SI Vault
Joe Marshall
August 19, 1974
The WFL may be the World Freebie League in a lot of towns, but in Birmingham real people are paying real dollars to watch their undefeated heroes—including some real players, like a black quarterback
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August 19, 1974

Americans Need No Papergate

The WFL may be the World Freebie League in a lot of towns, but in Birmingham real people are paying real dollars to watch their undefeated heroes—including some real players, like a black quarterback

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First the president interrupted the luncheon to announce his resignation. Then he joined with the press in a platter of cold tuna fish.

That was the scene in Philadelphia's Warwick Hotel last Thursday when John B. Kelly Jr., president of the World Football League's Philadelphia Bell, bowed out in the wake of the so-called papergate scandal. This heinous affair centered around Bell Vice-President Barry Leib's admission that of the 120,253 people the club claimed attended its first two home games, 100,000 or so were let in for free. "Barry Leib basically did a fine job," Kelly said in resigning, "but he should brush up on his mathematics."

Around the WFL, sportswriting gumshoes turned up more giveaways, although nowhere were the numbers as staggering as Philly's. The league's credibility, however, was suddenly very much in question. And so were its resources. In the absence of a major television contract, WFL teams live off gate receipts, and in an operation one newspaper dubbed "the World Freebie League," gate receipts are crucial.

As if to showcase the financial extremes that exist in the WFL, last week's schedule called for a game in Birmingham between the Americans and the Detroit Wheels. On the field the two teams were nearly even, which was surprising in light of the fact that Birmingham's 28-22 win made the Americans the league's only undefeated team and the Wheels the only team to lose all five games. At the bank, on the other hand, Birmingham and Detroit came off like Croesus and the church mouse.

The Americans are clearly the financial success of the WFL, with very close to $1 million in gate receipts in three home games. They have fibbed a little, of course. The announced 40,367 who showed up in a rainstorm to see them play the Wheels was closer to 37,000. Skeptics should have been alerted on opening night five weeks ago, when the P.A. announcer said, "Tonight's estimated attendance—53,231."

But people, like butter, spread out in the heat, and official Park and Recreation Board figures now reveal that only 43,031 were actually there, with 41,799 paying. The cash crowd at the Americans' second home game was 54,413, nearly 7,000 fewer than the announced attendance of 61,319. Still, not bad.

In contrast to these substantial throngs, Birmingham has been paid the league minimum of $20,000 for both its road games. One of these was in Detroit, where attendance is averaging only 12,600 and the talk is that the Wheels will be rolling down to Charlotte, N.C. before the season ends.

If so, this would be only the first WFL instance of a pattern that has plagued the other new leagues, such as the American Basketball Association and the World Hockey League. In both cases, some little cities, like Birmingham, have thrived, while franchises in larger cities (where the fans are used to bona fide major league teams) have been rejected and passed on down to smaller metropolises: the Los Angeles Stars to Salt Lake City, the Whalers of Boston to Hartford, Conn., etc. The problem is that while the Salt Lakes and Birminghams may draw, the networks buy population figures.

Traditionally, in big cities the new leagues' teams have not been able to come up with heavy backers. The Wheels are a classic case. The team has 32 owners who chipped in for $1 million, but the financial base for the franchise was supposed to come from a public stock offering that would have raised an additional $4 million. It never materialized.

And then again, like so many other new franchises in larger cities, the Wheels were locked out by stadium arrangements already made by existing franchises. In Detroit, the Lions held an exclusive pro football lease to Tiger Stadium, so the Wheels had to play in a 22,000-seat field in Ypsilanti, 35 miles away.

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