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The Untold Stories of Forgotten Teams

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#26 San Antonio Riders

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The National Football League announced plans to back a developmental spring football league in 1989.  The defunct United States Football League popularized (to a degree) the concept of springtime football from 1983 to 1985, before flaming out in a burst of hubris, red ink and failed anti-trust litigation against the NFL.  The NFL’s spring concept, run by long-time Dallas Cowboys exec Tex Schramm, would place spring football in second-tier U.S. markets as well as large European cities, Montreal and possibly Mexico City.  26 of the 28 NFL clubs contributed $800,000 each to launch the league with a start date of March 1991.  The Chicago Bears and Phoenix Cardinals declined to participate.  The remaining NFL owners held the majority of the league’s stock but would not directly operate the clubs.  Franchise operating rights would be sold for each market.

Under Schramm’s direction, the World League of American Football (WLAF) began announcing member cities in the spring of 1990, despite the fact that local ownership had yet to be firmed up in each market.  The WLAF announced San Antonio, Texas on April 28th, 1990.  The league struggled to locate ownership in some cities, but in San Antonio there were two competing bidders.  Gavin Maloof, former President of the NBA’s Houston Rockets and son of the late New Mexico beer and banking baron George Maloof, Sr., headed one bid.  San Antonio attorney Larry Benson, younger brother of New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson, headed the other bid, a 15-member syndicate called Texas Football, Inc. which also included Dallas Cowboys coaching legend Tom Landry and his son, Tom Jr.

Schramm was fired by NFL officials in October 1990 and replaced by Minnesota Vikings executive Mike Lynn, a strong proponent of local ownership for WLAF clubs.  The San Antonio franchise went to Benson’s group in mid-November 1990, while Maloof ended up with the WLAF’s Birmingham franchise.  Benson became majority owner and managing partner with a 45% stake in the club.  In addition to Benson’s group of 15 individual investors, two local corporate investors – Valero Energy Corp. and the United States Automobile Association – stepped up and bought 10% ownership stakes in Texas Football, Inc.

Stadium considerations fueled the competing interests for the San Antonio market rights.  Construction crews broke ground on the 65,000-seat Alamodome in November 1990 and the building projected to open in time for the WLAF’s third spring season in 1993.  In the meantime, the Riders intended to play at at Alamo Stadium, a 50-year old Works Progress Administration facility managed by the San Antonio School District (SASD).  Alamo seated only 23,000 and had played host to San Antonio’s previous failed pro football franchises, the San Antonio Wings of the World Football League (1975) and the San Antonio Gunslingers of the United States Football League (1984-1985).

The Riders had a challenging relationship with the SASD from the start.  The district refused to allow the sale of beer at WLAF games and also blocked the Riders’ ability to display beer advertising in the stadium.  In return, Riders ownership scrapped plans to fund $235,000 in renovations to the building.  In June 1991, SASD officials announced plans for a 65% rent increase on the Riders for the 1992 season, raising the per-game rate from the $12,000/game paid in 1991 to an estimated $19,600/game for the 1992 season.  The relationship would last for only one season.

WLAF player salaries were strictly controlled.  On the low end, kickers earned $15,000 for the 1991 season, while quarterbacks earned a base salary of $25,000.  All other positional players earned $20,000 base plus incentives.  The Riders featured a handful of NFL vets, the most experienced being seven-year veteran cornerback Bobby Humphery formerly of the New York Jets.  But the WLAF was not a league for aging players on the back side of 28, as previous NFL competitors such as the WFL and USFL had often been.  Most Riders were former late round draft picks, developmental squad players and training camp cuts, still with youth in their favor and looking to stay on the radar of NFL personnel departments.

The Riders debuted at home on April 1st, 1991 with a 10-3 loss to the Frankfurt Galaxy before 18,432 fans.  The WLAF’s international flavor was on display early as Willie Nelson’s rendition of the Star Spangled Banner was followed by Der San Antonio Liederkranz’s performance of the German national anthem in honor of the visiting team (which was composed almost entirely of Americans).

The Riders played their second home game just six days later on April 7th, a 10-3 victory over the Sacramento Surge.  Only 6,772 turned out, surprising WLAF President Mike Lynn, attending his first WLAF game in a U.S. city.  “I am somewhat mystified at why there aren’t more people here,” Lynn told The San Antonio Express News.

The first season drew to a close in June 1991 when two of the WLAF’s European teams – the Barcelona Dragons and the London Monarchs – met in World Bowl I at London’s Wembley Stadium before a crowd of 61,108.  The success of the European clubs in the standings was mirrored off the field.  The four European clubs plus Montreal occupied the top five spots in WLAF attendance figures, each averaging at least 29,000 fans per game.  Of the five American clubs, only Maloof’s Birmingham Fire averaged over 20,000 fans.  San Antonio finished 9th in the ten team league with average attendance of 14,853 for five games at Alamo Stadium.  USA Network, in the first year of a four-year $18M cable rights deal, hoped to average a 3.0 Nielsen rating for American broadcasts, but achieved only a 1.2.  ABC was similarly disappointed in their network ratings.

In October 1991, NFL voted on whether to continue operations of the World League for the 1992 season.  Media estimates pegged the inaugural season losses at approximately $15 million, inclusive of operating losses of the ten franchises, as well as the capital contributed by each NFL franchise.  Low television ratings were also a concern, with both ABC and USA requesting adjustments to their deals due to low ratings.  The WLAF franchise owners themselves had little say in the matter, but had to put marketing and other decisions on hold as the NFL tabled the vote for more than a month.  For their part, the Riders claimed a relatively modest operating loss of $250,000 for the 1991 season, despite low attendance.

After the NFL approved a 1992 season in late October, the Riders immediately announced plans to move to 16,000-seat Bobcat Stadium on the campus of Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos.  The team still intended to return to San Antonio proper in 1993 to play at the Alamodome.  In the meantime, they would pay $16,000 rent per game in 1992 with dramatically improved lease terms over the Alamo Stadium deal – the Riders could sell & advertise beer in San Marcos, and for the first time they would participate in parking and concessions revenue.

The Riders debuted at Bobcat Stadium on March 22, 1992.  10,698 fans turned out to see the Riders dispatch the Montreal Machine 17-16, courtesy of 123 yards rushing from new arrival Ivory Lee Brown.  The move to Bobcat Stadium hurt the Riders season ticket base, which dropped approximately 30% from 7,000 in 1991 to 5,000 in 1992.  Among the U.S.-based World League clubs, only the Orlando Thunder had fewer season tickets holders in 1992.  The Riders were much improved on the field under returning Head Coach Mike Riley in 1992.  The team finished 7-3, although that would prove not quite good enough to land a playoff berth.

In August 1992, Benson pegged Texas Football, Inc.’s two-year operating loss from the Riders at approximately $750,000, although it’s important to note that the true cost of running the franchise was heavily subsidized by the NFL.  And therein lay the rub.  After a second year of big losses and small ratings, the World League’s NFL governors pulled the plug on the World League on September 17, 1992.  The NFL hoped to return to international spring football in the future, perhaps as soon as 1994, but perhaps not with American teams at all.

“The World League was very successful in Europe and we feel that an international focus instead of one in middle-sized America is the way to go,” NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue told The New York Times.

After the World League folded, Larry Benson and Sacramento Surge owner Fred Anderson pursued memberships in the Canadian Football League.  In mid-January 1993, both owners received conditional expansion franchises – the first two CFL clubs set to play outside Canadian borders.  The old names and marks belonged to the NFL, so the clubs took on new names – the San Antonio Texans and the Sacramento Gold Miners.  However, just two weeks later the Texans backed out of the CFL, angering Anderson and embarrassing CFL Commissioner Larry Smith, a champion of U.S. expansion.  Benson’s football operation was dead.


1991 Riders quarterback Jason Garrett of Princeton went on to play more than a decade in the NFL as a back-up quarterback, including eight seasons and two Super Bowl rings with the Dallas Cowboys. After retiring in 2004 he became a highly respected assistant and coordinator and is today the Head Coach of the Cowboys.

1991 Riders starting right tackle John Layfield went on to a long career in professional wrestling, best known as WWE Smackdown champion JBL.  He is one of two high profile wrestlers to come out of the WLAF, along with former Sacramento Surge defensive lineman Bill Goldberg AKA Goldberg.

Pro football finally came to the Alamodome in the fall of 1995 when Benson’s old WLAF comrade Fred Anderson relocated his money-losing Sacramento Gold Miners franchise to San Antonio.  The Texans played one playoff season in the dome in 1995 before the CFL pulled the plug on its U.S. experiment and retreated to Canada.  The New Orleans Saints also played games at the Alamodome during 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  Otherwise, it has never been used for pro football.

The NFL did return to international springtime football in 1995 with the creation of NFL Europe.  NFL Europe revived the three European WLAF clubs – the Barcelona Dragons, Frankfurt Galaxy and London Monarchs – with the addition of more Western European cities.  No North American clubs were considered for membership.  NFL Europe operated for 13 seasons, shutting down after the 2007 campaign.


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Written by andycrossley

June 7, 2011 at 7:40 pm

Posted in Football

Tagged with , ,

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