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The Unluckiest City in Football

October 4, 2016

Memphis is one of the biggest metropolitan areas in the U.S. to not have a team in the NFL. But it’s not for a lack of trying. Here’s a brief history of how pro football just never seems to come (or stick around) to the football-loving Tennessee city.
The Unluckiest City in Football

  • In 1974, the NFL announced its first expansion since its merger with the American Football League in the late ‘60s. Five far-flung cities were selected as candidates for two new franchises: Honolulu, Phoenix, Seattle, Tampa, and Memphis. The league ultimately decided on Seattle and Tampa, creating the Seattle Seahawks and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, respectively.
  • Seeing the demand for football in Memphis, the owner of a team in the upstart World Football League decided to move his franchise. Canadian businessman John Bassett moved his Toronto squad to Memphis before the league even began play in 1974, and lured away NFL stars like Larry Csonka and Jim Kilick. The Memphis Southmen finished the season 17-3, the league’s best record. The Southmen (which changed names to the Grizzlies for season number two) had one of the biggest fan-bases in the league (Elvis Presley was even spotted at games), but it didn’t matter: The World Football League folded after its second season in 1975.
  • Undaunted, Bassett attempted to get the Grizzlies into the NFL. He produced a local telethon to drum up support and wound up with more than 45,000 people pledging to buy season tickets should Memphis be the next NFL city. The NFL declined to absorb the Grizzlies—after all, it had just expanded by two teams, and had rejected Memphis in that very round of expansion. So Bassett sued the NFL, claiming that it was a violation of federal antitrust laws to deny his team a spot in the league. The case was held up in courts for 10 years, by which point Bassett had moved on to owning a team in another new league, the USFL.
  • Memphis was in the running for an expansion team again in the early ‘90s. Among the ownership group was the consortium that controls the estate of Elvis Presley, so the team that only existed as a possibility went ahead and named itself the Hound Dogs. In 1993, the NFL named its next two cities: Charlotte and Jacksonville.
  • Shortly after Memphis lost out on an NFL team (again), the Canadian Football League announced that it would be placing teams in the U.S. This time, Memphis got lucky. But Elvis Presley Enterprises dropped out, necessitating a name change from the Hound Dogs to the Mad Dogs. The team folded after only a year of play.
  • The NFL finally came to Memphis in 1997, but only temporarily. The Houston Oilers relocated to Memphis and became the Tennessee Oilers. While team operations were based across the state in Nashville, a stadium there wasn’t yet ready, so games were played in Memphis. Two years later, the Nashville stadium was ready, and the Oilers—by then, the Titans—left town for good.
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