When Johnny F. Bassett got into bed with the World Football League in the winter of 1974 and conceived the Toronto Northmen, he didn’t figure on Minister of Health and Welfare Marc Lalonde — of all people — threatening to legally abort the new franchise in the House of Commons because the league’s bloodlines weren’t true-blue Canadian.
Johnny F. viewed it as a miscarriage of justice, but Lalonde insisted that the health and welfare of the paternal Canadian Football League was at stake and that if Bassett didn’t go have his baby south of the border he would pass legislation making birth control retroactive for all existing WFL franchises in Canada.
Since Bassett had already spent three million dollars to lure Miami Dolphin superstars Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield from the National Football League, not to mention another $500,000 for 20 lesser players, his labor pains were coming one payday apart. He had no choice but to flee to Tennessee and pick out a new name for the baby — the Memphis Southmen.
Lalonde’s proposed legislation died on the Commons Order Paper when Prime Minister Trudeau called a July election. But Bassett feared Lalonde would ram the bill through the House as soon as parliament reconvened, so he left voluntarily rather than risk having his team turfed out of the country in mid-season.
During his campaign to oust the Northmen from Toronto, Lalonde had referred to Bassett and his partners as “a few entrepreneurs out for a fast buck.” But the Canadian Mint doesn’t print them as fast as Bassett and Co. had to spend them just to keep afloat in the WFL’s sea of red ink during the 1974 season.
With the 1975 season just beginning, I couldn’t resist putting the question to him: “Do you have any messages you’d like me to forward to our esteemed Minister of Health?”
“Yeaah,” snorted Bassett. “Tell him the Toronto Northmen are alive and well in Memphis, no thanks to him.”
“How did it go?” I asked, knowing full well.
“Jeeeezzzzzzuzzzz,” he moaned. “It was a disaster.”
“Well, would it be safe to say you were the healthiest team in the League in 1974?”
“Keeeerist,” he said. “Healthiest team? If it weren’t for the Philadelphia Bell, we would have been an only child by the time the season ended. The other 10 owners bailed out. We were averaging 24,000 fans a game until the damned league fell apart. Toward the end, I wouldn’t have gone to the games myself if I hadn’t owned the team. The last five games we played were against two teams that were bankrupt, one that didn’t have any uniforms, one that said it was quitting before it took the field, and another that couldn’t afford the plane fare to even come to Memphis.”
“Now the big question,” I said. “How much money did you lose?”
“I’ll never tell,” he said. “But to give you some small idea, it cost me $600,000 just to help bail other clubs in the league out of hock. The fact that the league is operating again is one of the great business miracles of all time. We have a new rule this year. To be an owner, you have to have some money. That’s why we have 10 new ones . . .”
How bad were the old owners?
The Detroit Wheel, who went flat midway through the 1974 season, three games to nine, left a sorry list of 122 creditors when the club went bankrupt.
The Jacksonville Sharks went belly-up, but not before owners Douglas and Fran Monaco borrowed $27,000 from their head coach and then fired him.
The Southern California Sun bankrupted their first owner and the man who bailed them out had to be bailed out himself when he pleaded guilty to making false statements in order to obtain bank financing.
The Florida Blazers, whose players performed for nothing in the last 10 weeks of the season after the club ran out of funds, were in such dire straits that the coach had to dig into his own pocket to buy toilet paper for the dressing room. But the Blazers advanced to the World Football League’s semifinals and came from behind a 16-0 half-time deficit to eliminate Bassett’s Memphis Southmen 17-16.
“I’ve had to coach against some hungry football teams in my day,” said Memphis General Manager Leo Cahill. “But that was ridiculous.”
You could always tell a WFL team when it gathered in a local diner for a pregame meal. The pep talk consisted of three words from the team general manager:
“Separate checks, please.”
The Philadelphia Bell had announced crowds of 60,000 for each of their first two home games, but enterprising reporters discovered that 90% of the house had been papered. Presumably, the owner had let the fans in free — hoping they would pay to get out.
The Blazers were finally beaten in the World Bowl by the Birmingham Americans, coached by former Ottawa Rough Rider mentor Jack Gotta.
“I’ll never forget that day,” said Gotta. “We were in the dressing room afterward, quaffing some rented champagne, when some guy comes in with a court order to seize our uniforms because the team was bankrupt.”
“What did the players think of that?” I asked.
“Well,” chuckled Gotta, “they kind of suspected we were in a little financial difficulty when we couldn’t pay them for the last few games.”
Gotta and the Birmingham team are back in business again under new ownership, presumably with new uniforms.
The WFL claims to have guaranteed financial solvency for all 11 clubs in the 1975 season by forcing each owner to bank all players’ salaries and all advance season ticket money before the season began.
This means Bassett had to ante up a cool $700,000 to guarantee the salaries of Csonka, Kiick and Warfield alone.
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