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Barbarians at the Gate -- The World Indoor Football League

Jay Jacox
Thursday June 25, 1998

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then the Arena Football League in 1988 was extended the greatest compliment of all. Coming off its quite successful inaugural campaign of 1987 the league faced a new challenge in `88. Attempting to capitalize on the instant sensation the AFL had created the previous summer the rival World Indoor Football League was born in March of 1988. The WIFL was put together in a rash with franchises being awarded in March and league play set to begin June 20. The St. Louis Lightning was the first franchise to be awarded on March 29, 1988. Then followed the Baltimore War Eagles, Indiana (Indianapolis) Cougars, Las Vegas Aces, San Antonio Texans and San Diego Thunder, all by April 28.

None of the WIFL`s proposed franchises would be competing directly with the AFL since the arena league had set up outposts in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, New England (Providence, RI), Pittsburgh and Washington for the coming year. However, the AFL would take a stab at setting up clubs in Las Vegas, St. Louis and San Antonio in future seasons and now Indianapolis with the transplanted Firebirds.

A ten-game season was slated for the WIFL to begin on June 20 with the top teams in each division qualifying for the "World Bowl." Clubs were split into the Eastern Division: Baltimore, Indiana, St. Louis; and the Western Division: Las Vegas, San Antonio, San Diego. In contrast, the AFL schedule called for 12 regular-season games beginning April 29 and culminating in a four-team playoff for the ArenaBowl title.

Mouse Davis leaped to the WIFL in 1988, but is back with the AFL in 2001.
Image courtesy of
The WIFL lined up places to play like the Baltimore Civic Arena, San Diego Sports Arena, St. Louis Arena and Market Square Arena in Indianapolis. Owners included former NFL St. Louis Cardinals running back Stump Mitchell in St. Louis and rock star John Cougar Mellencamp in Indiana. The Indiana franchise even played off their owner`s middle name for their nickname. There were some notable coaches too. Former CFL head coach Don Matthews guided the Thunder in San Diego, University of Hawaii and World League coach Guy Benjamin was in Las Vegas, and Darryl "Mouse" Davis, an innovator in the "run and shoot" offense, took the reigns in St. Louis.

League founders Paul Zarynoff and Roger Gill planned on guaranteeing players $500 per game salary, or 34% of that game`s gate, whichever was higher. Clubs would consist of 17 active, 5 developmental and 1 reserve players per week.

The WIFL used many of the same rules as the Arena League, including end zone nets and dasher boards, but with a few notable exceptions. Unlike the AFL, if the ball struck the end zone nets the play would be ruled dead. This rule was amended because it was deemed trying to catch the pigskin off the nets with onrushing opponents was just too dangerous. An additional rule was that only one foot was needed in bounds for a reception, like college football.

But the biggest difference was offensive and defensive alignments. Like the AFL, the WIFL required an offensive set up of no more than eight players. On defense, however, the WIFL limited player participation to only SEVEN. All offenses would be playing with an eight on seven advantage! Arena Football League scores were high enough so with the defenses playing a man down, one could imagine an offense never being stopped.

The WIFL even obtained a TV contract with the now-defunct FNN-Score cable system. The AFL had a weekly live ESPN broadcast at the time.

The WIFL never got to try out it`s new style of play or enjoy the TV broadcasts as the league went belly-up before it`s initial campaign began. Baltimore and San Antonio ran into financial difficulties early and when Indiana ran into trouble the league ceased operations on June 9, just eleven days before it`s scheduled opener. The remaining three franchises (Las Vegas, St. Louis and San Diego) tried to enter the Arena League for 1989. The AFL, beset with it`s own growing pains, according to reports set expansion fees for those three clubs at $1-2 million each. The price being too steep, the WIFL died a quick death.

The Arena Football League had survived it`s first on-field challenge. Since then they have endured the IFL and IPFL to remain king of the arena/indoor hill.

Jay Jacox was a writer for ArenaFan Online from 1998 to 2002.
The opinions expressed in the article above are only those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the thoughts, opinions, or official stance of ArenaFan Online or its staff, or the Arena Football League, or any AFL or af2 teams.
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Barbarians at the Gate -- The World Indoor Football League
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