Ice Cube had a dream.
That dream saw former NBA stars battling it out schoolyard style — 3-on-3, half court — in front of live crowds and on a major network.
After the first week of the BIG3, that dream was more nightmare.
First, high profile participant Chauncey Billups, captain of the Killer 3s, backed out to pursue a vacancy in the Cleveland Cavaliers’ front office.
Then, hopes were high for some entertaining basketball when Allen Iverson made his long awaited return to the hard court for his 3’s Company team. However, the match against the Ball Hogs, captained by Brian Scalabrine, was a stinker that fans tweeted about in a bad way.
Adding to the misery of the eight-team league’s debut were apparent injuries to former NBA stars Kenyon Martin (Trilogy), Corey Maggette (Power) and Jason Williams (3 Headed Monsters).
Overall, a tepid debut where many fans were exiting before the end of the fourth and final game.
The BIG3 is just another in a long line of high concept rebel sports leagues that promised much and delivered so little before becoming defunct. Here are 15 that imploded spectacularly.
15. XFL – 2001
Many a mogul has set their sights on taking down the hold the NFL has on the football watching public and in every case, they have failed miserably. In 1999, World Wresting Federation guru Vince McMahon and NBC sports honcho Dick Ebersol envisioned a league that McMahon could bring entertainment value to and that Ebersol could use to fill the void for his network, which had lost the rights to football. The league’s inaugural — and only — season began after the Super Bowl in 2001 and featured eight teams, all of which were owned and operated by the league. The upstart league even featured funky rule wrinkles, including replacing the opening coin toss by a head-to-head ball scramble to determine possession. Each team carried only 38 players and salaries ranged from $3,500 (kickers) to $5,000 per week (quarterbacks like Tommy Maddox). In it’s lone season, the WWF and NBC each lost $35 million and with low TV ratings it folded after the Los Angeles Xtreme beat the San Francisco Demons in the championship game.
14. North American Soccer League – 1968-1984
The MLS may have found the secret ingredient to keeping casual and ardent fans watching soccer in North America, and it owes an assist to the defunct NASL. Before soccer became a thing in the U.S. and Canada, the former United Soccer Association and National Professional Soccer League merged in December 1967 to form the NASL and opened in 1968 with 17 teams. These squads relied heavily on foreign talent, which over the years would include Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff and George Best. The league implemented some rule changes to appease fickle North American audiences, like a clock that wound down instead of up and a different offside line (at the 35 instead of the FIFA mandated half line) to prevent offside traps. The league had initial success, but over-expansion and an economic recession hit it hard and in the 80s the league started contracting and by March 1985 suspended operations.
13. National Lacrosse League – 1974-75
Not to be confused with the current — and stable — National Lacrosse League, the mid-70s version was founded as a way for hockey team owners to fill arenas during the summer months. There were six teams in the NLL, including franchises in Montreal, Toronto, Philadelphia and Syracuse. Former NHL players like Rick Dudley (Rochester Griffins) and Doug Favell (Philadelphia) played in this loop that was more NHL style than the basketball style of the current league. Unfortunately, most teams in the league other than Philadelphia and Montreal couldn’t draw enough fans and by 1976 three of six franchises went bankrupt and Montreal had to go two months without a home game due to the 1976 Olympics (boxing took over the old Montreal Forum). The last championship series in 1975 saw the Quebec Caribous (formerly the Syracuse Stingers) beat the Montreal Quebecois 4-2.
12. Global Hockey League – 1990
The Global Hockey League, the brainchild of former Winnipeg Jets owner Michael Gobuty and World Hockey Association founder Dennis Murphy, was supposed to showcase teams in North America and Europe, with an eye to upping the entertainment value and decreasing the violence. The two proposed seven teams in North America, including founding franchise the New England Clippers (headed by Hall of Famer Brad Park), New York, Birmingham (AL), Cleveland, Miami, Sacramento, Hamilton and Saskatoon. A European Division would comprise Lyon (France), Prague, Milan, Rotterdam and Berlin and play was to begin Nov. 1, 1990. However, there were too many cooks in this hockey kitchen and the league fell apart due to differences in opinion between owners in how the league was to be run. On June 8, 1990, before even one game was played, league founders announced the postponement of the start of the GHL until 1991. It never got started then, either.
11. American Basketball Association – 1967-1976
In a way, the old ABA never did cease to exist. It and several of its flagship franchises got folded into the NBA and are successful today, including the San Antonio Spurs (born as Dallas Chaparalls), Indiana Pacers, Denver Nuggets, and Brooklyn Nets (originally New Jersey). The upstart ABA was conceived to be a flashier challenge to the youngish NBA (in operation just 21 years in 1967), with a 30-second shot clock (instead of 24) and the use of a three-point field goal arc, now a staple in the NBA. With the use of a red, white and blue ball and a freewheeling style, the ABA caught on with fans. But the lack of a television contract and financial difficulties eventually forced the merger with the NBA. Of the prominent players who would star in the ABA and beyond were Julius Erving (Virginia Squires), George Gervin (San Antonio Spurs), Artis Gilmore (Kentucky Colonels) and Moses Malone (Utah Stars).
10. World Football League – 1974-75
At one time, players in the NFL were quite underpaid, by “Big 4” standards. So, when the NFL and to a lesser extent, the CFL players associations both went on strike in 1974, World Football League founder Gary Davidson (ABA, WHA) saw an opportunity to filch talent for his fledgling league. John F. Bassett, owner of the Toronto Northmen, did just that, signing Miami Dolphins stars Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield to the richest three-player deal in sports, a whopping $3.5 million (which was guaranteed). Others soon followed and in 1974 the WFL kicked off a schedule that saw each team play 20 games between early July and mid-November, 1974. Even before the first snap, though, many teams changed locations and in due time box office receipts and TV coverage dwindled. As well, the NFL and CFL solved their labor problems quickly, resulting in higher competition for star players. Sarcasm also prevailed among players and fans, with one former offensive lineman quipping that he had been offered a million dollar contract: “A dollar a year for a million years!”
9. World Team Tennis – 1974-1978
That Dennis Murphy was sure one prolific sports huckster. The founder of the World Hockey Association and co-founder of the dead-on-arrival Global Hockey League helped found one of the more interesting leagues in the 1970s, World Team Tennis. It began play in 1974 with 16 teams comprised of at least two men and two women playing in a 44-contest season. Games were played on a no-line court, with each match consisting of five sets and each set featuring a different configuration (i.e. men’s singles, mixed doubles, etc.). Players from the ATP and WTA took breaks in their tour schedules to compete in this bizarre league, which had team names like the Boston Lobsters and ceased operations in 1978. It was revived in 1981 and continues to this day. Interestingly, WTT was the first professional sports experience for Jerry Buss (eventual owner of the Lakers and Kings) and Bob Kraft (owner of the New England Patriots).
8. World Basketball League – 1988-1992
They should have just called it the “Tall Guys Not Allowed To Play League.” Such was the bizarre nature of the World Basketball League, which mandated a height restriction that no one over 6’5″ was allowed to play (later eased to 6’7″ in 1991). Fittingly, Basketball Hall of Famer and Boston Celtic great Bob Cousy (6’1″) was a league founder. Teams in Canada and the USA competed against each other, as well as club teams from Europe (Italy, Estonia, Ukraine and the Soviet Union). The Las Vegas Silver Streaks won the inaugural championship against the Chicago Express in 1988 and the Dayton Wings won the last two championships before the league folded in 1992. Notable players who competed in the WBL were Mario Elie, a G/F with San Antonio in the 1990s and John Starks, star guard for the New York Knicks for much of the ’90s as well.
7. Major Indoor Soccer League – 2001-2008
The MISL never did go away, it just morphed into current entities, the National Indoor Soccer League, Professional Arena Soccer League and Xtreme Soccer League. In the summer of 2001, the old National Professional Soccer League folded and six surviving franchises organized the MISL in a single-entity structure much like Major League Soccer. The 16-team loop had 14 franchises in the USA, including four-time champion Baltimore Blast, as well as two Mexican based teams in Monterrey. As an arena league, the teams played on a pitch roughly the size of a hockey rink (200′ x 80′), with four 15-minute quarters, six players on the field including the goalie and the boards in play for use. In addition to yellow and red cards, blue cards were handed out for fouls that resulted in two-minute “powerplays.” The MISL, which did have some TV coverage (ESPN2, Fox Soccer Channel), ceased operations in May, 2008 to reform the it into separate leagues (NISL, PASL and XSL).
6. Great Central League – 1994
We picked this one because the league was founded by a strip club owner from Minneapolis, Dick Jacobson. The nudie impresario, who tried to buy the Northern League’s Rochester Aces, founded the four-team American Midwestern loop in 1994. It consisted of the Lafayette Leopards, Champaign-Urbana Bandits, Minneapolis Millers and Mason City Bats. In order to drum up business, Jacobson signed Boston Red Sox Hall of Famer George Scott to manage the Minneapolis entry. Scott’s presence in the Miller’s dugout did little to improve the team or league’s attendance issues and the Grand Central League folded before its championship game, due mostly to underfunding, inadequate facilities and inexperienced management.
5. Roller Hockey International – 1993-97 And 1999
If there is a Hall of Fame for founding upstart professional sports leagues, Dennis Murphy is a first ballot inductee. The sports aficionado and organizer of the American Basketball Association, World Hockey Association and World Team Tennis sought to capitalize on the inline skating craze of the early 1990s, using minor league hockey players to “ice” teams that didn’t pay guaranteed contracts, splitting prize money instead. The league, which was beset by instability in the league’s front office, had teams from coast to coast, including two-time champion Anaheim Bullfrogs. Some of the more recognizable names to compete in RHI were Manny Legace, Al Secord, Bryan Trottier and Tiger Williams. RFI officially folded after a revival season in 1999 (it suspended operations for the 1998 season).
4. NFL Europe – 1991-2007
American football in Europe is a mostly a passing fancy, with ardent pockets of supporters who show up to the odd NFL game in England during the fall. For a while though, the big league operated what was originally known as the World League of American Football (later changed to NFL Europe). The WLAF, a spring league, was founded in 1989 with 10 teams (seven in North America, three in Europe) then morphed into an all-Europe entity. Initially, attendance for WLAF games was pretty decent, topping 1 million fans for the first two years of the league’s existence. It steadily dwindled to just over 500,000 in later years before the league folded in 2007. The most successful teams in NFL Europe were the Frankfurt Galaxy (four World Bowl titles), Berlin Thunder (three titles) and Rhein Fire (two titles). The biggest names to play in the league were QB Jon Kitna, DE Terry Crews, LB James Harrison, DL William “Refrigerator” Perry, K Adam Vinatieri and QB Kurt Warner.
3. Canadian American Association of Professional Baseball – 2005-2013
With the plethora of minor league and collegiate baseball teams in the United States and to a smaller degree, Canada, one would think that forming yet another pro league would be foolhardy. The Can-Am League, as it’s commonly known, formed out of the ashes of the former Northern League in 2005 and by 2013 found out just how tough it is to compete. While the league still exists today, it is not the same league as it was prior to 2013, since it now plays games against teams from the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball. Fully 21 teams have competed in the league and subsequently folded, leaving just six in the current format, three in Canada and three in the U.S. Some of the league’s alumni to reach the major leagues include: Chris Colabello, Andrew Albers, Craig Breslow and Steve Delabar.
2. World Hockey Association – 1972-1979
Of all the now defunct leagues here, the WHA was by far one of the most successful. Dennis Murphy, there he is again, and Gary Davidson, along with hockey guru Bill Hunter formed the NHL rival league. They did it to put teams in under-served American and Canadian markets, as well as luring some of the best NHL players by paying them significantly more than NHL owners would. The WHA successfully challenged the NHL’s reserve clause (which bound players to NHL teams without a valid contract) and in a coup they got superstar Bobby Hull to ink a massive 10-year, $2.75 million contract — one of 67 players to jump ship. What came of seven years of existence was a merger with the NHL, whereby the Edmonton Oilers, Hartford Whalers (Carolina Hurricanes), Quebec Nordiques (Colorado Avalanche) and Winnipeg Jets (Arizona Coyotes) were absorbed. Wayne Gretzky, for the uninitiated, got his start as a 17-year-old (taboo in the NHL) with the Indianapolis Racers.
1. USFL – 1983-1985
We saved this one for last, in that this audacious football league included POTUS Donald Trump as one of its owners (New Jersey Generals). David Dixon, a New Orleans businessman, originally conceived the idea of the league in the 1960s, one in which it would compete in the summer and play in NFL-caliber stadiums in big TV markets with an eye to controlling spending with a hard salary cap. Some teams abided by Dixon’s plan in the early stages of the league while others spent like drunken sailors, leading to team mergers and relocations galore. Then, in 1985, at the Trumpster’s behest, the USFL voted to move from a spring to a fall schedule to compete with the NFL in 1986. Big mistake. The USFL filed an anti-trust lawsuit against the NFL, won, but the Pyrrhic victory officially ended the USFL, which had lost over $163 million in three years of operation. Of note, future football Hall of Famers Jim Kelly, Steve Young and Reggie White all got their starts in pro football in the USFL.