World Football League (1974-1975)
Born: September 25, 1974 – New York Stars relocate to Charlotte.
Folded: October 22, 1975.
Stadium: American Legion Memorial Stadium (25,433)
Team Colors: Hornet Yellow, Black & White
Owner: Upton Bell, et al.
World Bowl Championships: None
The Charlotte Hornets played parts of two seasons in the doomed World Football League (1974-1975) of the 1970’s. The Hornets started out the WFL’s 1974 debut season as the New York Stars, but the team was saddled with a decrepit stadium in New York City and team owner Robert Schmerz, who also owned the NBA’s Boston Celtics and World Hockey Association’s New England Whalers, was unable to stomach the team’s mounting debts.
As the Stars dimmed in New York, former New England Patriots General Manager Upton Bell made the rounds with city officials and potential investors in Charlotte, North Carolina looking for support to acquire and relocate the team. Bell, the son of former NFL Commissioner Bert Bell, managed to lure in pro golfer Arnold Palmer, but he still lacked a fully funded investment group when the Stars exhausted their resources in New York in late September 1974. Bell officially took possession of the Stars on September 25, 1974 and announced the team’s immediate relocation to Charlotte. The club was 8-5 with seven games remaining in the 1974 season. Bell’s financing was still a work in progress.
The move occurred so quickly that the team had no name at first. The team went on the road to Illinois under the temporary name “Charlotte Stars” while Bell and his partners formulated a new team identity back in Charlotte. To distinguish the team from the old New York Stars, the team’s equipment manager slapped helmet decals of the Chicago Bears “C” onto the old New York helmets for their game against the Chicago Fire at Soldier Field. The “Charlotte Stars” lasted just that one game, a 41-35 win over the Fire that boosted the team’s record to 9-5. When the team finally arrived in North Carolina in the first week of October 1974, there was a new identity waiting for them – the Charlotte Hornets.
Charlotte fans welcomed the Hornets with enthusiasm, even if the financial backers the team needed were still taking a wait-and-see attitude. The Hornets made their home debut on October 9th, 1974 against the league’s best team, the 12-2 Memphis Southmen, who were riding a 9-game winning streak. A sellout crowd of 25,133 packed American Legion Memorial Stadium for the game. The Hornets made it interesting before Memphis’ offense overwhelmed them in the second. The Southmen’s quarterback was a rookie out of Arizona State named Danny White, who would later go on to quarterback the Dallas Cowboys for most of the 1980’s. White hit Memphis’ Ed Marshall with two second half scores to seal the victory for Memphis.
A 27-0 shutout of the Chicago Fire the following week drew another strong crowd of 20,000+ in Charlotte and boosted the Hornets record to 10-6. The game was sloppy, full of dropped passes from both clubs.
“It’s lousy football, but it’s good entertainment,” one fan in attendance told Richard Sowers of The Gastonia Gazette, neatly capturing Charlotte’s receptiveness to the fledgling WFL brand.
The last month of the 1974 season was a reality check for the Hornets. The team dropped its final four games to finish at 10-10. The investor search slogged along with a solution, while Bell relied on gate receipts to fund operations. Following a November road loss in Shreveport, Louisiana, sheriff’s deputies showed up in the locker room to impound the Hornets’ uniforms and equipment to settle creditor lawsuits from New York. Although the team’s 10-10 record was good enough to qualify for the WFL playoffs in mid-November, the sinking league re-shuffled the playoff format at the last moment. Bell realized he didn’t have the money to keep playing and elected to pull the Hornets out of postseason competition.
The World Football League staggered to the end of its first season on December 5, 1974 when the Birmingham Americans defeated the Florida Blazers in the first (and only) World Bowl. Both teams were insolvent. After the game, sheriff’s deputies impounded the Americans uniforms for unpaid debts, similar to the experience the Charlotte Hornets the previous month. Several teams were already out of business. Others were on the road to bankruptcy court. Hundreds of players and employees remained unpaid. More than one WFL owner faced prison time for tax or financial fraud.
Chris Hemmeter, an owner of The Hawaiians franchise, stepped forward to lead a re-organization of the league. Hemmeter’s plan called for all franchises to prove solvency by placing a substantial portion of their operating capital into escrow prior to the 1975 season. It was thought that this would stave off the mid-season meltdown of under-capitalized franchises that plagued the league’s debut season. Originally, all teams were to have their funds in place by January 1975. Bell was invited to re-organize for the 1975 season, based on Charlotte’s box office success during the final two months of 1974. The Hornets averaged near 80% capacity for their four home games in Charlotte.
Bell got to work but investors remained deeply reluctant to get involved with the WFL. The January deadline came and went, as did extensions in February, March and April. Bell was eventually able to raise about three-quarters of a million dollars, which was well short of the league’s goal. But the WFL voted to re-admit the Hornets anyway in the spring of 1975.
Many of the top players from the 1974 team agreed to return, including quarterback Tom Sherman, top rusher Don Highsmith and defensive back Larry Shears. Bob Gibson replaced the departed Babe Parilli as Head Coach for the 1975 season.
After an 0-2 start on the road to begin the 1975 season, the Hornets returned to American League Memorial Stadium on August 16, 1975 to begin their first full season in Charlotte. But gone were the big crowds of the previous autumn. Only 8,447 showed up to watch Tom Sherman lead the Hornets to a 4th quarter come back victory over the previously unbeaten San Antonio Wings.
Despite Hemmeter’s great efforts to carefully vet league investors and ensure fiscal discipline, the World Football League’s 1975 season was plagued by the same problems as the year before. In early September, the Chicago Winds franchise was kicked out of the league for financial insolvency. Portland and San Antonio didn’t have enough money to finish the season either. Philadelphia couldn’t draw flies to their games. After 12 weeks of play, the remaining league owners voted to shut the league down in mid-season on October 22, 1975. For the second year in a row, the Hornets played only a partial season in Charlotte. Their final record for 1975 was 6-5.
Charlotte Hornets Memorabilia