The World Football League has done what the NFL hasn't done the last couple of years—make the Miami Dolphins vulnerable," Calvin Hill said last week. But the Dallas Cowboy running back who gained more than 1,000 yards in each of the past two seasons won't be sticking around to take advantage of a good team when it's down. Following the example of Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield, who enlisted with the Toronto Northmen of the WFL for all kinds of money, Hill flew to Honolulu last weekend and Sunday afternoon in the Royal Hawaiian Hotel became the latest NFL star to join the new league. "I don't want to seem a money grubber," said Hill, who signed for roughly $500,000 for three years. "I just want to get paid $100 for every $100 worth of effort. There is nothing that salves my ego about playing in the NFL."
Hill's contract with the Honolulu Hawaiians was yet one more in an outbreak of NFL defections to the new league. No sooner had the three Dolphins made the WFL a safe neighborhood in which to play—prompting John Brockington, the Green Bay running back and neologist, to say, "That just bonafides the WFL for me"—than the Birmingham Americans announced the signing of Oakland Quarterback Kenny Stabler, the leading passer in the AFC last season. Detroit Wide Receiver Ron Jessie followed Stabler to Birmingham to give him a target. In Hawaii, Hill was joining All-Pro Tight End Ted Kwalick of San Francisco and Giant Quarterback Randy Johnson.
There was more to come. The WFL was claiming that negotiations were well under way with such NFL stars as Los Angeles Guard Tom Mack and Oakland Quarterback Daryle Lamonica (Southern California Sun), Atlanta Defensive End Claude Humphrey (Birmingham) and Brockington (Chicago Fire). At week's end the NFL counterattacked, Miami coughing up a reported $650,000 to keep Safety Jake Scott and Tight End Jim Mandich from jumping. As sports attorney and metaphorist Bob Woolf put it, "The war is on and the floodgates are open." He might have added that the switchboards were lighting up. Woolf reported that every NFL club that had a client of his whose contract was up for renewal had called to begin negotiating.
"The fledgling World Football League," as it was known up to the moment Csonka et al. took pen in hand, is the latest venture of Gary Davidson, a founder and the first president of both the ABA and the WHA. Until last week's coups it had operated in the NFL's shadow, and business in the WFL's Newport Beach, Calif. office was not exactly booming.
Promising a more exciting brand of football, Davidson hoped to enliven the offense with rule changes that the hidebound NFL continues to vote down. The most recent of these allows a back to be in motion toward the line of scrimmage before the snap √† la Canadian ball. And there was the inevitable gimmick, a trademark of Davidson's forays into sport. The WFL had tentatively selected a football with more laces to allow easier gripping for the passer and Day-Glo paint for easier viewing by the fans. But the WFL had failed to place even one NFL first- or second-round draft choice under contract. In fact, the NFL had signed 23 of its 26 first-rounders without rebuttal, and even the Canadian Football League was outdoing the WFL by signing two NFL second-rounders. The WFL's amateur approach seemed confirmed by Boston College Center Steve Corbett, a sixth-round selection of the New York Stars (nee Boston Bulls), who said disgustedly, "I got a letter from the Bulls that started, 'Dear Prospect.' "
Even when the new league held a draft to establish rights to NFL veterans, few took it seriously. After Southern California picked New York Jet Running Back Cliff McClain only to be told that he had already been claimed by the New York Stars, the Sun drafter said, "O.K., we'll take O.J. Simpson." The Chicago Fire gave the needle to its NFL rival, the Bears, selecting Quarterback Bobby Douglass as a tight end. About the only big-name veteran who was talking of joining the WFL was Vida Blue of the Oakland Athletics, a high school quarterback.
One WFL team had to fight bureaucrats to keep its nickname. The Jacksonville Sharks were asked by the state's tourism board to change to something less intimidating on the grounds that sharks and tourists don't mix. Coach Bud Asher discovered that other Florida teams were known as Rattlers, Moccasins, Barracudas, Tigers, Lions, Panthers and Gators, and said he'd stick with Sharks.
Ed Keating, the business manager for Csonka, Warfield and Kiick, wasn't taking the WFL seriously either early last February when a fellow associate in Mark McCormack's International Management Group asked him in Cleveland's Pat Joyce Tavern to jot down the figure required for the WFL to sign the Miami stars. Keating did some rough calculating on a cocktail napkin and came up with $2.7 million. The associate later had occasion to talk to John F. Bassett, president of the Northmen, and mentioned the sum. Bassett called Keating and arranged for a meeting at the end of March.
Keating eventually made up four blue envelopes, one for each of the players and one for Bassett. In the players' envelopes were three enclosures, the first outlining the amount of money each demanded. Csonka had decided on his numbers while judging a Playboy Bunny of the Year contest. The other two enclosures were a nine-page memorandum detailing proposed changes in the standard WFL contract, and a short memorandum listing extras. Each Dolphin, for instance, was to receive a "fully equipped luxury automobile" every year and a three-bedroom luxury apartment. In Bassett's envelope were five enclosures: the three player compensation proposals and the two memos.
Negotiations began on March 30 in the Prime Minister's Suite in Toronto's Sutton Place Hotel. The three players were whisked off to a minority owner's clothing store where they were fitted for tailor-made suits. Keating stayed behind with Bassett, Northmen General Manager Leo Cahill and Chairman of the Board Herb Solway.
The Northmen had come to the meeting with an offer of $2.5 million for five years. The figures in Bassett's envelope added up to more than $3 million for three years, or roughly twice as much. By noon virtually no progress had been made, and Keating stopped the negotiations by saying, "It doesn't look like this is going to work out." Solway and Bassett retired to a bedroom for a few minutes. Bassett told Solway he thought the Northmen would lose their prospects if they quibbled. He also said that the signings could make the club and the league. Solway agreed. As they reentered the sitting room Bassett said simply, "O.K. We understand your position. You have a deal."
The total money in the contract amounts to $3.884 million in U.S. currency and is guaranteed by a letter of credit from a Canadian bank. This sum includes a $1-million bonus, payable in proportions relative to the three salaries. By comparison, Csonka and Kiick had been earning slightly less than $60,000 a year with the Dolphins, while Warfield had made about $70,000. In three years under their Miami contracts they would have got some $550,000.
Csonka receives the lion's share, probably close to 45%. Should any of the three play out his Toronto option, he will receive no less than he got in his highest salaried year. The contract even deals with the players' tax advantages. Since Canadian income tax goes as high as 63%, and the U.S. tax only to 50%, Csonka, Warfield and Kiick will want to stay in Canada fewer than 184 days a year to avoid being Csonked with the Canadian tariff. Their contracts make provision for them to spend time in the States during the season in order to stay under the limit. And Keating expects each of the players to benefit from the contract in the area of endorsements, which is a tall order for Csonka, who has already made more than $284,000 in endorsements and personal appearances since the Super Bowl.
Ironically, the three Dolphins signed the agreement beneath a picture of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, whose government opposes the entry of the WFL into Canada and is drafting legislation to keep it out.
Other WFL clubs face uncertain futures because of financial problems. Don Regan, secretary and general counsel of the new league, admits, "If we waited for 12 Lamar Hunts to come along, we wouldn't be ready for the 1985 season. They pop up along the way." Jack Pardee, the former Redskin linebacker and coach of the Washington Ambassadors, expressed the league's attitude by saying, "When the talent shifts, the money shifts."
Houston seems the weakest franchise. Its ownership is unstable and it hasn't settled on a coach although former Giant assistant Jim Garrett is being interviewed. The best-known player under contract is Quarterback Karl Sweetan, who is better known for an alleged attempt to sell his Los Angeles playbook to New Orleans than for his execution of any of the plays therein.
The Washington franchise appears headed to either Annapolis or Norfolk. The team had hoped to play its games in RFK Stadium, home of the Redskins, but Redskin President Edward Bennett Williams refused to make reasonable exceptions in his exclusive lease. "Why, you couldn't have a PTA meeting in RFK without the Redskins approving it," hollered E. Joseph Wheeler Jr., the Ambassadors' owner. "The people who are really losing, of course, are the taxpayers. This is a public facility that is losing money every year. That stadium isn't even bringing in enough revenue to pay the annual interest of $831,000. If I'm forced to move out of Washington, it will be because the U.S. Congress won't protect the taxpayers."
Several WFL clubs—including Philadelphia, Houston, Portland and Detroit—lack big-name players. Various means are being used to fill out rosters. Southern California has signed 25 of its 36 college draftees, including UCLA Running Backs James McAlister and Kermit Johnson and USC Guard Booker Brown. For the Chicago Fire the plan seemed to be the more the merrier—the team has signed some 200 players. Detroit held a George Allen-style free-agent tryout camp. One aspirant, 6'7" and 250 pounds but clearly too old, was told he couldn't make it as a player, and immediately begged, "Well, can I be a waterboy?" Florida was opting for experience, claiming to have 47 players under contract with two or more years of NFL service, although the one thing most seemed to have in common was the experience of being waived out of the league. The Sharks' owner, 5'5" Fran Monaco, fell short of reality when he announced the signing of Notre Dame Defensive Back Mike Townsend, a sixth-round draft choice, with these ringing words: "I feel the same way about signing Mike Townsend as the Jets did when they got Joe Namath. This is a big catch for us and the league."
Television was still another problem. The WFL has a contract with TVS that should bring each club about $100,000 this season; the NFL will get $2 million per team from new contracts with all three major networks that run through 1977 and make the chances of a fat contract for the WFL unlikely for the next four years. Furthermore, the World Football League has drawn up a tentative schedule that might be described as otherwordly, involving as it does such monumental plane trips as Philadelphia to Honolulu.
Nonetheless, the NFL no longer regards the new league as a fly-by-night outfit. "The NFL can have all the first-round draft choices in the world," says Regan, "if we can have the established players." The tactic is not new to football. When Al Davis was commissioner of the American Football League he brought about a merger with the NFL by raiding the older league's quarterbacks. As Davis pointed out last week, "The only difference is that they're speeding up the process by six years. It took us that long to figure out how the weaker league could bring the stronger league to its knees."
The WFL claims it is not seeking merger but a form of competitive coexistence. Several factors favor it in its race for established veterans, not the least of which is a greater sense of unionism on the part of the members of the NFL Players Association. No tears have been shed by Dolphins over what Miami newspapers call The Great Defection. Asked about the alleged tragedy, All-Pro Guard Larry Little said, "I'm sure there'll be no animosity, only envy maybe, and good wishes. I'm just sorry I'm not going up there with them."
Nor was there any of the chauvinistic feeling for the dear old NFL that characterized football's earlier war. Defensive Tackle Merlin Olsen of Los Angeles warned, "If the NFL established a franchise in Honolulu overnight to put the WFL out of business, I think the Players Association would sue." In the meantime the NFLPA's contract negotiations with the owners have resulted in a wait-and-see attitude and have given the WFL time to lure away stars. Gary Davidson is bubbling over the prospect that an NFL player strike would leave him with the only game in town, and when the NFL's Management Council refused to accept 56 of the Players Association's 57 demands last week, Ed Garvey, executive director of the NFLPA, could only wonder out loud if Davidson had been added to the owners' negotiating committee.
John Bassett explained why an expensive Csonka-Warfield-Kiick package makes more sense to a struggling franchise than it does to an established one. "It's an interesting philosophy," Bassett told The New York Times. "It's more difficult for an established team to pay the going rate than a new team. I own the Toronto Toros of the WHA, and we're trying to sign Ken Dryden and the Mahovlich brothers [of the Montreal Canadiens] for next season. If we sell 800 more top season tickets, that'll pay for that big salary. But the Canadiens have sellouts anyway. They can't raise the prices to see the same team."
That logic prompted Birmingham to steal Kenny Stabler away from Oakland, which has had 33 straight regular-season sellouts at the Coliseum, and, ironically, from Al Davis, who received a telegram last week that read in part: "Kenny will sign with Birmingham. No need to ask you to meet offer as he simply wants to play in Alabama." The telegram was signed by Philip Henry Pitts, Stabler's longtime friend and attorney. Alabama is Stabler's home. He lives in Foley (pop. 3,400) with his 19-year-old wife Debbie, two dogs named Bacchus and Yogi, three cars, a pickup truck and a speedboat that goes more than 70 mph. And now, for the rights to his homegrown appeal, the Americans have made him another WFL millionaire.
Stabler may mean more to Birmingham than the Dolphin trio will to Toronto. He was a legend at the University of Alabama. In Snake Stabler's three years under Bear Bryant the Tide lost only twice, and last week he came home to a hero's welcome. At a press conference at the Birmingham airport Stabler talked about being out from under the "NFL hammer," which he said dictated to a player, "You're going to play professional football here or go out of the country and play it." The mayor greeted him, and a police motorcade escorted him to Birmingham's minor league baseball park, where Henry Aaron, another Alabaman, was playing in the Braves' last spring exhibition. Stabler signed countless autographs and was going to throw out the first ball, but the original designee for the job, a society matron, refused to relinquish it.
Alabamans have their thing about a local boy. Even Joe Namath, another Crimson Tide quarterback, would not have been as important an acquisition for the Americans. "Namath was a transplant," said Charlie McMillian, chief of detectives in Selma, where Pitts and Stabler spent the next day. "He's too big for Alabama now. Alabamans are clannish."
The reception in Selma was no less enthusiastic. Stabler is known as "The Dart Thrower" because of his deadly short passes. In Mayor Joe Smitherman's office he threw four 20s in five tries at a dart board hanging on the back of the door while Pitts did some serious damage to the woodwork surrounding the target. Stabler posed for pictures with the mayor's staff and a 325-pound black policeman. There were newspaper and television interviews all afternoon long until Stabler finally admitted, "My material's getting a little old." But in Birmingham the Americans reported that season-ticket sales had soared 1,000 ahead of the expected rate, and even though it would be two years before Snake could play in the WFL, the Americans had already recouped $80,000 of its investment in the left-handed quarterback.
In Alabama, Snake Stabler had bona-fide the WFL.
WORLD FOOTBALL LEAGUE
TOP PLAYERS, SEASON ELIGIBLE
Bill Putnam, past president, Atlanta Hawks and Flames
Jack Gotta (CFL)
Legion Field (72,000)
Ken Stabler '76 George Mira '74
Tom Origer, construction
Jim Spavital (CFL)
Soldier Field (55,701)
Virgil Carter 74
Dan Boisture (E. Michigan U.)
E. Michigan U. (23,000)
Warren McVea '74
R. Steven Arnold, attorney
To be announced
Rice Stadium (80,000) or Astrodome (47,000)
Hoyle Granger '74
Sam Battisone, restaurant chain
Mike Giddings (NFL)
Honolulu Stadium (27,000)
Ted Kwalik 75 Calvin Hill 75
Fran Monaco, medical laboratories
Bud Asher(New Smyrna Beach High School)
Gator Bowl (72,000)
Mike Townsend 74
New York Stars
Bob Schmertz, Owner Boston Celtics
Babe Parilli (NFL)
Downing Stadium (27,000)
John Elliott 74
Jack Kelly, past president, AAU
Ron Waller (NFL)
Franklin Field (60,000)
Steve Chomyzak 75
Bruce Gelker, hotel chain
Dick Coury (NFL)
Civic Stadium (33,000)
Greg Barton 74
Southern California Sun
Larry Hatfield, trucking
Tom Fears (NFL)
Anaheim Stadium (47,000)
James McAlister, Booker Brown, Kermit Johnson 74
John F. Bassett Jr., television
John McVay (U. of Dayton)
CNE Stadium (33,000)
Csonka, Kiick, Warfield 75
E. Joseph Wheeler Jr., marine engineering
Jack Pardee (NFL)
Annapolis, Md. (28,000) or Norfolk, Va. (32,000)
Bob Davis 74