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Alternate History and Sport: Alternate Leagues

Updated: Dec 15, 2023

By Pete Usher.

Boston National League baseball team, 1900. The oldest league in the world.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

League competitions are found in many sports across the world, and many have long and storied histories. But, especially in the professional game, there is also a long history of rival organisations being set up, with varying degrees of success, right from the start of professional leagues. So, we will start with the oldest league in the world, the Baseball National League.

Baseball’s National League evolved out of the first professional sports league, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, or National Association (NA), which ran from 1871 to 1875. Some current MLB clubs can trace their existence to this league (or even earlier), while other clubs involved played as few as six games. The first game in pro baseball was the visit of the Cleveland Forest Citys to Fort Wayne Kekiongas, the home side winning 2-0. This would possibly make a niche pub quiz question. The NA was poorly organised, unstable, and the low entry fee of just $10 meant there was little incentive for clubs to abide by the rules.

The Fort Wayne Kekiongas. This was the team that won the first ever game in pro baseball.

Picture courtesy Baseball Wikipedia.

William Hulbert approached several clubs with the idea of a stronger league with defined ‘territories’ for each club. In February 1876, the new National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs was established, with teams in Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Hartford, New York, St Louis, Cincinnati, and Louisville. With the removal of its strongest teams (Chicago and Boston), the NA collapsed, leaving the NA as the only league standing.

Like many fledgling leagues, the NL had some initial franchise instability, but had taken a hard line on clubs not fulfilling their obligations – after the first season, New York and Philadelphia were expelled, despite being the two largest markets. Nonetheless, by 1882, the league had the same 8 teams return for the first time – the original Chicago and Boston teams, plus Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, Troy, Worcester, and Providence. The successful league spawned competition.

In 1882, the American Association of Baseball Clubs (AA) was founded. The six founding teams were in different locations to the established National League (Cincinnati, Louisville, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St Louis, and Baltimore), and the league had some different policies that allowed it to be somewhat successful. Ticket prices were lower (25c vs 50c) and alcohol was allowed to be sold at the games.

In 1883, the two leagues agreed to recognise each other’s contracts (along with the minor Northwestern League), and in 1884, the two league champions faced each other in an end of season play-off, the winner to be proclaimed “Champions of the World”. The NL champion Providence Grays beat the AA champion New York Metropolitans (no relation to the current New York Mets) 3 games to 0.

The first ever World Champions - the Providence Grays.

Picture courtesy Baseball Wikipedia.

1884 also saw another rival league start play – the Union Association (UA). Led by St Louis millionaire Henry Lucas, the league did not fare well. The talent was lopsided (Lucas had signed the best players he could for his St Louis Maroons team, despite being League president), and franchises folded during the season, being replaced either by new teams or sides from the Northwestern League. St Louis won the title at a canter, finishing 21 wins ahead of second place. The league was disbanded, and the St Louis Maroons joined the National League, despite there already being an AA franchise in the city (St Louis Browns). This would prove to be a misstep, as the Browns were going to win the next four AA titles, and clinch the only win for an AA team in the ‘World Series’, in 1886. The Maroons moved to Indianapolis in 1887, renamed as the Hoosiers.

Having seen off one rival league, the NL and AA continued on. There was some churn in franchises, with teams folding and being replaced at the end of the season, or even moving from the Association to the more established League, but the majority of the teams were stable, and the leagues were on a solid footing, helped partly by a salary limit of $2000 per player, keeping costs under control. In 1887, the owners, under pressure from the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players, agreed to lift the cap, but then reneged on their promise, and instead implemented an A to E classification for players, with ‘A’ class players being paid the most. In 1889, the BPBP announced they were leaving the League, and set up their own league, which was known as the Player’s League (PL).

There were now simply too many leagues, and the Player’s League only lasted one season, unable to compete with the NL and AA. The Boston and Philadelphia sides ended up in the AA, and other clubs merged into their National League counterparts. Nevertheless, the American Association was on its last legs, and after the 1891 season, it merged into the National League, with four teams ceasing to exist, resulting in a 12 team league. In would not be until the 1901 debut of the American League (AL) that another league would challenge the National League for baseball supremacy. That one would be successful, and the NL and AL form the basis of the current Major League Baseball structure.

There have been three further attempts to establish a ‘third major league’. The United States Baseball League lasted about one month in 1912. The Federal League existed from 1913 to 1915, before the owners were either bought out or bought teams in the established leagues. The biggest legacy of the Federal League is Wrigley Field in Chicago, originally built for the Chicago Whales franchise, as Weeghman Park. When the Federal League folded, Weeghman was allowed to buy the Chicago Cubs, who were eventually sold to William Wrigley Jr (of the chewing gum family), and the stadium was renamed.

Wrigley Field, Chicago. Chewing gum may be compulsory. And to think it could be still called Weeghman Park.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Finally, one attempt had a significant impact without playing a single game. When baseball moved to the West Coast in 1957, New York lost its two National League teams. Mayor Robert F Wagner formed a committee, chaired by William Shea, to look at bringing National League baseball back to New York, but attempts to lure an existing team to the Big Apple were rebuffed. Shea then formulated the idea of a new league, and in 1959 the Continental League was announced, with a planned start date of 1961. Teams were confirmed for Denver, Houston, Minneapolis-St Paul, New York, and Toronto, with three other franchises to be announced, later awarded to Atlanta, Buffalo, and Dallas-Fort Worth.

The National and American Leagues responded quickly. Prior to the 1961 season, the Washington Senators of the AL relocated to Minneapolis, renaming themselves as the Minnesota Twins, while a new Washington Senators franchise starts, along with a new AL franchise in California, the Los Angeles Angels.

Meanwhile, the NL also plans two expansion teams for the 1962 season, the Houston Colt 45s and the New York Mets, ownership of which is offered to the Continental League’s New York ownership group. With the National League returning to New York City, the Continental League was wound up, never playing a game. Once the Mets built their new stadium, it was named after Shea.

It is fair to say that the world of baseball could look quite different with just a few tweaks, and the current 2 league, 30 team structure is not guaranteed. Unlike, say, English football, where the league structure has evolved in a much more egalitarian, much less restrictive way.

Only that isn’t actually true.

The Football Association had legalised professionalism in 1885, after the threat of a number of northern clubs leaving to form the British Football Association, which would have allowed the players to be paid. The FA managed to avoid something akin to the “great schism” which would split Rugby Union and Rugby League a decade later. Professionalism was vastly more common in the working-class north and midlands, and it was recognised that regular fixtures would help generate the gate receipts to allow the clubs to pay their players.

Different styles of scrum after the Great Schism. One is Rugby League and the other Rugby Union. Which is which, though?

Pictures courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

William McGregor, a board member at Aston Villa, took inspiration from the baseball leagues, and proposed a football league, although he preferred the name Association Football Union. He also proposed that only one club per town should be included, which was accepted. Obviously, McGregor’s own Aston Villa represented Birmingham, which excluded Mitchell St George’s, which had a growing reputation. Similarly, previous FA Cup winners Blackburn Olympic missed out to Blackburn Rovers, Bootle to Everton, and Nottingham Forest to Notts County. All the clubs were from the north and midlands, although major cities with footballing tradition such as Manchester and Sheffield were not included.

As the 1856 Factory Act stipulated that work was to finish by 2pm on a Saturday, the kick-off time for matches was set at 3pm. The League started in 1888.

A number of clubs excluded from the league decided to set up their own competition, called the Combination, also starting that year. A total of twenty clubs took part, with each club having to arrange to play 16 games themselves. Rather than the centrally arranged fixture list of the league, with each side playing all others home and away, the clubs in the Combination were pretty much left to their own devices. As a result, the Combination collapsed with the season unfinished. The team with the best record at the time appears to have been Newton Heath, which would go on to become Manchester United. Unfortunately, Blackburn Olympic did not survive past the end of the season.

Many of the surviving members of the Combination would go on to join another rival league, the Football Alliance, which started play in 1889. This proved a touch more successful, and after the 1891-92 season, the Alliance was absorbed into the Football League as the new Second Division. Birmingham St George’s, as they were now known, went bust at the end of the season, making them the only Alliance member at the time not to join the League. A second incarnation of the Combination was founded in 1890, but with much smaller clubs. It lasted until 1911.

Could a more structured Combination have been a more realistic challenger to the Football League? It had footholds in places the League did not, and potentially strong competition in places such as Birmingham, Liverpool, and Blackburn. It is certainly an interesting point to consider.

Absorbing rival leagues, or merging with them, has turned out to be a common strategy through the history of professional sport. As well as the baseball and football examples discussed above, it has happened in all major American sports. The National Basketball Association was formed from a merger of two leagues (the American Basketball League and the Basketball Association of America), and then absorbed four teams from the upstart American Basketball Association in the 1970s. That merger included possibly the best deal ever – the owners of the to-be-disbanded Spirits of St Louis agreed a share of the NBA’s TV revenue, roughly equivalent to 2%. In perpetuity. By 2014, the owners had netted in excess of $300 million, and the NBA bought them out of the deal for a further $500 million. The owners of the other folded teams got around $3 million. Similarly, the National Hockey League absorbed four teams from the rival World Hockey Association at the end of the 1970s.

But when we look at the National Football League, there are many successes and failures to break into a lucrative market. The All American Football Conference was one of three proposed leagues looking to start after the Second World War, but was the only one to see play. After 4 years where the Cleveland Browns dominated the league, three teams were absorbed into the NFL, including the Browns, who promptly won the NFL championship. Then, in 1960, the American Football League was founded. Within seven years, there was a full merger with the existing NFL (completed in 1970), underpinning the structure of the league and creating the Superbowl as the championship game.

New York Giants vs Cleveland Browns, 1958. The Browns dominated the league at this time. But why do they call it football when the foot rarely contacts the ball, which isn't really a ball?

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

What all these rival leagues did was force the owners of the established leagues to be more open to expansion, new markets, and more competition. Before the WHA, for example, the NHL had 6 teams – just a decade later, the league had 21. But not every competitor has been successful, although they offer scope for some interestingly different teams. And because the NFL had effectively merged with not one, but two rival leagues, and was widely regarded as the most attractive from a monetary perspective, that is where people focussed.

Gary Davidson, who had been involved with both the ABA and the WHA, was behind the 1974 World Football League (if your definition of World is America, with Hawaii, and Toronto). Trying to compete with the NFL, the league lasted for one and a half seasons before collapsing. Possibly the biggest impact that the league had was that it stripped the two-time defending Superbowl champion Miami Dolphins of three of their star offensive players (running backs Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick, and receiver Paul Warfield). Miami has not won a title since.

There has been one further serious attempt to compete with the NFL, although it didn’t start out like that. The United States Football League was the brainchild of David Dixon, and was a long time from conception to birth. Dixon had begun to realise that there may be a possibility of a successful American football league played in the Spring, rather than the traditional Autumn/Winter schedule. He looked at both the successful AFL and the failed WFL, and realised that television exposure, local promotion, some degree of financial restraint, and owners with deep enough pockets to absorb significant losses were the key to long-term success. Stable franchises and a good, competitive product were also needed. In 1980, Dixon commissioned a study which found that there was potential for a Spring/Summer league. Potential owners had to submit to due diligence and meet capitalisation requirements. The league also secured a TV deal with ABC and the relatively new cable network of ESPN. The league was announced for 1983. Obviously, with such meticulous planning, the USFL was... interesting.

Before the league started, ownership issues and stadium lease challenges meant that the team line up altered – the team slated for San Diego ended up in Arizona, and the proposed Canadian franchises never came to fruition. Overall, the first season met expectations – the games were generally good; crowds averaged at the expected 25,000, although there was a large gap between the best and worst supported teams; and the TV audience was actually better than expected (a 6.1 Neilsen rating against a target of 5). However, this was against a background of overspending. Despite Dixon’s vision, the league had not enforced a salary cap, so spending was out of control.

During the off season, the league decided to expand by 6 teams, rather than the 4 that were originally planned. This brought in extra money to a league in need of capital. Dixon sold his expansion Houston Gamblers for $6 million, upset by the spending of other owners. Denver Gold owner Ron Blanding sold his team for $10 million, after running them as a bare-bones operation and drawing the highest average crowd, actually turning a profit in the first season. He may be the only owner who made money from the USFL. And the New Jersey Generals, who had played fast and loose with the proposed salary limits to sign Herschel Walker, were sold to a New York businessman called Donald Trump.

Owner of the New Jersey Generals, one Donald Trump. I don't know if he did anything else after his ownership of the team.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The 1984 season saw more of the same – a compelling product, with massive overspending and franchise and ownership instability. Teams such as the Los Angeles Express were losing an estimated $15 million over the year, and attendance remained low in some key markets. The league had to take over the Chicago Blitz as they were near to collapse, and the TV deal required teams in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. At the end of the season, the league lost four teams, two via mergers, one folding outright, and Chicago “suspending operations” (thus not folding and not violating the TV deal).

It was after the 1984 season that a fateful decision was made. Because of the costs of competition, teams were losing money hand over fist. Donald Trump and new Chicago owner Eddie Einhorn argued that the way to make money was to move to an Autumn schedule, compete directly with the NFL and force a merger.

Based on the ABA and WHA, original investments would be worth more, and everyone would be a winner. Despite resistance from the original owners, the plan was approved. This drove a number of mergers and relocations, as teams moved out of cities where they would have to directly compete with the NFL. As well as the suspended Chicago team, the league lost its presence in Detroit, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Washington, all home to NFL teams. The Washington team had been due to move to Miami, but ended up in Orlando, a much smaller market.

The final 1985 Spring season was a financial disaster. Los Angeles owner J William Oldenburg had stopped paying bills after it was found that he had lied about his net worth. The next owner, Jay Roulier, had similarly misled the league, so the league ran the franchise.

In addition, with about a month of the season to go, the owner of the San Antonio Gunslingers, Clinton Manges, stopped paying bills – he had been paying all team expenses out of his own pocket, and his oil fortune had collapsed. Marvin Warner, owner of the Birmingham Stallions, had to give up his team after the savings and loan bank he controlled collapsed at the start of the savings and loans crisis.

Attendances dropped as fans chose the existing NFL teams over USFL teams that might be playing the following Autumn. By the time the 1986 season was being planned, the USFL was down to eight teams, as San Antonio, Portland, Los Angeles, Oakland, Denver, and Houston all fell by the wayside.

The final nail in the coffin of the USFL was the lawsuit it had filed against the NFL, seeking $567 million in damages, which would have been tripled under antitrust law. The gist of the lawsuit was that the NFL had bullied the major television networks into not showing Fall USFL games, preventing the league from getting the TV contract it needed to survive. The jury found that, while the NFL had formed an illegal monopoly, it had not forced the USFL off television. Although the USFL technically won the case, the damages awarded were $1, tripled to $3, not the millions that had been requested. The NFL had to pay significantly more on attorney fees, as the USFL had technically won, so the older league was liable for costs.

By the time all the appeals had finished in 1990, the NFL had to write a cheque for $3.76. That cheque has never been cashed.

Could the USFL have survived? Possibly if the original Dixon plan had been stuck to, and there had been better due diligence around some of the owners. Possibly if the move to Autumn scheduling had been avoided. There have been a number of attempts to establish a Spring league in the US, and the current XFL and USFL may make it work.

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