Here we go again. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the rumors of the World Football League's death were greatly exaggerated. Last weekend in New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, representatives from 11 cities—Honolulu, Los Angeles, Portland, San Antonio, Shreveport, Memphis, Jacksonville, Birmingham, Charlotte, Philadelphia and Chicago—began a final series of meetings designed to revive the WFL. Their hopes of resurrection lie in a highly structured financial format known as the Hemmeter Plan.
You remember the WFL. It's the league that gave us the Detroit Wheels, a team that listed 122 debts when it filed for bankruptcy after a grand total of 14 games; the Jacksonville Sharks, whose owner, Fran Monaco, and his wife Douglas borrowed $27,000 from their coach and then fired him; the Philadelphia Bell, which admitted that most of the 120,000 people who attended its first two games got in for nothing; the Southern California Sun, whose principal owner was given his 190,000 shares gratis by the prior owners of the club and then pled guilty to a federal charge of making false statements to obtain bank loans; the Houston Texans, who were ranked 16th in a listing of the nation's worst college football teams; the Florida Blazers, whose players went without pay for the last 10 weeks of the season and whose coach had to supply the clubhouse with toilet paper; and the Birmingham Americans, who defeated the Blazers in the first World Bowl and then had their uniforms confiscated on behalf of a creditor.
Nor did the WFL's woes end with last season's curtain. Weren't 75% of the players still owed back salary? Weren't creditors pounding on the door? Hadn't most of the owners dropped from view?
Could any one plan rectify all this? The answer is yes, according to Chris Hemmeter, a polished, confident 35-year-old Honolulu businessman who was one of the two dozen investors who collectively lost $3.2 million in the Hawaiians. Late last season, when the WFL was at its lowest ebb, Hemmeter came up with the plan that now bears his name. Shortly thereafter he was elected president of the league, and for the past four months he has been crusading to save it.
April 20, 1975
Hemmeter has virtually lived on airplanes, traveling about 15,000 miles a week. Four times he flew from Honolulu or the Pacific Coast to Jacksonville for meetings that were canceled on his arrival. He has been forced to do most of his sleeping in the air. Last week, as details relating to the league's revival grew particularly hectic, he slept through an emergency landing in Denver.
His biggest problem has been establishing creditability for the league, an embarrassing process for Hemmeter who is remarkably open and aboveboard in his dealings. When courses of action are suggested that don't appear to him "fair and proper," he is likely to protest, "That would make us seem like a bunch of WFL guys."
Hemmeter's position as chairman of the executive committee of the Bank of Honolulu gained him access to responsible financial figures in most of the cities he visited. Seven of the 11 ownership groups that met in New York had a bank director among their members. Only a handful of last year's owners remain: John Bassett in Memphis; John Bosacco in Philadelphia (his team is set to play in the University of Pennsylvania's Franklin Field); several investors in the Hawaiians; and Sam Battistone, a part owner of the 1974 Hawaiians who recently purchased a substantial portion of the Southern California franchise.
The Hemmeter Plan that has generated so much enthusiasm is designed to eliminate the old WFL's wonderful fringe benefits—empty promises, bankruptcy, fraud, Internal Revenue Service liens. The basic idea is to make the team's expenses relate to the team's revenues. Specifically, 42% of a team's gate receipts and TV-radio income will go to the players and coaches. Stadium rentals will be roughly 10% of the gate. League assessments will be 10½%; of income from the gate, TV-radio and commercial properties, which include pennants, programs and bobble-head dolls.
That adds up to roughly two-thirds of a team's income. The remaining portion—37½% of the gate and larger percentages of the other income sources (the formula is obviously complex, its details taking up 108 typewritten pages)—will go into an "Operating Expense and Profit Account" that will cover fixed costs such as office salaries and rent, travel expenses, equipment, publicity expenses, printing and mailing costs and telephone and telegraph. Hemmeter has put a ceiling of $650,000 on these costs. This is an austerity figure for pro football, but WFL members have developed a singular appreciation of the wisdom of economizing. Teams must allocate a minimum of 31% of gross revenues to cover these fixed expenses.
This week each owner will have to come up with between $600,000 and $1.2 million, depending on the club's liabilities. And it must be real money, not promises. Of this, a flat sum of $75,000 goes to the league to help pay its debts, and another chunk is for a 15% down payment on unpaid 1974 player salaries. The remainder, which must amount to at least 5525,000, is the club's working capital. The money must be deposited in an account subject to league inspection.
Under this arrangement, if the league draws only half the attendance it had in 1974 (at an average of $7 a ticket), it would take at least three seasons to exhaust its basic working capital, Hemmeter says. The key factor is tying expenses to revenue. If the WFL averages 17,000 fans per game, Hemmeter says it can break even this year. If it averages 25,000, each team can make a $190,000 profit. (The few percentage points of income not accounted for above are to be used in part to begin clearing up the remaining 85%, of unpaid 1974 salaries.)
The stumbling block is whether enough players are willing to play for a percentage of gross income. Since WFL squads will number about 34 players (the NFL has 47 per team), the players will average about 1% each of the payroll pool after the coaching staff is paid. In Birmingham last year 1% would have equaled about $25,000. (One percent on most NFL clubs would have been about $70,000, whereas the average NFL salary was only a little over $30,000.) But in Hawaii, 1% would have amounted to only about $11,000. To help balance such inequities, the WFL will reintroduce gate sharing, which it dropped halfway through last season in a fit of hometown greed. Now visitors will take 40% of the gate, as in the NFL.
Furthermore, an owner can lure a player with a bonus, or pay him more than a straight percentage, but if he does he must escrow the money before the season begins. Long-term contracts given in 1974 to such NFL stars as Larry Csonka, Calvin Hill and John Gilliam to persuade them to play in the WFL this season will remain in force, although several NFLers who agreed to join the WFL as soon as their NFL contracts expired have changed their minds. Kenny Stabler, Ted Kwalick and L.C. Greenwood have claimed breach of contract and hope to renegotiate with the NFL. No such course is likely for Csonka and teammates Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield, all of whom signed personally guaranteed contracts with Memphis owner John Bassett. As Greenwood described it last week, "That means even if there's no football team, those guys got to walk around and do whatever the dude say do. But that's cool if they get paid. Especially the way Csonka felt about Miami."
The percentage plan appeals to someone like Florida's Tommy Reamon, who led the WFL in rushing and shared MVP honors but who did not receive any salary all season long. Reamon now would be assured of an income. And if gross revenues increase, the plan will get better and better looking, since 42% of each new revenue dollar must go into the player-coach pool. Bassett has already signed more than 50 collegians to percentage contracts, and the WFL Players' Association says it wants the percentage concept retained in future contracts.
In any event, the pool of available players seems endless. The NFL annually cuts more men than the WFL needs. "What the WFL proved last year," says Bassett, "was that a pro football player is a very cheap commodity."
Well, in a way. The money Bassett paid and promised Csonka & Co. to jump to the WFL did not reflect a cheap approach. And it was the extravagant sums paid or owed to players that all but killed the league. One contract called for Jacksonville to pay Green Bay's Ted Hendricks $350,000 in 1975, a figure reportedly arrived at when ex-Jacksonville owner Fran Monaco was told that the highest-paid NFL player made $340,000. Nor were huge salaries restricted to stars. Jacksonville owes Bob Parrish 5165,000. Bob Parrish?
Cheap or expensive, Bassett is going to field a team, and Csonka says he is looking forward to playing the same formative role in the WFL that Joe Namath played in the AFL. And what about Namath? His NFL contract expires May 1 and, as Jet Coach Charley Winner admits, "Namath wants to make one more big hit." To garble Mark Twain, the rumors linking Namath to the WFL are not greatly exaggerated.
A Namath added to a Csonka would certainly enhance WFL chances of getting a lucrative TV contract, but what the WFL must demonstrate first is stability, which Hemmeter has gone to great lengths to establish. He says such things as transportation and hotel costs must be prepaid before the season. Each team's books will be inspected every two weeks. Gate padding will be eliminated. To eliminate fast-buck speculators, no owner can sell his franchise during the first three years of the plan without first offering it to the league for $100,000.
Despite such safeguards and restrictions, the plan's real attraction is Hemmeter himself. Most of the investors are gambling on him, and he has agreed to remain as president of the league for three years. "We're going to have to take a lot of life insurance out on that fellow," said one investor last week. Those who know Hemmeter best say that once the plan is in operation and the league apparently secure, he will grow bored and begin to look for a new project. "He has to be creating all the time," says his business associate, Diane Plotts.
For as long as anyone in Hawaii can remember, Hemmeter has been a man on the rise. He grew up in California and went to Honolulu in 1962 after graduating from Cornell's School of Hotel Management. As late as 1965 he, his wife Karen and their three children were sharing a two-room gardener's shack. But he was creating a stir in the restaurant business, and by 1967, when he was 28, he had made his first million. Although he has been a success as a restaurateur, hotelman, retailer and most recently as a developer, he laughs at such descriptions.
"People call me a restaurateur," he says, "when I can't cook eggs. I can't even read a French menu. I was just providing basic business principles to the restaurant business. That's all I've done with all my businesses." In essence Hemmeter is an idea man, one who comes up with the solution that makes a project pay.
His latest business project, and his most ambitious, is the $150 million Hemmeter Center being built in Waikiki. To finance its showpiece, a hotel overlooking the beach, Hemmeter needed a $65 million mortgage, 50% larger than any mortgage ever given previously in the state. "I had to come up with an innovative concept that had high earnings potential but was still conservative, because the project itself would have to be the collateral," he says. What Hemmeter came up with was a 40-story, twin-towered hotel (the highest building in Honolulu), the towers connected by a Great Hall more than 100 yards long and 10 stories high at some points. There will be 16 waterfalls in the Great Hall, three of them five stories high; 60 shops on three different tiers; a dozen restaurants and nightclubs. Each hotel accommodation will have a bedroom and a living room area.
Now that that project is well under way Hemmeter has turned his attention to football. He admits that getting involved with it in the first place was a mistake. His participation was something of a civic gesture. Honolulu was building a 50,000-seat stadium, but no one was coming forward to bankroll the Hawaiians. "I feel like such a fool," he says of last year's disaster. "That's why I'm doing all this, to show people that it can be done. I don't mind losing money, but when you lose it looking like a fool, well, that's not my idea of a good time."
There are other motivations. Last year Hemmeter got a lot of friends and associates to invest in the Hawaiians with him. "I want a reputation that says, if you invest with me I'll do everything possible to protect that investment," he says. "Otherwise, people will say, 'Sure he's had a lot of successes, but he was also the guy that had that WFL thing." However, Hemmeter claims, it is the creative challenge that intrigues him even more.
"The bigger the challenge the happier I am," he says. "I started the biggest project in the history of Hawaii, and this WFL thing was the biggest sports disaster in history."
Last week, in a rare moment of relaxation, Hemmeter reflected on the state of sport. "I don't think any professional sports league today is totally stable," he said. "They're all disasters waiting to happen. It just so happened that the WFL was first. But I think this is the league of the future. I don't delude myself into thinking my plan is the savior of sports as an industry, but it can be the savior of sports as a financial entity, and there's a keen distinction. This plan will allow the WFL to endure as a financial entity, and let it exploit itself on the field where it belongs."
He had warmed to his subject and suddenly—and uncharacteristically—he allowed himself to get carried away. "The plan is mathematically infallible," he declared.