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NBA Considered Starting Football League in 1990s

By: Leyuan Zhou

As the NBA reached its prime in the 1990s, executives of the basketball industry congregated in their Midtown Manhattan offices to secretly discuss a bold idea: having the world’s top basketball league start a football league.

With the Chicago Bulls winning six titles, Michael Jordan becoming the most famous athlete on earth, and the growing popularity of basketball around the globe, it’s no wonder that the basketball association spied such a brilliant opportunity to expand to football. In addition, the only major spring football league had been the USFL of the 1980s, which waned after its shift to a fall schedule in order to compete with the NFL.

“We had some credibility as a sports organization, and we were trying to figure out how else we could deploy our resources in a venture that could be additive for the NBA,” said Rick Welts, a former NBA executive who is now the president of the Golden State Warriors. “We had a bunch of meetings, but it never went anywhere.”

Although the NBA’s plan to start a football league never became a reality, the idea was quietly discussed at the highest levels of the NBA and NBC for several months, enough to prove that both sides were serious about striking the deal. The NBA and NFL were nearly in competition, albeit very few people know about it today.

According to people familiar with the situation, CBS had even requested that the NBA look into organizing a spring football league in the years preceding the NBC partnership. This only further substantiated the basketball league’s remarkable rise into becoming a global phenomenon.

The partnerships between the two major companies, NBA and NBC, ultimately led to the close relationships and collaboration of its leaders. They were “so close we could finish each other’s sentences,” Dick Ebersol, the president of NBC Sports, said. “David (Stern) was intrigued by what we were trying to do, soo he and his key folks put a lot of time in it with us.”

Similar to the “NBA on NBC” partnership, other upstart NFL competitors, including the eight-team Alliance of American Football and the XFL (both of which are now defunct), have experienced difficulties in sustaining their teams. The main problem, which many organizations have had to learn the hard way, is money. With large rosters, frequent injuries and the NFL’s high standard in popularity and success, it is very expensive to play football.

After the unpursued scheme, the NBA established its women's division, the WNBA, in 1997. In addition, the basketball association initiated a lockout that lasted through early 1999 following the Chicago Bulls’ sixth title in 1998.

“Ultimately we just decided it didn’t make enough sense to pursue it, said Ed Desser, the former media-rights deals executive. But it doesn’t mean it wasn’t sort of an interesting dalliance.”

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