Mark Madden: Rival leagues could solve many of sport’s problems |
Mark Madden, Columnist

Mark Madden: Rival leagues could solve many of sport’s problems

Julius Erving, star forward for the New York Nets, poses prior to a game against the Virginia Squires on April 8, 1974, in Uniondale, N.Y. Rival leagues such as the ABA are good for their sports in the long run, Mark Madden writes.
Julius Erving of the New York Nets leans into Mel Bennett of the Virginia Squires during their ABA game at the Nassau Coliseum on Friday, March 5, 1976 in Uniondale, N.Y. Rival leagues such as the ABA are good for their sports in the long run.

Sports are stale. Badly over-expanded and diluted. Yet the old suffocates the new.

The New York Yankees have a storied history, but maybe pinstripes make non-fans cringe by now. (The same could doubtless be said about hypocycloids.)

The solution: a rival league.

It wouldn’t matter what sport. Not as long as there are new teams, different color schemes, fun logos and inventive rules. Poke the establishment. Let’s have bidding wars over superstars and draft picks and an anti-trust lawsuit for good measure.

The XFL and already-defunct Alliance of American Football aren’t rival leagues. They’re minor leagues.

The American Football League was a rival league. It gave us names on players’ jerseys. It gave us Joe Namath. It gave us the Super Bowl. Without a rival league, the NFL would have had nobody to play. The NFL/AFL merger made football truly big-time. It gave the Steelers a needed $3 million for switching to the American Football Conference when the merger took place in 1970. (Note the timetable. They spent it wisely.)

The World Hockey Association was a rival league. It gave Bobby Hull a check for a million bucks. It gave us Gordie Howe’s comeback. It gave us Wayne Gretzky’s start. It opened its doors wide for European and American players. It gave us regular-season overtime. It experimented with blue pucks. (Not every innovation works.)

The American Basketball Association was a rival league. It gave us the 3-pointer. It gave us the red, white and blue ball. It gave us Julius Erving’s beginning. It gave Connie Hawkins a chance. It gave Pittsburgh a championship in 1968 via the Pipers. It inspired “Semi-Pro,” Will Ferrell’s best sports movie.

The United States Football League was a rival league. It gave us Herschel Walker, Jim Kelly and Steve Young. It also gave us Donald Trump. It let collegians turn pro early. It proved spring football can work before idiotically switching to fall and never playing another game. It gave us replay challenges (which Mike Tomlin always loses).

The American League started out as a rival to the National League, being founded in 1901 (25 years after the National League).

If we can get abstract, pro wrestling was never better than when World Wrestling Entertainment had a legit rival in World Championship Wrestling, which overtook WWE after creating its own fictional in-house rival, the New World Order.

A rival league means more money for the players.

A rival league means more sports on TV. (That seems impossible.)

A rival league means the established league tries harder.

A rival league usually ends with a merger.

A rival league always results in change. It’s never boring.

Rival leagues are fun. (Unless you’re a Chicago Blackhawks fan and Hull jumps the team for the WHA’s Winnipeg Jets. Or the St. Louis football Cardinals and you draft Namath in the first round but he signs with the AFL’s New York Jets. Or the Flint Tropics and you finish fourth but still don’t get into the NBA.)

But the day of the rival league is likely over. The NFL has 32 teams, the NHL 31, MLB and the NBA 30 apiece. The market is saturated, and there isn’t enough talent to go around. The business of big-time sports is so huge that newbies can’t shoehorn their way in. The last legit rival league was the USFL, and it folded in 1985.

The legacies remain, however.

Recommended reading: “Going Long” (AFL), “Loose Balls” (ABA), “The Rebel League” (WHA), and “Football for a Buck” (USFL). Each league was a wacky, wild ride.

Perusing any of these books would be more entertaining than watching yet another Yankees-Red Sox game on ESPN.

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