Playing a 20-game regular season schedule in 1974 – six games longer than the NFL's then 14-game slate – the WFL staged no exhibition games (although their teams did participate in preseason scrimmages). The season was to begin on Wednesday, July 10 and end on Wednesday, November 13. This was a 20-game season in 19 weeks --- a schedule accomplished by having double games (primarily Monday and Friday) on Labor Day weekend. Some complained that the schedule was poorly drafted; although most teams played on Wednesday nights with a national TV game slated for Thursday nights, the Hawaiians played their home games on Sunday afternoons. This meant that when the Hawaiians had a home game, they played an opponent who flew to Honolulu after having played just four days earlier. In addition, back-to-back meetings between two teams were common.
The WFL held a college draft in 1974, the first six rounds where held on January 22, 1974 with the remaining 30 rounds held February 5. David Jaynes quarterback from Kansas was the first player selected in the draft by Houston.
As was common with many upstart leagues, the WFL's intended lineup of teams changed several times before they even played a down. Most notably, Bassett's Toronto Northmen were forced to find a new home after the Canadian government threatened to ban any American football team from competing with the Canadian Football League. Though the Canadian Football Act never passed, the mere threat of it prompted Bassett to move the team to Memphis, where they became the Memphis Southmen, but were generally referred to by fans, local media, and even some official team materials as the "Grizzlies".
The original schedule called for a four-team playoff, with semifinal games held on Wednesday-Thursday November 20-November 21, and the World Bowl on Friday, November 29 (the night after Thanksgiving). League officials boldly discussed plans for expansion teams in Europe and Asia.
In the first few weeks, the WFL looked to be a resounding success. Attendance outpaced the first week of the American Football League in 1960, averaging just under 43,000 a game, but the box office numbers proved to be the beginning of the WFL's undoing. In Jacksonville, the Jacksonville Sharks admitted that anywhere from 14,000 to 44,000 people had attended their first two games for free or at significantly reduced prices. The Philadelphia Bell, whose first two home games totaled 120,253 fans, admitted that 100,198 tickets had been given away for free or sold at significantly reduced prices. Presumably the giveaways were intended in part to pique the public's curiosity and interest, but they ended up seriously eroding the league's credibility.
Six games into the first season, WFL franchises were in serious trouble. The Detroit Wheels were looking to move to Charlotte, North Carolina, and the Florida Blazers made overtures of bringing the first place club to Atlanta. It was discovered that several teams had paid less than the original $120,000 franchise fee in order to meet Davidson's target of 12 teams, and that league officials had conducted little to no due diligence. As a result, seven of the 12 teams were badly under-capitalized (exceptions being Birmingham, Memphis, Philadelphia, Southern California and the Hawaiians).
For instance, the Portland Storm's players were reportedly being fed by sympathetic local fans, while the Charlotte Hornets had their uniforms impounded for not paying a laundry bill from the time the team was located in New York. The Birmingham Americans weren't paid for their last five games, the Florida Blazers weren't paid for the last three months of the season (and reportedly survived on McDonald's meal vouchers), and the Sharks weren't paid for what turned out to be their last six games.
The most dire situation, however, was that of the Detroit Wheels. The team's original 33 owners appeared to pay for team expenses out of pocket as they arose, resulting in what amounted to a club football team playing at the professional level. On several occasions, the team was left without uniforms when they didn't pay the cleaning bill, forcing them to cancel practice. After several hotels and airlines went unpaid, the Wheels were unable to fly to games or get a place for the players to stay without paying in advance, and were nearly forced to forfeit one game when they didn't have medical supplies or tape. The league was forced to take over the team after complaints from the players.
Perhaps one of the most bizarre incidents for the WFL in 1974 involved former Raiders defensive end John Matuszak, who had left the NFL's Houston Oilers to play for the WFL's Houston Texans. While Matuszak worked out on the field, attorneys for the Oilers and federal marshals arrived at the stadium. Shortly after sacking New York Stars quarterback Tom Sherman, Matuszak was lifted from the game. The team had been handed a restraining order, and Matuszak could not play another down for the Texans. Matuszak waved the document for the home crowd to see, as to indicate why he was sitting on the bench. A federal judge ruled that Matuszak could not play for the Texans, since he was still under contract to the Oilers. The judge ruled that Matuszak could play for the Texans only when his NFL contract was up, meaning that Matuszak could not play for the Texans until the 1978 season.
By September, the barely one-year old league had bottomed out when two franchises relocated. The Houston Texans moved to Shreveport, Louisiana as the Shreveport Steamer, and they were followed a week later by the New York Stars, who relocated to Charlotte as the Charlotte Hornets. On top of this, the Wheels briefly moved one game to London, Ontario (this time with nary a complaint from Canadian officials).
In October, the league pulled the plug on the Wheels and the Sharks after 14 games; the folding of the Jacksonville franchise meant that the Gator Bowl would not host World Bowl I. (Coincidentally, Jacksonville was also slated to be the host of the 1986 USFL Championship Game, but that game was never played as the USFL folded; it would not be until February 2005 that the city would host its first championship pro football game, Super Bowl XXXIX.)
Davidson resigned as commissioner by the end of October 1974, and Hawaiians owner Christopher Hemmeter was named the new commissioner a month later.
Late in the year, the league announced that it would award its Most Valuable Player a cash prize of $10,000 at the World Bowl. It was literally a cash prize; rather than endure the embarrassment of media sneers about whether a WFL check would clear, the league neatly stacked cash high upon a table in the middle of the field. The MVP award was a three-way split, and the players involved split the cash.
The playoff format itself was also chaotic; numerous playoff formats were tossed around, including brackets ranging from three to eight teams, and one owner who even suggested that the World Bowl be canceled and the championship handed to the regular-season champion Memphis Southmen. Eventually, six teams were chosen for the tournament: all three division winners, and three wild cards; however, the 9-11 Philadelphia Bell were awarded a wild card despite finishing one game behind the 10-10 Charlotte Hornets in the Eastern Division, as the Hornets could not afford to travel to Orlando for the first round.
Despite the disasters, many thought the WFL performed fairly well, though below NFL standards. Many games were tight, decided by seven points or less, and the Action Point, the one-point conversion run or pass attempt after a touchdown, was favored among WFL coaches and critics. The league championship – the World Bowl, or "World Bowl I" – was staged in Birmingham between the hometown Birmingham Americans and the Florida Blazers. The Action Point proved to be the decider as the Americans won the championship by a single point, 22-21. The day after the World Bowl, the champions' uniforms were confiscated by sheriff's deputies. (Sports Illustrated referred to the game, prophetically, as "The first, and possibly only World Bowl".)
Not even the World Bowl could go off without a hitch. Both teams were owed several weeks' back pay; the Americans only agreed to play when their owner promised them championship rings if they won. Aside from the money woes the league was having, the players did not hold back in complaining about the officiating during the game. Florida Blazers running back Tommy Reamon scored what he thought was a touchdown, but the officials on the field ruled that he fumbled the ball out of the end zone before he hit the ground, resulting in a touchback that gave the ball to Birmingham. Replays clearly showed that Reamon lost the ball after breaking the plane. While the phantom turnover did not account for any Birmingham points, it did serve to break the spirits of the Blazers. Birmingham led 15-0, with Birmingham quarterback Matthew Reed scoring an action point. Birmingham led 22-0, and thought they had the game wrapped up. However, Florida managed a small come back, trailing 22-21 as the gun went off in the fourth quarter.
As if losing a championship game in a squeaker wasn't bad enough, things got much worse. Florida head coach Jack Pardee bolted back to the NFL to take over the Chicago Bears. Many of the Birmingham players and coaches had not been paid in months, and to make matters worse, only days after their championship win, the Birmingham Americans jerseys were repossessed, along with every single piece of office furniture. The Florida Blazers suffered a similar fate, with pieces of their franchise sold off at a court-ordered auction.
The financial losses were mind-blowing: The Hawaiians had lost $3.2 million, while the New York Stars/Charlotte Hornets had over $2 million of debt, and just $94,000 in assets. The Jacksonville Sharks and Detroit Wheels were liquidated owing nearly $4 million, and Detroit had 122 creditors looking to recoup losses.
Many NFL stars who had been attracted to the league quickly sought to get out of their contracts. Quarterback Ken Stabler (Raiders), defensive end L.C. Greenwood (Steelers), and quarterback Craig Morton (Giants) all were able to get courts to nullify their contracts with WFL teams, while former NFL veterans like George Sauer, Charley Harraway, Leroy Kelly, and Don Maynard all limped off into retirement. Home-grown talent, like quarterbacks Tony Adams and Danny White, quickly bolted for the NFL, with Adams landing with the Kansas City Chiefs and White with the Dallas Cowboys, and Florida head coach Jack Pardee got star Blazers' tight end Greg Latta to jump ship with him to the NFL's Bears.