Ranking the 10 Professional Football Leagues to Compete with the NFL

Few leagues have had success in this area

The newly launched XFL is about halfway through its inaugural season and seems to be off to a good start. While it is not directly competing with the NFL because it is playing in the offseason, creating a new football league in this day and age is always a gamble.

 

There have been a few leagues like the Arena Football League that totally re-did the rules of football. And the NFL backed the World League of American Football (later renamed to NFL Europe) for 16 years, which helped cultivate talent, but didn't draw fans. Outside of those two, only a few have been successful by playing the same game. Most have failed spectacularly. Here is every one of them ranked.

 

10. Alliance of American Football (AAF)

First Season: 2019

Last Season: 2019

Next time you have a drink, tip a little out for the Orlando Apollos. The team, coached by Steve Spurrier, averaged nearly 30 points and led the AAF with a 7-1 record before the league folded with two games left in the season.

 

9. First American Football League (AFL I)

First Season: 1926

Last Season: 1926

The six-year-old NFL was still a hot mess in 1926 and agent C.C. Pyle decided to start a new league with his client, Red Grange, as the main attraction. The league was even able to poach the Rock Island Independents from the NFL in a move that would seal the franchise's doom. The Independents and the AFL I folded after one season, and Grange's New York Yankees were absorbed by the NFL.

 

8. United Football League (UFL)

First Season: 2009

Last Season: 2012

The UFL never had more than five teams in its three and a half seasons (the league folded halfway through the 2012 campaign) but did give legendary NFL and Virginia Destroyers head coach Marty Schottenheimer his only championship in 2011.

 

7. Third American Football League (AFL III)

First Season: 1940

Last Season: 1941

The fledgling league was limping along when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor pulled professional football players into World War II, ensuring the AFL III's demise.

 

6. First XFL

First Season: 2001

Last Season: 2001

Pro wrestling was at the height of its popularity when WWE owner Vince McMahon launched the overhyped XFL. The 14 million viewers who tuned in for the first game were Stone Cold Stunned with mediocre football, and Nielsen ratings plummeted. NBC pulled out of its broadcast contract, and the XFL folded after one season.

 

5. World Football League (WFL)

First Season: 1974

Last Season: 1975

The 13-team league that played 20 games from July to December got off to a strong start by signing three future Pro Football Hall of Famers in Larry Csonka, Paul Warfield, and Curley Culp, along with a number of other NFL stars. However, it couldn’t afford to pay them and folded 12 games into its second season.

 

4. Second American Football League (AFL II)

First Season: 1936

Last Season: 1937

This league has a few things going for it from a sports history perspective. First, its Cleveland Rams joined the NFL after the 1936 season, and the franchise is still alive and kicking today. Second, the Los Angeles Bulldogs became the first professional team to win a league title with a perfect record in the AFL II’s second and final season.

 

3. United States Football League (USFL)

First Season: 1983

Last Season: 1985

The USFL played an 18-game schedule from February to June and was able to sign top talent that included Herschel Walker, Reggie White, Jim Kelly, and Steve Young. The league had two solid seasons and then chose to move its 1986 schedule to the fall to compete with the NFL. The fledgling league did not have the capital for such an endeavor and sued the NFL for $1.7 billion for having a monopoly on television broadcasting. After a 42-day trial, a six-person jury ruled that the NFL did have a monopoly, but that the USFL also was woefully mismanaged. The jury awarded the league a grand total of $3.00 for its troubles, sealing its fate. The 1986 season was canceled, and the league folded.

 

2. All-America Football Conference (AAFC)

First Season: 1946

Last Season: 1949

The AAFC and its Cleveland Browns helped revolutionize pro football. Head coach Paul Brown’s innovations included year-round coaching staffs and breaking down game film with his team. The AAFC also reintegrated pro football and introduced air travel for away games. The league merged with the NFL after the 1949 season, giving the Browns and the San Francisco 49ers a new home. In 1950, the Browns went 10-2 and beat the Los Angeles Rams to win their fifth straight title, showing just how competitive the AAFC really was. Only the league at the top of this list was more influential to pro football.

 

1. Fourth American Football League (AFL)

First Season: 1960

Last Season: 1969

Texas oilman Lamar Hunt took his brethren's approach of going big or going home with his founding of the fourth iteration of the AFL. The league paid top-dollar for the best talent and took the air to offer an alternative to run-oriented NFL. After league commissioner Al Davis began pursuing the NFL's top quarterbacks in 1966 and signed some of them, the NFL came to the negotiating table. A merger was agreed to and fully fulfilled in 1970, putting the NFL was on its way to becoming the most popular league in American sports.

 

— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.

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