Would-be NFL Lockout Alternatives: Detroit Wheels


With the NFL lockout still in full-force, we continue our look at some alternatives of the past that could have been a useful distraction while the NFL owners and players settle their dispute. We continue today with the Detroit Wheels of the World Football League.

The World Football League was created to bring American football to markets across the world. Given that stated goal, it isn’t hard to label the league an utter failure considering they never reached beyond Honolulu, Hawaii.

Some of the would-be NFL lockout alternatives we have and will have reviewed had some level of viability, however the Detroit Wheels were seemingly a failure from the beginning of the WFL’s inaugural season in 1974. The team had name-recognition in their ownership group, Marvin Gaye and Mike Ilitch to name two, but lacked the financial backing that one would expect from such prominent men. Financial restrictions put in place by ownership prevented the team from signing 30 of the team’s 33 draft picks. An inability to find players was just their first problem.

Not only did the Wheels have trouble finding players, they had trouble finding a place to play. In the end, they would up at Eastern Michigan University’s Rynearson Stadium. They played in front of over 30,000 fans in their opener at Memphis but came home to play in front of just 10,631 against the Florida Blazers. Poor attendance hurt the team’s already shaky financial standing and that was never going to turn around considering the poor play on the field. A particularly low point came prior to the Wheels’ eighth game. From the World Football League website:

The Wheels rolled into Philadelphia with a 0-7 won-lost record. Broken, battered and dejected the players entered the ancient monolith called JFK Stadium. In the locker room it was discovered the team didn’t have the necessary tape and medical supplies needed to prepare the club for the game. One observer stated, “We can’t play without taping up, we’ll get killed out there.” The team was almost forced to not play the game. Wide receiver Jon Henderson eventually persuaded a medical supplies salesman from Johnson & Johnson to “donate” a box of tape to the team- the Wheels, taped, lost 27-23.

The Detroit Wheels finally won a game after starting the season 0-10 and it came on the road, not that there would have been any fans in Ypsilanti to see it. The financial pressures were becoming too much for the Wheels to bare and the league took over the team’s finances. After 14 weeks of play and a 1-13 record, the league folded the Detroit Wheels six games prior to the end of the WFL’s inaugural season.

The WFL attempted a 1975 season but folded prior to its completion.

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