Today in Tedium: If the big business headlines of the last week have taught us anything, it’s that working at a startup is hard. You’re constantly hustling, looking for a way to get ahead and build towards an eventual growth track. And while you’re working your butt off there’s a nonzero chance that something’s going to go wrong and your entire bank is in danger of shutting down. (Bet they didn’t think that was a concern until last week.) But while plenty of people are very skeptical that startups have everyone’s best interests at heart, they nonetheless flourish. Naturally, today’s Tedium has to talk startups and the challenges that they face, but we’re going to leave the talk about tech startup risks to TechCrunch. Instead, we’re looking at failed sports leagues. You didn’t see that curveball coming, did you? — Ernie @ Tedium
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Why do people keep attempting to launch new professional sports leagues, anyway?
The failed sports league has a long history, and a lot of familiar names. Vince McMahon has been involved in at least two with the same name, both of which failed miserably (though a third attempt is just getting underway, sans McMahon). A certain former president was the majority owner of a team in one.
And inevitably, these kinds of projects attract people with money. As I wrote a couple of years ago, the cofounder of the defunct pharmacy chain Phar-Mor got into trouble because he was embezzling money from the retailer into the World Basketball League, a league whose gimmick was that all the players were short. (That cofounder, Mickey Monus, eventually tried moving into the Major Leagues, and played a key role in helping to launch the Colorado Rockies—a team he ultimately does not own because Phar-Mor’s accounting scandals sidelined him.)
But there are plenty more not-so-familiar ones, and sometimes they can get pretty weird.
Example: Did you know that there was a sports league dedicated to hockey played on inline skates? It’s true. That league, called Roller Hockey International, actually managed to survive six full seasons, though it notably folded in 1998, only to be revived again in 1999, then had to cancel the 2000 season and eventually disappeared entirely in 2001.
This league, which existed to exploit the then-trending interest in inline skating, was founded by Dennis Murphy, a longtime entrepreneur who made a career out of building new sports league concepts, many of which held up a lot longer than they arguably had any right to. (He died in 2021 at the age of 94.)
Part of the reason why he was allowed to keep trying was that he was one of the few people who had any sort of consistent success doing so. He cofounded the American Basketball Association and World Hockey Association, two leagues that became prominent enough that they eventually merged into the NBA and NHL, respectively. (He also was partly responsible for bringing World Team Tennis to the world, a league that, I kid you not, inspired an Elton John hit. I wrote about it the last time I dove into obscure sports leagues.)
Many leagues often end up in this weird trap of not being successful enough to reach their full potential, but finding enough weird success that they stick around anyway, hiding out on obscure versions of ESPN for bored viewers to find. (Murphy often got around this by specifically putting teams in markets that the primary league had yet to touch.)
Often, star athletes in these lower-key leagues have to have day jobs because playing ultimate frisbee does not pay the bills. YouTuber Marques Brownlee, perhaps the best-known tech reviewer on the planet, famously moonlights as a professional ultimate frisbee player.
They’re actually very reminiscent of startups, if you think about it—often reliant on more promise than paycheck, and in need of hype to get people to put down their hard-earned cash. But they differ in one important way, which is that sports leagues require a lot of people and stakeholders in a wide number of regions to even get off the ground. You need a group of business owners in every city that are willing to fork over the cash. You’re not just building a single business with fledgling sports league—you’re building a network of them, all with expenses in the forms of leases, promotion, and athlete payments. The minimum viable product for a new sports league is still pretty maximalist.
Which is just one reason why stability for new types of sports leagues can be a little hard to grasp.
Five examples of sports leagues that failed to make it beyond a single season
- Alliance of American Football. This league, essentially an attempt at developing a minor league for the NFL, had a decent pedigree for potentially succeeding, as it counted Charlie Ebersol, the son of longtime NBC executive and XFL cofounder Dick Ebersol, among its founders. The younger Ebersol was inspired after producing a 30 for 30 documentary on the XFL, and thought he could make it work—the problem was the execution, not the idea of a spring league on its own. So he brought experts on board, including legendary Buffalo Bills general manager Bill Polian, only for it to flame out in spectacular fashion in the middle of its first season, the victim of an ownership battle.
- American Pro Cricket. This league, one of a few attempts to bring professional cricket to American audiences, was created in 2004, and was associated with Dish Network’s support of a new network for South Asians living in the United States. That network, American Desi, launched in late 2004, but like the league, it would not last.
- American Lacrosse League. Despite being a relatively obscure sport compared to baseball and hockey, lacrosse has found more success than many other leagues of its type, with Major League Lacrosse (founded by “Body by Jake” infomercial legend Jake Steinfeld) lasting roughly 20 seasons before eventually merging with the upstart Premier Lacrosse League. But even it has had some degree of fits and starts, with the American Lacrosse League barely making it through its 1988 season before shuttering. And based on this letter to the editor league founder Terry Wallace wrote in Newsday, it was a demise that was filled with drama.
- PRO Rugby. Another example of an attempt to bring a sport popular in other parts of the world to the United States, PRO Rugby made it through the 2016 season with just five teams before shuttering at the end of the year. One notable fact about its structure is that unlike most sports leagues, which are owned in a franchise model, the league was operated by a single entity. On the plus side, the failure of PRO Rugby set the eventual stage for Major League Rugby, which seems to be having some success. (Want to learn more about PRO Rugby? Watch this YouTube documentary.)
- Xtreme Soccer League. This was one of a few attempts to bring to life indoor soccer, but this one was particularly fledgling, made up of just four teams across four states, only three of which were relatively close to one another. With teams in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Michigan, it would have been a regional league had New Jersey not hosted one of the teams. It failed abruptly after the 2008-2009 season. Of note: The Milwaukee Wave has survived through many failed indoor soccer leagues and is still somehow active today. It celebrates its 40th anniversary next year.
The number of professional pickleball leagues attempting to best one another for supremacy at the moment. The situation around the sport is fast moving—for example, the VIBE Pickleball League, originally operated by the Professional Pickleball Association, launched in November, only to be acquired by Major League Pickleball just days after it launched.
That time a real estate developer convinced a bunch of middle-aged ex-ballplayers to play in December
Listen, I hear your elder millennial jokes and I can’t do much about it. As someone in my early 40s, I am not technically that old, but I am certainly in that elder millennial category. Have at it. Criticize me for not knowing what cheugy means, and for that being cheugy.
But even though I am not that old, I have likely aged out of my opportunity to take part in the Senior Professional Baseball Association, a sports league that existed for a season and a half in 1989 and 1990. The league was essentially to baseball stars what The Villages are to everyone else—a place where longtime players live out their final days in the sun.
The concept was the brainchild of Jim Morley, a real estate developer and former minor-league baseball player who saw the opportunity to build a winter league that gave a bunch of former players the chance to do more than just sit around in retirement. It was a model that was translated from golf, where the Senior PGA Tour (now known as PGA Tour Champions) had found much success in keeping stars in the game well into their golden years.
The SPBA did not reach quite those heights. It was technically a regional league, with teams only based in Florida (which makes sense, because again, winter league). But it did get a full season and a half out of the way before it shuttered in 1990, bringing well-known athletes like hall-of-fame pitcher Rollie Fingers and infielder (and later, successful coach and manager) Ron Washington one more opportunity to play the game that had given them a career.
Per the Society for American Baseball Research, Morley organized these players together in a strategy that sounds like it shouldn’t have worked, but did—he looked up a list of all major-league players, determined the ones that had played between 1969 and 1978, and sent them postcards, asking if they might be interested in reliving their major league glory in a startup league. He then leveraged Major League Baseball’s existing infrastructure—essentially, the facilities he used were training camps that largely sat unused before February or so. (At least one major league team did not like this—the Chicago White Sox complained that they were going to use their Sarasota facility, Morley told Florida Today. His response: “We just said, ’We don’t need it. Let’s go to Bradenton.”)
The gambit worked—he had built a league of eight teams, along with a network of owners to help manager the whole thing. It was very much a startup—Morley anticipated that each team would lose $200,000 in the first season—but it was one that had potential. It even had a television contract.
The problem was, that potential didn’t exactly reach the fans. As Sports Illustrated noted, most teams struggled to bring in even a modest number of fans, with a good night being more than 3,000 attendees and some nights bringing in just hundreds of fans. As a Florida Today piece located directly next to the profile of Morley put it: “Attendance in the first days of the Senior Professional Baseball Association season was about as different as a 50-year-old pitcher and a 32-year-old catcher.”
The lack of interest, especially as the season dragged on, was noticeable, and plenty had their theories.
“You’re playing in the winter time in Florida and everybody still wants to go to the beach during the day,” Fingers told Sports Illustrated. “And they don’t want to spend a night at the ballpark. That’s why we didn’t draw.”
By December 1990, the dream was dead. The league got through its first season, and ran with six teams into its second, but when the Fort Myers Sun Sox announced that they were shutting down, it created too many problems for the league to continue into play. When asked about the nature of the problems facing the league, Sun Sox owner Michael Graham put it like this, according to The Naples Daily News: “All you have to do is look in the stands.”
Attendance numbers didn’t tell the full story. Sure, the league may have sold those tickets, but in many cases, the tickets were purchased but never used.
It turns out that people simply didn’t want to see 40-year-old baseball players strike out.
The number of teddy bears that Senior Professional Baseball Association player Luis Tiant was traded for in 1989, along with outfielder Ralph Garr. “They weren’t just teddy bears, you know. They were Ruxpin bears,” claimed Ray Negron, the general manager of the St. Lucie Legends. (As we have covered in the past, Teddy Ruxpin bears were high-end toys that were originally priced closer to video game consoles than stuffed animals. At a price of around $69.99 at the time, he was essentially traded for $35,000—which, given that the salaries in the league at the time where nowhere near that price, Tiant might actually see it as a sign of his value, perhaps?)
So, I guess the thing I want to convey with this piece, by highlighting all of these failures, is that the startup world does not have a monopoly on moving fast and breaking things.
That is not to say that their work isn’t noble, or that they don’t do awesome things. Just that there are lots of ways to lose your money in short order. Whether the sport is baseball, rugby, soccer, lacrosse, or pickleball, lots of people have lost a lot of money trying to bring professional sports leagues to life, and those naturally come with a lot of costs that most tech startups don’t even have to think about. Most startups don’t have to rent out arenas.
That the world of technology is simply better at developing these things than the world of sports is obvious. But I think that we don’t do enough as a society to honor those who are willing to put their necks out there and risk a little for the potential of a lot of gain.
Sure, they may not bring in the crowds, but they knew the risk going in. And hey, they’re way more fun to look back at than a sports almanac.