The aborted plan to create a breakaway Super League with 12 of the biggest clubs in European soccer was perhaps the most egregious example of a sporting venture that quickly fell flat on its face.
Here’s a look at some others:
STANFORD SUPER SERIES
It just wasn’t cricket. American financier Allen Stanford brought razzmatazz to the quaint sport by signing a deal with the England and Wales Cricket Board in 2008 for a series of Twenty20 matches against a Caribbean team labeled the “Stanford All-Stars.” The winner would earn $20 million, the loser nothing. In a publicity stunt to promote the matches, he flew into Lord’s — the home of English cricket — aboard a private gold-plated helicopter and posed with a case supposedly containing containing $20 million. During a warm-up match for the series, Stanford was pictured sitting among the wives and girlfriends of England’s players, with one perched on his knee. The whole episode proved to be an embarrassment for English cricket, especially since a five-year deal lasted one series. In 2009, Stanford was charged with fraud for running a Ponzi scheme that bilked investors out of $7.2 billion. He was sentenced to 110 years in prison in 2012.
In 2008, English soccer got itself into a frenzy because of a proposal to take the Premier League on tour. The league’s 20 clubs agreed to explore an idea that would see an extra game get added to the schedule of each team and be played outside of England. The “39th game” — as it was promoted — would be played in five different venues with cities bidding for the right to stage them. Manchester United in Melbourne? Liverpool in Los Angeles? No, said English soccer’s traditionalists, with the proposal met by huge opposition from supporters, the leaders of FIFA and UEFA, and the national soccer associations around the world who were concerned at the impact of having official games played in their country. After a few months, the idea was shelved.
In 2001, a new American football league went for style over substance in trying to appeal to young, male viewers. World Wrestling Federation mogul Vince McMahon thought he knew how to do that. He partnered with NBC to create the XFL, an eight-team spring league that debuted just days after the NFL’s Super Bowl. Players wore nicknames like “He Hate Me” on their jerseys. There was bombastic television commentary by a sitting U.S. governor — Minnesota’s Jesse Ventura, a former professional wrestler. Despite a promising opening night, TV ratings plummeted over the season. McMahon and NBC pulled the plug after only one campaign with losses in the tens of millions. The XFL was revived in 2020 but it suspended operations halfway through the season. It may be back again at some point — actor and former wrestler Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson acquired the XFL last year.
Formula One governing body FIA threatened legal action when unhappy teams made clear their intention to set up a breakaway championship after the 2009 season. Tensions reached boiling point at the British Grand Prix when nine teams — led by storied Ferrari and McLaren — said they planned their own championship. They contested FIA’s announcement of unilateral rule changes and a voluntary $55 million budget cap for teams. Neither side was willing to back down. Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo was at odds with FIA counterpart Max Mosley, while two-time champion Fernando Alonso and former champion Jacques Villeneuve expressed concern over where F1 was heading. The Formula One Teams Association stepped things up by leaking a calendar for its proposed breakaway series, perhaps in a bid to call FIA’s bluff and show they meant business. After a few days, FOTA and F1 reached an agreement following more talks. By August it was all over.
ALLIANCE OF AMERICAN FOOTBALL
This was another shot at a spring football league, in 2019, but it didn’t complete its season. The Alliance of American Football was co-founded by Charlie Ebersol, whose father was a driving force behind the original XFL, and former NFL executive Bill Polian. There were signs of trouble with reports of the league needing a bailout to make payroll only two weeks into the season. Tom Dundon, who also owns the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes, then took control with his $250 million investment but closed up shop when it became clear that the league would be unable to use players from the bottom of NFL rosters.
The Transcontinental Foot Race, dubbed the “Bunion Derby,” was launched in 1928 by sports promoter Charles Pyle as the next big thing but it was a financial flop. Pyle envisioned a lucrative traveling road show as runners slogged their way from Los Angeles to New York. But the small towns along the 3,400-mile route weren’t interested in underwriting Pyle’s dream. Only 55 of the nearly 200 hopefuls who started the race on March 4 were able to finish nearly three months later. The Associated Press reported that sheriffs seized Pyle’s “home on wheels” at one point to satisfy a $21,500 bank note from three years prior. The race was held in 1929, as well, going in the other direction, but financial problems persisted. Creditors came calling on the second day after Pyle bounced a check used to pay for a supply of chairs.
AP Sports Writer Jerome Pugmire contributed from Paris.
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