Birmingham went crazy to try to attract the World League of American Football. It had been one of the USFL’s best markets before a moronic property developer from Queens tried to go head-on with the NFL, and that debacle was only five or six years in the past, so the notion of pro football in the spring was still a fresh and attractive prospect. After all, Birmingham had finished on top of both seasons of the abortive World Football League in 1974 and 75. More to the point, this was an era when the NFL had only 28 teams and hadn’t expanded since 1976. Monday Night Football was still a network broadcast and a big deal, and the only games other than Sundays and MNF were the Thanksgiving double-header and a handful of Saturday matchups in December. Preseason games were still a traveling attraction (including Washington-Atlanta in 1988 at Legion Field).
More to the point, the WLAF was a league run by the NFL. In a world where the Colts and Cardinals had both moved cities since 1982, and where Birmingham and Memphis had been promised first consideration for the next NFL expansion after finishing out of the money in 1976, the thought was that an NFL-sanctioned developmental team was the first step toward Birmingham in the NFL. Don’t forget, there were no Titans or Jaguars at this point – an NFL team midway between Atlanta and New Orleans made perfect sense to some people, even if it wasn’t actually midway.
In retrospect, the placement of the teams should have been a bit of a warning. The usual suspects were there: Orlando, San Antonio, the running mates we’d all come to know well in the eternal quest for successful off-brand pro football. There was a team in New York, because of course there was, and inexplicably there was a team in Raleigh-Durham and one in Sacramento. But there were also teams in Montreal, London, Barcelona and Frankfurt. And to have Birmingham in that mix was heady indeed.
The timing couldn’t have been better, though. I had just really discovered sports after a life of being aware of Alabama football and basically nothing else (aside from the NBA Finals in high school), and a completely new league with a hometown team was an immensely attractive proposition even before factoring in that it would play less than a mile from my dorm. I was all in. I had a hat, a jersey, even a clipboard from their merchandise store in Five Points South. I appreciated that the rules were much closer to college rules (a 2-point conversion and one foot down, for starters, not to mention a non-sudden-death overtime rule) in an era when the NFL hadn’t really changed anything since the AFL merger.
The Fire were pretty crap that first year, then were good enough for the playoffs the next year, and then the NFL pulled the plug, because they were having trouble monetizing what was pretty clearly a minor league operation. The WLAF would return as NFL Europe and last over a decade abroad, mostly in Germany, and I did wind up with a Rhine Fire hat thanks to my brother’s choir trip, but that would be it for anything approximating the NFL in Birmingham. In the years to come, there would be the Canadian Football League (one season), the XFL (one season), af2 minor-league arena football [sic] which would amazingly hang on for seven or eight years, and now…
Now we have the Birmingham Iron. Yet another fairly explicit minor league not seeking to compete with the NFL, but one that has made rules changes which I would gladly see adopted wholesale at all levels of the game. No more kickoffs, just set the ball on the 25 and go. No more extra point kicks; you go for two every time. No more onside kicks; you get the ball 4th and 12 at your own 25 and have to convert to keep going. And in the case of Birmingham, a hard-nosed defense averaging almost three takeaways per game that thinks nothing of busting you square in the snotbox, which combined with their matte black no-logo no-name uniforms gives an effect reminiscent of Goldberg’s unbeaten squash-match streak in WCW.
The usual suspects are in this league. There’s a team in Memphis (duh), in San Antonio (obviously) and Orlando (WATFO) but also in San Diego (recently robbed of an NFL franchise) and Salt Lake City (uh OK). And there’s a pair of teams from current NFL towns: one in Phoenix and one in Atlanta. And that’s how, for the first time in my life, after 47 years, I finally got to see a Birmingham team meet an Atlanta team on the field of sport. And Birmingham slobber-knocked them in the second half and won handily, 28-12. Somewhere my great-aunt is smiling (and spitting snuff into her dip cup).
Now is a different era, obviously. Birmingham is a five hour drive or less away from three of the NFL’s 32 teams, and the odds of the big league ever coming to the city are minimal at best. Hell, an actual G League team in 2020 (paired with New Orleans, a longtime natural fit) is a huge step up, as would be a move for the Barons from AA to AAA someday (especially with Nashville, Memphis and the Atlanta suburbs already there). And that’s probably about all you can expect at this point in history. Major League Baseball isn’t coming to Birmingham in my lifetime – indeed, they’re probably fixed for good at this point unless someone gets a wild hair to move the Oakland A’s to Nashville or Portland. The NFL will never add a fourth team square in the middle of three more, even if I wanted them to. The time to get in on the NHL was when the Birmingham Bulls were just a hair too good to get first pick in the dispersal draft of the WHA’s Indianapolis Racers, which would have netted Wayne Gretzky (maybe could have had five Stanley Cups in Birmingham by now).
I don’t know what kind of future the Alliance of American Football has. On the merits I’d say it’s in as good a shape as any of the others who have taken a flyer on spring/summer pro football in my lifetime, which ain’t saying heaps. But it does suggest an era of fresh possibility, when great things might be afoot and the future is loaded with potential.
Wouldn’t that be something.