EPISODE #65: The CFL’s American Expansion Experiment with Sportswriter Ed Willes

As Johnny Manziel’s pro football comeback journey wraps up a promising pre-season with the Canadian Football League’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats, we take a moment this week to reminisce on the approaching 25th anniversary of the CFL’s bold, but ultimately ill-fated attempt to bring its exciting brand of pigskin south of the border in 1993.

When the NFL put the brakes on its two-year World League of American Football experiment in the summer of 1992 (which included a franchise in Montreal, dubbed the “Machine”), an economically wobbly CFL sensed an opportunity to fill the gap in US markets newly comfortable with the notion of pro football, as well as a potential growth path for the tradition-rich Canadian game to expand outside the Provinces.  In fact, two WLAF owners, Fred Anderson (Sacramento Surge) and Larry Benson (San Antonio Riders) "crossed over" to the Canadian League and were awarded newly rechristened franchises for 1993 – Anderson’s Sacramento Gold Miners and Benson's San Antonio Texans. 

While the Gold Miners were the only ones to make it into the following season’s expanded CFL schedule (Benson literally – and ominously – left the league at the altar by bowing out the day of the league’s press conference announcing the expansion), the door was open to a wild three-season adventure that brought the wide-open Canadian game to far-flung American outposts in Baltimore, Las Vegas, Shreveport, Memphis, Birmingham, and, ironically (via eventual relocation from Sacramento), San Antonio.

Longtime Vancouver Province sportswriter Ed Willes (End Zones and Border Wars: The Era of American Expansion in the CFL) joins the podcast to discuss the league’s short-lived American expansion effort, which then-commissioner Larry Smith had hoped to eventually encompass ten US teams in a fully expanded 20-team league.  

Among the misadventures, Willes recounts: the 1995 champion Baltimore Stallions (who operated as the nickname-less “CFLers” the previous season in a trademark dispute with the NFL over the “Colts” moniker); the woefully attended Las Vegas Posse (who practiced on the Strip in the Riviera Hotel’s parking lot and were forced to play their last “home” game in Edmonton); the Memphis Mad Dogs’ unique approach to fitting the longer/wider CFL field into the Liberty Bowl; why football-mad Birmingham couldn’t draw flies for Barracuda games once college and high school seasons started; and the “Great Tucker Caper” – featuring the infamous brothers Glieberman and their attempt to steal away the Shreveport Pirates to the greener pastures of Norfolk, VA.

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End Zones & Border Wars: The Era of American Expansion in the CFL - buy book here

EPISODE #26: The TVS Television Network with Producer/Director Howard Zuckerman

On January 20, 1968, a frenzied crowd of 52,693 packed the Houston Astrodome to witness the #2-ranked University of Houston Cougars nip the #1 (and previously undefeated) UCLA Bruins in a college basketball spectacle that legendarily became the sport’s “Game of the Century.”  In addition to the record-sized gate, it was the first-ever college game to be televised nationally in prime time – and it was sports entrepreneur Eddie Einhorn’s scrappy little independent network of affiliated stations called the TVS Television Network that brought it to millions of TV viewers.  Calling all the shots from the production truck was veteran TV sports director Howard Zuckerman – who quickly became the backbone for the fledgling ad hoc network’s subsequent coverage of not only college hoops, but also two of the most colorful pro sports leagues of the 1970s – the World Football League and the North American Soccer League.  Zuckerman joins host Tim Hanlon to recount some of his most memorable (and forgettable) moments in TVS history, including:

  • Surviving a power outage in the middle of the WFL’s first-ever national telecast from Jacksonville;
  • Managing a motley crew of rotating guest commentators for WFL broadcasts, including the likes of George Plimpton, Burt Reynolds and McLean Stevenson;
  • Hastily reorienting weekly WFL production travel plans as teams suddenly relocated or folded;
  • Faking on-field injuries during NASL telecasts to allow for ad hoc commercial breaks;
  • The origins of the specially-composed TVS theme song and its orchestral big band sound; AND
  • Post-TVS work, including the Canadian Football League’s Las Vegas Posse, and the worldwide music landmark event Live Aid.

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Numerous WFL photos courtesy: Richie Franklin's World Football League website - visit here