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The Sporting News, September 1974

Canadians Say 'No Thanks' to WFL's Sample

By Charlie Vincent

LONDON, ONTARIO - Before Labour Day - that's the way they spell it up here - Canadians weren't sure they wanted the World Football League on their soil.

And what they saw in small Little Stadium here on that day didn't do much to convince them either.

The WFL went international showcasing its two worst teams, the Detroit Wheels and Portland Storm in a city the league hopes to occupy by 1976. It was a poor idea pushed through the league office without sufficient time to promote the game and in the end everyone admitted it.

Very little went right.

"I got the impression from the very beginning that it was being treated as an exhibition," Wheels publicist Ray Hozer said. "It just was not like a real game. People in London looked at it as an exhibition

THE LEAGUE HAD an attaché case full of reasons for moving the game from the original site in Ypsilanti, home of the Wheels.

Portland owner Bob Harris, a native of London, wanted to test the market here; there was fear that the Wheels could not draw in Ypsilanti because of rumors of their impending move, and the WFL wanted to establish itself on Canadian soil before legislation could be passed banning it here.

Take your pick.

But when it was all over, even Don Anderson, the WFL's vice-president for public relations admitted; "It wasn't a very good idea."

THE LEAGUE, still trying to build an identity for itself in the United States, bit off more than it could digest in moving into solid Canadian Football League territory.

The day before the game, I called the Holiday Inn in downtown London where the Wheels were to stay.

"Have the Detroit Wheels arrived yet?" I asked the switch board operator.

"What was his last name again, please?" she replied.

The grounds crew at Little Stadium accustomed to the Canadian game, marked off the field for 110 yards, and then hastily had to shorten it before game time. There were no numbers on the field, designating the 10, 20, 30, 40 or 50 yard lines, but red pythons sat along the field every ten yards. All you had to do was count four pythons from the end zone to know the ball was at the 40.

SOME OF THE visiting press poked fun at the unimpressive size of the 26-man Royal Canadian Legion marching band which played both "The Star Spangled Banner" and "God Save The Queen" before the game.

But they were the only quality team on the field that day.

The crowd was announced at 5105 - the season's smallest for a WFL game - but Canadian reporters who had been to the 11,000-seat stadium before insisted 3,500 was closer to the truth.

"We'd expected twice this many," Harris told the curious press as he was interviewed in the nearly-empty stands at halftime. "But we didn't have time to promote it properly and the weather (there were showers) hurt too.

"THIS DOESN'T change my mind about anything, though. I still want a team here by 1975 if possible, but more likely by 1976."

Harris insisted he's not moving the Storm here that he intends to try to establish an expansion franchise in this city of 233,000 halfway between Detroit and Toronto.

And he says that was his thinking all along...even before the hostile crowd began taunting the ineptness of both clubs in the final quarter.

Between them, the two teams had just one tie to show for their first 16 games. And the few fans who paid to see them play were not impressed at all.

"WHERE ARE the professionals"? One leather-lunged front-row fan yelled, causing the players on the Portland bench to turn and search for the offending voice. "Forget the amateurs. You guys really get paid for that?"

That might seem a harsh judgment.

But just minutes later, in the Detroit dressing room, Wheels quarterback Bubba Whyche, who had suffered his ninth loss of the season, added a damning second to the fan's appraisal.

"I didn't see anybody out there that impressed me," he said.

The next time the WFL takes to show on the road, it had better be certain it can impress somebody.

WFL notes: Bob Gladieux, the former Notre Dame great who has emerged as one of the league's top rushers, says antiquated Downing Stadium has been a big asset to the New York Stars. "It's depressing to us so you can imagine what it's like for someone coming in here for the first time." Gladieux said. "This is the worst football field I've ever played on in my life and it's the worst field in pro football. It has to be a natural letdown for someone to come into the bright lights of New York, look around the big city and then come to this place to play."

The Stars have asked the league for permission to switch their September 25 game against the Detroit Wheels to the previous night in Downing, to avoid conflict with Yom Kippur, the Jewish holy day.

Memphis Southmen Owner John Bassett is still trying to figure out where all his team's fans are coming from. Through three home games, the Southmen's turnstile count was 86,458 but an audit showed they dispensed only 72,469 tickets - 68,711 paid and 3,758 which were free. The club has hired guards to prevent possible gate crashing. That's a problem several other WFL teams wish they had.

The WFL had no qualms about tackling the NFL, but it wasn't about to tackle the 1974-75 premier TV showings of the Walton's, Ironside, and Streets of San Francisco, so there was no nationally televised game of the week September 12.

The next four TV games will have Houston at Birmingham (September 19), Chicago Fire at Florida (September 26), New York at Chicago (October 3) and Houston at Southern California (October 10).

Two of the WFL's top offensive players returned to football this season after only a light look-see by NFL clubs. Tommy Durrance of Jacksonville, one of the WFL's top rushers, lasted just two days in the Pittsburgh Steelers camp in 1972, and Birmingham's Alfred Jenkins, one of the best receivers in the league, got a brief tryout with Houston in 1973, but as a return specialist, not a receiver.