Fans keep old leagues alive on the Web

Hate? Fans like Warren Willis love Rod Smart (above) and defunct leagues like the XFL. Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

When it comes to endurance, Warren Willis has a lot more than the XFL ever did.

He has had a website devoted to the defunct pro football league for about 10 years. The league itself went toes up in 2001 after its first and only season.

Willis, a Las Vegas resident who loved the league’s rules and players, the way it catered to fans and the fact that it was the rebellious kid thumbing its nose at the No Fun League, couldn’t stand to see it just fade into oblivion.

“I didn’t want to see that all swept under the rug,” he says. “Like ‘OK, it’s just another stupid idea by another bunch of stupid people and it’s not worth remembering.’ But it is worth remembering. It was fun.”

More than a decade after the Los Angeles Xtreme won the Million Dollar Game and Rod Smart took off his “He Hate Me” jersey for the last time, visitors to Willis’ site (all-xfl.com) can bring up the logos, rosters, stats, photos and stories of the X’d-out XFL.

It might seem a bit like unrequited love to try to keep alive the spirit of a dead league, but Willis doesn’t think so.

And he isn’t alone.

Around the U.S., fans who once fell madly in love with leagues now long gone have spent years maintaining websites in tribute to their dearly departed. The alphabet soup of extinct sports leagues -- which include the ABA, AFL, NASL, USFL, WHA and WFL, along with the Negro Leagues, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League and even the American teams of the Canadian Football League -- all have one (or more) sites devoted to them.

Why do fans care so much? What was so special about these leagues? For most, it’s just a desire to keep a good thing going, as fans who maintain some of these sites explain:

American Basketball Association (ABA, 1967-76)

Site: remembertheaba.com

Fan in charge: Arthur Hundhausen, 43, Denver

Started: 1996

Why he does it: He grew up in Boulder and latched onto the Denver Nuggets and the ABA as a kid. As he got older, he couldn’t find much information about it so he launched his own site. “Why not do something and meet other people that have the same interest, and kind of have a central location for information?” he says.

Fascination with the league: The ABA had the red, white and blue ball, the 3-point shot, the first slam-dunk contest at its All-Star Game, young stars like David Thompson and Julius Erving and what Hundhausen calls a “freewheeling” style more interesting than the NBA’s at the time. He remembers asking his dad why the leagues had different rules and why they didn’t play each other. “It was just fantastic basketball,” says Hundhausen, now a lawyer. He still resents that the NBA doesn’t recognize ABA stats.

Features: The site, along with its contents, has changed significantly since he started 16 years ago, but it’s filled with stories (e.g., “When Big Hair Ruled the ABA”; “ABA Fashion Guide”), photos, team rosters and stats.

Memorabilia: Hundhausen has collected jerseys, posters, photos and programs, but his favorite item just might be an autographed picture from perhaps his favorite player on the Nuggets, Ralph Simpson, a fan of the website. The inscription: “Thanks for keeping the ABA alive, Ralph Simpson.”

Quotable: “At the time they merged, the ABA had all these young, vibrant, fantastic, over-the-rim players” because they allowed college underclassmen like Erving, Thompson and George Gervin, and straight-from-high-school Moses Malone, he says. “And the NBA was good, of course, but they didn’t have that. All those great players jumping to the NBA after the merger kind of revitalized the NBA.”

American Football League (AFL, 1960-69)

Site: remembertheafl.com

>Fan in charge: Angelo Coniglio, 76, Buffalo, N.Y.

Started: About 2000

Why he does it: To keep the AFL alive for fans who loved it then and younger folks who want to learn about it. To say he’s not happy that the NFL absorbed the AFL is an understatement. He gets emails from AFL fans who, like him, wish “there hadn’t been a merger.” Says Coniglio, “Because we had invested our time and interest in that league and just when it proved it was the equal of the other league, it threw in the towel and became part of the NFL.”

Fascination with the league: First off, don’t call the AFL “defunct” around Coniglio, who was a fan of the old Buffalo Bills in the All-America Football Conference, then latched onto the reincarnated Bills in the AFL. “I would object to calling the AFL a defunct league,” he says. “It’s still alive within the NFL, and the NFL wouldn’t be what it is without the AFL.” He liked the brand of play in the “new” league and took pride in watching it grow and beat the NFL in Super Bowls III and IV. “Let’s face it, it was chauvinism,” he says. “It was my team and my league.”

Features: His site is alive with photos, memorabilia, football cards, programs and all the things he has collected through the years or that have been contributed by readers. He stays in touch with about 300 former AFL players via email.

Memorabilia: He has two old stadium seats that have the AFL logo on one side and the Bills logo on the other, and a set of hardwood plaques with the logos of all the AFL teams. His wife collected AFL cards and still has a complete mint set of the entire league from 1960.

Quotable: “I can still remember where we were in 1966,” he says about hearing news of the AFL-NFL merger. “We were driving in June to visit my sister in Illinois, and my wife and kids were in the car and on the radio they said the AFL and NFL had merged, and I looked at my wife and I said, ‘What are they going to call the merged league?’ That was my first question. I fought for the league to keep its name, even after the merger. I’m still fighting,” he adds, laughing. “Obviously, I wasn’t successful.”

North American Soccer League (NASL, 1968-84)

Site: nasljerseys.com

Fan in charge: Dave Morrison, 52, Seattle

Started: About 2006

Why he does it: He’s a collector (especially of NASL jerseys), which is reflected in the name of his site, so he launched it in part as a means to show others what he has and to use it as a base for communicating with other collectors and fans of the NASL. “Jersey collecting is risky because you don’t know what something looks like unless you get photos or video,” he says. He figured if he created the site, he’d be able to connect with other fans and collectors. And, he says, that’s exactly what has happened: “Almost every week somebody sends me a photo or video clip or traded games with me, so it became an expedient really.” He gets 16,000 to 17,000 unique visitors per month and also receives emails from former NASL players who thank him for the site. “Those guys didn’t make any money, really,” he says. “It’s just nice for them to feel appreciated for what they did.”

Fascination with the league: He was about 15 and living in Joplin, Mo., when Pele came to America, sparking his NASL fervor. “It was one of those things,” he says. “It just became a part of sports culture for me.” He became a soccer fan, watched NASL games on TV and followed the league and its players until it folded. Then, he followed the indoor soccer leagues (like the MISL) that came after, and teams in Kansas City.

Features: Remember the Dips? Probably not. But go to his site and you’ll see a photo of Washington Diplomats star Johan Cruyff wearing a “Dips” jersey and hugging the team’s giant mascot. Click through the site to find rosters, photos and histories, as well as links to individual NASL team sites and blogs by other fans. In the team section, you can find rosters and photos for every year, and information on every player.

Memorabilia: His prized jersey is likely the one worn by San Diego Sockers star Juli Veee. “It was the first one I ever collected, and still my favorite,” he says. “Partially because it was my first, partially because I was such a big Juli Veee fan and partially because it’s a really good-looking jersey.”

Quotable: “All collectors are trying to remember childhood at some level,” he says. “Those are good years for me, really. All the years of the '70s ... the ABA, the World Football League, the NASL, they all kind of came out magically from the late ’60s and ’70s. It was a great time.”

United States Football League (USFL, 1983-85)

Site: oursportscentral.com/usfl

Fan in charge: Paul Reeths, 41, Marshfield, Wis.

Started: About 1997

Why he does it: He loved the USFL and its players (especially Jim Kelly and Steve Young) and wanted the league’s history to be preserved.

Fascination with the league: Reeths was closest to the Michigan Panthers, but liked the entire league, in part because its teams were different. “You still had some heavy-defense, run-oriented teams and then you had teams that were running the run-and-shoot, and also Steve Spurrier’s early phase of his offense taking root down at Tampa Bay,” he says. Then he ticks off the talent: three straight Heisman winners signed (Herschel Walker, Doug Flutie and Mike Rozier) and future Hall of Famers like Kelly, Young and Reggie White.

Features: The site has a guide to uniforms, players, teams, history and a photo archive. It’s one of several sites owned and operated by Reeths (it’s his full-time job) under the oursportscentral umbrella -- including one that’s devoted to the former American franchises in the Canadian Football League.

Memorabilia: He has “bins and bins” of miscellaneous items, along with jerseys and full-size helmets for every team.

Quotable: “I think the USFL was the last alternative major league that we saw and probably are likely to see,” says Reeths. “The salaries have grown so much in all the major leagues that it’s nearly impossible for a real alternative league to compete for players anymore.”

World Football League (WFL, 1974-75)

Site: worldfootballleague.org

Fan in charge: Richie Franklin, 51, Stephens City, Va.

Started: Existing site taken over in 2008

Why he does it: He was a fan of the WFL’s Charlotte Hornets, and built a site about them around 12 years ago, then helped organize a reunion of the Memphis Southmen and created a site for that team. When the founder of the WFL site wanted to give it up, Franklin took it over four years ago. His quest: to let people know about the positive aspects of the league because it received so much negative publicity at the time for raiding talent from the NFL, then folding. “It was kind of here one day and gone the next,” he says.

Fascination with the league: He was a Green Bay Packers fan growing up in Virginia but immediately took to the new league at about age 12 when it launched. “All the players jumped to the new league, the football, the colorful uniforms, just the newness of it all,” he says. “It was in the paper every day and it seemed liked it was just going to be a great thing.” He watched games on the TVS Television Network its first year and listened to Hornets and Philadelphia Bell games on the radio. Running backs Tommy Reamon and Anthony Davis were his heroes.

Features: How much does Franklin love the WFL? Franklin has sites for the WFL, the Hornets, the Southmen and WFL films (which has video and audio). The sites are never done. “It’s taken me forever because I’m working on five things at one time,” he says. “Just as I think I’ve completed a page, I find new information. If it’s there, I want it out there. I want people to know the story of the league.” The main WFL site is rich with articles, facts about the WFL’s 1974 and ’75 seasons (and its death in the middle of Year 2), rosters, stats and photos.

Memorabilia: Among the items Franklin has collected are game films, a 1974 WFL football and a Reamon Florida Blazers jersey.

Quotable: “Had ESPN been around when the WFL was, I don’t know if the whole league would have merged (with the NFL) or how long it would have lasted, but I think it would have been like the ABA or WHA, where a couple of teams would have been absorbed.”

XFL (2001)

Site: all-xfl.com

Fan in charge: Warren Willis, 49, Las Vegas

Started: About 2002

Why he does it: He wanted to counter the naysayers who ripped the league when it was going and after it died.

Fascination with the league: Fed up with the NFL’s attitude, Willis embraced the XFL because of its fan-friendly stance. “If you were out at [Las Vegas Outlaws] practice and wanted to talk to the head coach, everybody -- players, coaches, managers -- they would all stop and answer questions honestly. They wouldn’t just brush you off like you’re some knucklehead.”

Features: The site is designed to replicate what the actual league site looked like, and each of the team pages is designed the same way.

Memorabilia: “Tons,” says Willis, including autographed jerseys and helmets and mini helmets; one regular-size helmet is signed by an entire team.

Quotable: “It seems like when one of these leagues pop up, in the case of the USFL or XFL, when they pop up it was like the spirit of the individual popping up,” he says. “We’re going to try something new, something exciting. It kind of gives everybody hope.”