a 25 second play clock and a second forward pass.
Whether the XFL will be a success remains to be seen, if it doesn’t make the same mistakes as the USFL and it addresses the issues around quality of play that it had in its first iteration, it may stand a chance.