Pro Athletes That Chose Rival Leagues: Namath, Beckham & Dr. J Shook Things Up

With household names like Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau, and Dustin Johnson jumping from the PGA to LIV Golf, it got us thinking about other athletes that decided to apply their craft in alternative leagues.

Joe Namath Chooses AFL Over NFL

A star out of the University of Alabama, Joe Namath had the football world at his fingertips in 1965. Coming off of a national championship in 1964 with the Crimson Tide, it seemed the star quarterback was destined to join the National Football League.

Broadway Joe had other ideas as the then 21-year-old shrugged off the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals to ink a record deal worth $427,000 with the New York Jets of the American Football League. The AFL was doing its best to bring talent to the league, and landing Joe Namath was its crowning moment.

Nabbing Namath undoubtedly had something to do with the first steps of merging the two leagues. The 1966 merger created a common draft and a championship game, even though the AFL and NFL operated as separate leagues with separate schedules. The NFL and AFL champs would meet in what became the Super Bowl, starting in 1967.

Namath famously guaranteed and then delivered the Jets one of the biggest upset wins in the history of the sport. New York beat the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl III as heavy underdogs and helped legitimize the AFL before fully merging with the NFL in 1970.

The WHA Attracts Big NHL Talent

The World Hockey Association opened shop in 1972 and poached some of the National Hockey League’s most recognizable stars. Much like LIV Golf, the WHA had to open up their wallets to draw some big names that could put the new league on the map. 

Boston Bruins goalie Gerry Cheevers and Bernie Parent of the Toronto Maple Leafs were two of the biggest names of the 67 former NHLers to jump ship, but Bobby Hull was at the top of the mountain.

Coming off his fifth 50-goal season with the Chicago Black Hawks, Hull signed with the WHA’s Winnipeg Jets for $2.75 million over ten years. Sure, that doesn’t seem like much now, but in 1972 it made him one of the highest-paid athletes in North America.

Having retired from playing in 1971, Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe, followed Hull’s cue a year later. Howe left a front office job with the Detroit Red Wings to play in the league. After making $45,000 a year in the NHL, the Houston Aeros gave Howe and his sons, Mark and Marty, $2.2 million over four years.

Even the Great One, Wayne Gretzky, laced ’em up in the WHA. The NHL did not allow the signing of players under the age of 20, so the Indianapolis Racers inked a 17-year-old Gretzky to a $1.75 million deal in 1978.

The league folded in 1979 but made its mark by competing with the NHL for top talent.

USFL Gets Herschel Walker and Jim Kelly 

Like the WHA, the USFL had different entry-level rules for its players. This was key in landing University of Georgia junior Herschel Walker, as the NFL did not allow the signing of underclassmen. 

Fresh off winning the Heisman Trophy and his third straight season of 1500-plus yards with the Bulldogs, Walker inked a three-year, $5 million deal with the New Jersey Generals in 1983. The Generals got around their $1.8 million salary cap by signing the talented running back to a personal services deal with owner J. Walter Duncan.

Walker led the league in rushing in his rookie season with over 1,800 yards on the ground and again won the title in 1985 after running for 2,411 yards.

Another incentive the United States Football League used to acquire talent was allowing players to choose their team. This especially appealed to Jim Kelly. 

Before the 1983 NFL Draft, Kelly, who played his college ball in Miami, made it very clear he wanted to play in a warm-weather destination. The former Hurricane listed the Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay Packers, and Buffalo Bills as no-go teams. Kelly’s wishes didn’t appear to phase the Bills, who selected him with the 14th overall pick.

As the story goes, Kelly was contacted by the USFL while in a meeting with Buffalo and persuaded to consider the rival league. The talented pivot rolled the dice on the Houston Gamblers on a  five-year fully-guaranteed deal for $3.3 million.

Kelly set a league record with 5,219 yards and 44 touchdown passes before winning the USFL MVP in 1984. 

The 1985 season was the USFL’s last. Herschel Walker went on to play 12 seasons in the NFL, his best coming in 1988 with the Dallas Cowboys when he ran for over 1,500 yards.

Jim Kelly came to terms with the Bills, led them to four Super Bowls, had his No. 12 retired in Buffalo, and is a member of the Hall of Fame.

Beckham Bends the Soccer World

David Beckham started the wave of players from around the world coming to North America when he signed with the LA Galaxy in 2007. At the time, Beckham was undoubtedly the most recognizable face in soccer, and his decision to leave Real Madrid for the MLS was unprecedented. 

The former Manchester United star inked a five-year contract worth $32.5 million with LA., a move that helped legitimize Major League Soccer and spark further interest in the sport in the U.S. Beckham was by far the biggest name to take his talents to the North American league, with a long resume of success. The London native led the Premier League in assists twice and already won the EPL, Champions League, and FA Cup.

Beckham scored 18 goals in his MLS career, including a personal-best of seven in 2012. Perhaps most importantly, the Englishman was instrumental in helping the Galaxy win back-to-back league titles in 2011 and 2012.

Dr. J Jumps to the ABA

Julius Erving couldn’t wait to start dunking again, so he left college early to head to the ABA. While there is obviously more to the story, the NCAA did actually ban dunking in 1968.

Dr. J’s dunk-ability was already well known when he enrolled at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in ’68. Erving averaged a ridiculous double-double over the final two years of his NCAA career, putting up 26.3 points and 20.2 rebounds per game. It appeared the dominant Junior was ready for the big time.

Dr. J’s options were limited because the NBA did not allow players less than four years out of high school to enter the league. Like the USFL and WHA, the ABA’s rules were different. The rival league allowed players to leave college early to play professionally. 

Erving signed a four-year $500,000 deal with the Virginia Squires and made an immediate impact on the league.

The future Hall of Famer averaged over 27 points per game in his rookie campaign while leading the league in offensive rebounds. Building on a fantastic freshman season, Erving went on to win the ABA’s scoring title in 1972 and 1973.

Erving’s success carried over to the NBA, winning the MVP award in 1981 and bringing Philadelphia a league championship in 1983.