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A look at the history of football cards from leagues that competed against the NFL

In addition to a variety of NFL football cards that have been released over time, there has also been a variety of non-NFL football cards released.

By Sean Chaffin

 Rod Smart made a name for himself in the XFL by having the name on the back of his jersey listed as, He Hate Me.

Rod Smart made a name for himself in the XFL by having the name on the back of his jersey listed as, He Hate Me.

Football addicts were in luck this year. The Alliance of American Football (AAF) kicked off the week after the Super Bowl, offering fans a chance to continue the football season on Saturdays and Sundays through the spring.

The league has some big money backers, including MGM casinos, and has inked TV deals with CBS (aired the first games), CBS Sports Network, TNT, and the NFL Network. The league has signed many former NFL players as they try to make their way back to the NFL. The AAF offers fans eight teams, a 10-week season, and one week of playoffs followed by a championship game in April in Las Vegas.

The AAF has embraced sports betting and technology, with the ball and each player fitted with microchips offering instant data. While that has garnered the league some attention, the AAF may have received some added legitimacy among sports fans when Topps partnered with the AAF and is scheduled to debut a set of football cards in March.

The new set features the top 200 players in the league as well as major names among the coaching staff like Mike Singletary and Steve Spurrier. The cards feature sharp designs and information about each player with three autographs in each box.

The AAF becomes the latest “renegade league” offering football fans some extra gridiron action, but also the latest to feature its own collectible cards. Here is a look at some other leagues through the years and their trading cards.

XFL (2001)

 When Topps released its XFL Football card set it included a “Girls on Fire” subset, featuring XFL cheerleaders.

When Topps released its XFL Football card set it included a “Girls on Fire” subset, featuring XFL cheerleaders.

This league was a joint venture between Vince McMahon’s WWE and NBC. The league promoted itself as an edgier competitor to the NFL with scantily dressed cheerleaders and names like the Las Vegas Outlaws, L.A. Xtreme, Memphis Maniax, and Chicago Enforcers. The league received plenty of press thanks to the showman McMahon, and Week 1 ratings were good.

However, sloppy play on the field left a lot to be desired and fans bailed in droves. Fans were also turned off by the sideshow aspects of wrestling drama antics brought to the field. Play improved in later weeks, but by then it was too late and the plug was pulled after one season.

The 2001 Topps XFL cards offered fans 100 cards with an edgy design and autographs and memorabilia cards thrown in – as well as the “Girls on Fire” subset featuring cheerleaders. The league didn’t garner many big names, but quarterback and winner of the lone XFL championship, Tommy Maddox, attracted some interest from collectors.

In January 2018, McMahon announced a revival of the league, this time without the carnival barker antics and wrestling-like angles. He promised real football and earned some legitimacy in February with the hiring of former University of Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops to lead the Dallas franchise.

World League of

American Football/NFL Europe (1991-2007)

 Dallas Cowboys Head Coach Jason Garrett was featured on a football card when he played in the World League of American Football.

Dallas Cowboys Head Coach Jason Garrett was featured on a football card when he played in the World League of American Football.

The NFL itself got in on the act in starting a spring football league in 1991. The idea was to grow the game in other parts of the world as well as offering a chance to develop young talent. The league began with seven teams in North America and three in Europe. Franchises were placed mostly in non-NFL cities like Montreal, Birmingham, and Raleigh-Durham. The first European teams were located in London, Barcelona, and Frankfurt.

The league took a season off in 1993–94 and then returned as NFL Europe with six teams on the continent. Teams were assigned players from NFL teams, and some of the players who went on to NFL careers included: quarterbacks Kurt Warner, John Kitna, Jake Delhomme, and Brad Johnson; wide receiver Dante Hall; kickers Adam Vinatieri and David Akers; and linebacker James Harrison. Defensive lineman William “The Refrigerator” Perry also played in the league at the end of his career.

After losing as much as $30 million a year, the NFL folded its European experiment in 2007.

The league was blessed with some sharp-looking cards through the years including sets from Pro Set and Topps. Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett even played QB for the San Antonio Riders, and his card is available for under a buck on eBay.

Arena Football League (1986 – present)

 Kurt Warner was the most well-known Arena Football League player to be featured on a football card.

Kurt Warner was the most well-known Arena Football League player to be featured on a football card.

While the league has struggled in recent years, at one time the “50-yard indoor war” featured more than 20 franchises, an EA Sports video game, and TV deals with NBC and ESPN. The league now has just a handful of teams, but has seen its share of football cards produced throughout its history.

A few names stand out that might be of interest to collectors, such as Super Bowl XXIV MVP and NFL Hall of Famer Kurt Warner, who got his start with the Iowa Barnstormers. His early cards with the team can be found on eBay.

Washington Redskins Head Coach Jay Gruden (and brother of Raiders coach John Gruden) played quarterback for the Orlando Predators and Tampa Bay Storm, where he won four ArenaBowls.

United States Football League (USFL)

(1983 – 1985)

 The signing of Herschel Walker helped put the USFL on the map with football fans and collectors.

The signing of Herschel Walker helped put the USFL on the map with football fans and collectors.

For collectors looking for big names in renegade leagues, the USFL sets from Topps offer fans the chance to gather some cards featuring NFL greats and even some enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. This spring-summer league lasted three seasons with some early success in signing high-level talent and television contracts. The on-field product played well with fans and the USFL featured coaches and executives with quite a bit of NFL experience.

However, the league struggled with attendance in some cities and unstable ownership. The league’s initial ideas to control spending were thrown out the window by some owners. The signing of big-name players, including 1982 Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker by the New Jersey Generals, proved a financial drain on many teams.

 The 1985 Topps USFL Football card set also included a number of players who would go on to play in the NFL.

The 1985 Topps USFL Football card set also included a number of players who would go on to play in the NFL.

Topps produced cards for USFL fans. The cards included some big names who would go on to the NFL including: Walker, quarterbacks Bobby Hebert and Doug Flutie, running back Mike Rozier, linebacker Sam Mills, wide receivers Anthony Carter and Gary Clark, offensive lineman Nate Newton, and punter Sean Landeta.

USFL cards that were highly sought by collectors included those of Hall of Famers: quarterback Jim Kelly; defensive end Reggie White; and offensive lineman Gary Zimmerman. Coaches George Allen and Marv Leavy are also in the Hall of Fame, as well as executives Sid Gillman and Bill Polian.

The USFL folded after announcing plans to play the 1986 season in the fall. The league won an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL, but was awarded only $1 in damages. While the league didn’t survive, it is remembered as a league of high-flying offense and big names. Those Topps cards are sought after and are a testament to the league that made a nice run at legitimate spring football.

World Football League (1974-75)

This league didn’t last long and folded mid-way through the 1975 season. The league fielded 13 teams including Hawaii and Toronto. The WFL struggled financially right from the beginning and with franchise stability.

Owners paid top salaries and found some success raiding NFL rosters. Those included Dolphins fullback Larry Csonka, Raiders quarterbacks Ken Stabler and Daryle Lamonica, Cowboys running back Calvin Hill and quarterback Craig Morton, and numerous others. While no cards of the league were released at the time, those looking for something unique can purchase several series of cards commemorating the league. The helmet design subset is certainly a nice addition as are some of the NFL greats who played in the WFL.

Sean Chaffin is a contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. Follow him on Twitter @PokerTraditions. He can be reached at seanchaffin@sbcglobal.net.