Leagues like the NFL have more than a century of history and have evolved into multibillion-dollar organizations — but they all started from humble beginnings. Many ambitious startup leagues have attempted to duplicate that magic only to realize that running a sports league is no easy feat. Some failed startup leagues organized around existing sports. Others created imaginative and unfamiliar new athletic contests. All, however, have an interesting story — and maybe even lessons you can learn from their failures.
Last updated: May 4, 2020
The brainchild of WWE boss Vince McMahon (back then it was the WWF), the XFL lasted for only a single season in 2001 — and then many years after that, it came back to start a season in 2020.
When the league started, McMahon used the age-old twin marketing devices of sex and violence — which he successfully employed to make wrestling a multibillion-dollar global enterprise — to sell the new league. Rules were limited to encourage rough play and cheerleaders, promo women and dancers were, in a word, exploited. The women of the XFL were encouraged to date players, they were put in hot tubs at either end of the field during play, and team packets described their cheerleaders — and their bodies — intimately and thoroughly.
The XFL’s debut game — scheduled after the NFL season had ended — achieved better-than-expected ratings, but the viewers quickly began tuning out. New players were given only around a month to prepare and the quality of play was not comparable to the NFL or even college games. The broadcasting production was amateurish and far too WWF-ish for mainstream audiences, and in the end, the WWF and NBC lost $70 million on the bold but short-lived experiment.
When the XFL did try to return in 2020, that return was another short-lived experiment as it suffered due to the coronavirus crisis. The XFL ended up filing for bankruptcy in April 2020. The league was hoping to come back in 2021 after canceling the 2020 season, but instead, it shut doors. The bankruptcy filing by Alpha Entertainment listed the XFL with assets and liabilities each in the range of $10 million to $50 million, according to ESPN.
The brainchild of New Orleans businessman David Dixon, the United States Football League played three seasons between 1983 and 1985. Dixon, who was influential in getting the Louisiana Superdome built and bringing the NFL to New Orleans, saw another opportunity: Hold a spring/summer football league when major stadiums are empty.
Over those first three seasons the league was fairly successful, but one team owner — New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump — was responsible for the league’s demise.
At Trump’s urging, USFL team owners voted to move the timing of the 1986 season to the fall, conflicting with the NFL. The USFL also filed an antitrust lawsuit, alleging the NFL had an illegal monopoly over television broadcast rights and stadium venue access. Trump hoped he could eventually force a merger with the NFL.
The USFL technically won the lawsuit — the trial jury did call the NFL a “duly adjudicated illegal monopoly.” However, most of the USFL’s actual claims were dismissed, and the league was awarded a paltry $1 (tripled to $3 under antitrust law) for damages. The USFL had planned to use its awarded damages to fund the scheduling change to the fall. It suspended operations for the 1986 season instead and never returned.
Pictured: USFL commissioner Harry Usher gestures during a news conference in New York after club owners voted to suspend play until 1987.
3. Alliance of American Football
Twenty-five years later, another football upstart tried the spring football idea. The Alliance of American Football launched in February 2019 as a sort of development league for the NFL. Charlie Ebersol, the son of influential NBC executive Dick Ebersol, was a co-founder, along with Bill Polian, the Hall of Fame NFL executive.
Alliance of American Football's Failure
The AAF was on shaky ground from the start, with teams only getting a few weeks to practice before the season started. The league was under-funded, too. During the season, teams struggled regularly to meet payroll and reimburse vendors.
After a few hectic months, with new financial backers coming in and leaving, the league shut down. It only played eight of its 10 planned regular-season games. In the end, the AAF lost $88 million during its short life, burning through $100 million in expenses against $12 million in revenue.
For two seasons between 2002-03, Spike TV aired a fast, exciting and often brutal contact sport that blended the best of basketball, football and gymnastics. An ambitious entrepreneur and producer named Mason Gordon developed the concept of SlamBall himself, placing four large trampolines in front of the hoop on either side of a standard basketball court. He organized impromptu teams, scheduled a game and invited Spike TV executive Albie Hecht to watch. Impressed with the game’s dazzling acrobatics and contact-encouraging rules, the network picked up and promoted SlamBall.
The sport caught on slowly during the first season, but it did catch on. The first game of the second season was ratings gold, landing 2.3 million viewers with key demographics and even threatening juggernauts like Saturday Major League Baseball. That, however, would prove to be the high-water mark. Although it was undeniably exciting in small doses, the novelty soon wore off, viewership cratered and television management squabbles spelled the end. Although it popped back up on lower-tier channels periodically in the ensuing years, the SlamBall era had ended.
5. Women’s United Soccer Association
In 1999, America caught football fever when the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team, led by superstars Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain, won the World Cup in dramatic fashion. One year later, the bosses of Comcast, Time Warner, Cox Communications and Discovery Communications tried to capitalize on the country’s newfound soccer enthusiasm by organizing the eight-team Women’s United Soccer Association.
Women’s United Soccer Association’s Failure
The excitement that brewed during the ’99 World Cup did not bubble over into the new venture. Viewership — and therefore ad revenue — never matched expectations, and in 2003, the league folded after three seasons. League founder John Hendricks and his investors initially raised $40 million, which he believed would carry the league for five years. The WUSA lost $46 million in its first year alone, according to the Chicago Tribune, $24 million the following year and $18 million-$19 million during the third and final year. Investors had to add $20 million a year to the original budget and, in the end, lost $90 million on a $100 million outlay.
6. NFL Europe
Just as the U.S. doesn’t have a national interest in soccer, which they call football in Europe, Europe still hasn’t come around to the brand of football Americans call football — but not for lack of effort. For 16 years between 1991-2007, the NFL tried to establish a beachhead across the Atlantic with a league that, despite several name changes, is known as NFL Europe.
NFL Europe’s Failure
The NFL’s creation of a six-team spring league in Europe was supposed to do three things. First, it was to serve as a proving ground and learning experience for green coaches and players to hone their skills in the offseason. It accomplished that end — treating Europe as an NFL farm league — fairly well. The other two objectives, not so much. The NFL hoped it would serve as a catalyst for American-style football to finally sweep Europe. That never happened. The third goal was to give American diehard NFL fans a sort of minor league outlet to watch in the spring, but stateside football fans proved uninterested. By the time the NFL finally threw in the towel, NFL Europe proved to be a venture that lost $30 million a year.
7. Roller Hockey International
RHI was the first major professional league dedicated to inline hockey — hockey played on linear roller skates popularized by Rollerblade instead of ice skates. It operated in North America between 1993-1999. Two things happened that made it possible. First, Wayne Gretzky’s historic trade from Edmonton to Los Angeles opened up a new interest in hockey in the United States, particularly in Southern California. Second, the inline-skate craze took off in the ’90s, also primarily in Southern California.
Roller Hockey International’s Failure
From the very outset, RHI’s administration and management abilities never matched that of the promise that the sport showed. The league was based on a franchise model, and those franchises were known for their instability as much as for their hockey. The numbers tell the tale. In 1993, there were 12 teams, which doubled to 24 the following year. In 1995, that number dropped to 19 teams, then 18 in ’96, then 10 in ’97, none in ’98, and finally, during the league’s final year in 1999, there were only eight teams left. The front office was as unpredictable as the franchises and a multimillion-dollar dispute over a puck patent only made the perpetual infighting worse.
8. Arena Football League
The Arena Football League was created as a cheaper alternative for football fans as the cost of attending an NFL game became prohibitive to many regular families. Played indoors, it had a much smaller field — about a quarter the size of an NFL gridiron — and was governed by rules that favored the offense to encourage exciting, high-scoring games while ensuring every seat in the house was good. The formula worked. Founded in 1987, it ran all the way through 1999, making it one of the oldest active American football leagues in the world before it disbanded.
Arena Football League’s Failure
The Arena Football League never threatened the NFL — it was never designed to — but it did enjoy a period of real mainstream success. At its peak, it had franchises in major American cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, and it boasted 2 million spectators a year. In 2009, however, the season was canceled due to a labor dispute. It returned the following year down from an average of 13,000 fans per game to 8,000. The league never recovered, dwindled consistently over the following decade and was canceled in 2019.
9. Negro League Baseball
In the years following the Civil War, both baseball and segregation became deeply entrenched pastimes in America and black ballplayers were relegated mostly to amateur leagues and traveling teams until 1920. That year, an African-American pitcher and visionary named Rube Foster created the Negro National League, the first of several significant professional baseball leagues for black, and occasionally Hispanic, players, which came to be known collectively as Negro League Baseball. Sometimes called the Negro Leagues, it flourished for three decades.
Negro League Baseball’s Failure
On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson started at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Major League Baseball color line had officially been broken, spelling the beginning of the end for the Negro Leagues. First a trickle, then a wave of black players were signed to big league ball, the Negro Leagues were rapidly depleted of talent and, soon after, fans. The grand experiment came to an end following the 1951 season.
It’s impossible to categorize Negro League Baseball as a failure, and if it failed, it failed for all the right reasons — but there was an unintended consequence. One of America’s most remarkable pre-Civil Rights black-owned business enterprises was lost to history.
10. Roller Derby
The fast, rough and wild sport of roller derby can be traced to Aug. 13, 1935, when event promoter Leo Seltzer staged an event that capitalized on both the widespread popularity of roller skating and a public yearning for a distraction during the Depression. A spectacle that started as team roller skate racing became increasingly more violent — and more popular — until Roller Derby and its rival league Roller Games were enormous spectacles that sold tens of thousands of tickets to single events and enjoyed widespread television broadcasts during the sport’s heydey.
Roller Derby’s Failure
Roller Derby was one of the earliest examples of men and women competing together — and of women competing at all in any physical sport — and of leagues welcoming blacks and other minorities, including openly gay players, into their ranks. Men were almost always paid more, but according to Smithsonian, Roller Derby’s women skaters were the highest-paid female athletes in America, earning as much as $30,000 a year. Just as the sport hit its zenith in the mid-1970s, so, too, did oil prices. Seltzer found it too expensive to provide transportation to the teams and too costly to heat the arenas they played in. In 1973, Seltzer sold Roller Derby’s rights to Roller Games, which continued in various forms to much lesser success through the 1980s.
11. North American Soccer League
The North American Soccer League (NASL) stands out as being the first significant pro soccer league to generate a real following in the United States. Existing from 1968-1984, its teams drew some of the world’s top talent — including Pele — and launched the modern soccer boom, and it laid the groundwork that would lead to America’s hosting the World Cup in 1994 and the arrival of MLS.
North American Soccer League’s Failure
Money was always tight and, although owners overpaid for stars like Pele, nonstar players earned only around $3,000 per season. They played mostly in baseball parks, which were hard to convert, and mismanagement was rampant. By 1980, the league engaged in a bitter squabble that ended with the elimination of several teams that had performed poorly. Three of the remaining teams dropped out in 1980 and seven more in 1981, including Pele’s New York Cosmos, which was owned by a company that had to cut its budget after losing money on Atari games. Finally, after the 1984 season, NASL was no more.
12. Pro Cricket
Today, organizers are attempting to establish a cricket league in the United States, which is estimated to be home to 20 million fans of the internationally appreciated sport. They wouldn’t be the first. In 2004, the Pro Cricket league launched in the U.S. playing a faster-moving, abbreviated variation of the game — normally, a single match can last for days — called Twenty20 (T20).
Pro Cricket’s Failure
Unlike soccer, which is familiar to many Americans even if they don’t watch it, cricket is completely alien. Most Americans don’t understand the game or even know the positions. That hurdle proved too big for Pro Cricket. Like the NASL, Pro Cricket also struggled with converting the baseball fields on which their games were played. It folded after just one season in 2004.
13. PRO Rugby
Since at least the late 1990s, organizers had been attempting to establish a professional rugby league in the United States to no avail. In 2016, however, the dream finally came to fruition when a five-team league called PRO Rugby was sanctioned by the sport’s governing body in America, USA Rugby. It started well, with thousands of fans turning out for matches even in bad weather — there was even a proposed expansion into Canada — but things soon began unraveling.
PRO Rugby’s Failure
Like so many other imported sports, securing a fitting venue and attracting and retaining fans was a struggle from the outset. The league received virtually no attention from local media. The Canada expansion fell through and the director of PRO Rugby quit without naming a replacement, which led to legal disputes. There were also legal disputes between the league and USA Rugby. Players weren’t paid, which led to them filing their own legal claims, and one year later in 2017, PRO Rugby folded after just two seasons.
14. World Hockey Association
Although several tried, no hockey league had ever truly competed with the NHL since the 1920s, but by the ’70s — following a major NHL expansion in 1967 — the sport was going mainstream and growing in popularity every year. Many cities, however, still didn’t have an NHL team, and the World Hockey Association (WHA) was formed in an effort to fill that void. The WHA’s organizers won a landmark case that allowed players in both leagues wide freedom in determining where they would play. Almost immediately, 67 players stunned the NHL by signing with the WHA. Many of them — like Gerry Cheevers, Bernie Parent and eventually, Mr. Hockey himself, Gordie Howe — were the biggest stars in the game. The WHA had deep pockets. Bobby Hull’s $2.75 million, 10-year WHA contract was a record at the time.
World Hockey Association’s Failure
From the outset, the NHL took an if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them approach and began discussing a merger with the WHA. Despite this intention, the relationship between the two leagues was hostile and several legal battles ensued. The WHA balked at talks of a merger and quickly began expanding — too quickly, actually. The league and its bankroll were spread too thin across too many cities with too many teams and by 1979, it was forced to acquiesce to the NHL’s push for a merger. That year, the NHL began gobbling up WHA teams, and the WHA was forced to fold.
15. Major League Ultimate
Ultimate is a light-contact sport often called ultimate frisbee, but since Frisbee is a Wham-O trademark, it’s not part of the sport’s official title. Created in the 1960s, ultimate frisbee had gained cult popularity by the 2000s and in 2013, Major League Ultimate (MLU) was formed as an eight-team, semiprofessional organization representing the U.S. and Canada.
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Major League Ultimate’s Failure
MLU was not the only game in town. The American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL) played its inaugural game in 2012, the year before MLU emerged. That early jump gave AUDL an advantage in both name recognition and in signing the sport’s top talent. By 2016, MLU was hemorrhaging money, investors were pulling out, and AUDL was clearly dominant. Before the start of the 2017 season, players received this email from MLU brass: “Due to the past losses, future projected losses and the inherent issues that we have found in our business model the Board of Directors has decided to suspend operations, effective immediately, and the company will be issuing a public statement shortly.”
16. Championship Gaming Series
For a short while, video games became an international sport — esport, that is. The Championship Gaming Series was launched in 2007 as an international gaming competition based in the United States. It was backed by huge promotional events and was modeled on real sports leagues, complete with a draft, qualifying matches and full-time team managers. Players who were drafted earned a base annual salary of $30,000 and were eligible for bonuses.
Championship Gaming Series’ Failure
The grandiose production and marketing schemes promoters used to try to propel the league into the mainstream helped hasten the league’s downfall. Expensive events like drafts at the Playboy Mansion and the SXSW festival bled the league’s budget. Also, the idea of watching people play video games on television simply never caught on with the masses. Just one year and two seasons later in 2008, Championship Gaming Series buckled under the realities of its huge expenditures and almost nonexistent income.
17. International Fight League
By 2006, mixed martial arts (MMA) was a mainstream sport thanks almost exclusively to the raging success of the UFC. Many lesser organizations tried to capitalize on the craze, but none were quite like the International Fight League (IFL), which proposed the first-ever team-based MMA league competition. A real estate developer and several well-heeled investors formed the league, which pitted two teams of at least three fighters each against each other in one-on-one bouts.
International Fight League’s Failure
The IFL was a unique and innovative idea — and a well-funded one at that. The league even went public and was valued at $150 million. The problems, however, piled up quickly. The IFL sensationalized the violence that’s inherent to the sport, which turned off many fans and fighters who had struggled so hard to improve its image as human cockfighting.
There was also a significant shortage of talent at both the fighter and trainer/coach levels. Also, the UFC continued to dominate and grow, overshadowing all other MMA enterprises. The league was burning through cash at an unsustainable pace, at one point spending $1 million per event despite receiving only $50,000 from its television contracts. By 2008, the IFL was reporting losses of $31 million and the company’s stock price plummeted from $17 to less than $1 per share. The league folded that year.
18. All-American Girls Professional Baseball League
The most famous defunct league in history is famous thanks to the mostly fictionalized movie “A League of Their Own.” The AAGPBL, however, was most certainly real. More than 600 women played in the league, and although everyone knows the story about women packing baseball stadiums while the men were off at war, it’s less known that the league, founded by Philip K. Wrigley, enjoyed nearly a decade of success after World War II.
All-American Girls Professional Baseball League’s Failure
The AAGPBL endured from its founding in 1943 to 1954. The inaugural season tallied 176,612 paid fans and by war’s end in 1945, that number climbed to almost a half million. After the war, the league remained successful, peaking at 910,000 paid fans in 1948. The arrival of television, however, as well as a huge variety of new entertainment offerings during the post-war boom, triggered a decline in attendance. In 1950, the business model changed to individual team operation, and with no central leadership or marketing, interest plummeted, teams began dropping off and in 1954, the league folded with only five remaining teams.
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About the Author
Andrew Lisa has been writing professionally since 2001. An award-winning writer, Andrew was formerly one of the youngest nationally distributed columnists for the largest newspaper syndicate in the country, the Gannett News Service. He worked as the business section editor for amNewYork, the most widely distributed newspaper in Manhattan, and worked as a copy editor for TheStreet.com, a financial publication in the heart of Wall Street’s investment community in New York City.