Pro Football's One Dollar Franchise

Pro Football's One Dollar Franchise

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Ernie Nevers

An oft-told story from yesteryear is how in 1925, Tim Mara paid just $500 to purchase the New York Giants National Football League franchise. A similar but lesser known tale is that of the 1926 Duluth, Kelleys. The Duluth franchise actually sold for the bargain basement price of $1. That's what team manager Ole Haugsrud and coach Dewey Scanlon paid to take over the financially struggling team. The Kelleys originally operated as an independent pro team, but joined the NFL in 1923. But, after two relatively unsuccessful seasons the team ownership was ready to throw in the towel. That's when Haugrud and Scanlon made their offer. For their dollar, they got not only a pretty lousy team, but also its debts, which were large. Haugsrud's plan, however, was to sign his longtime friend and Stanford All-America Ernie Nevers to a pro contract as the team's player-coach.  

Nevers was the best-known athlete coming out of college in 1926 and Haugsrud felt that his gate appeal would assure the team's success. Unfortunately, the American Football League, a new pro league started by Red Grange and his agent C.C. Pyle, offered Nevers a very lucrative contract. Out of friendship to Haugsrud, Nevers agreed to play for Duluth if Haugsrud would match the AFL's offer of $15,000 and 25 percent of the gate. Haugsrud agreed. He even changed the name of the team to Ernie Nevers' Eskimos although the press often referred to the team as the Duluth Eskimos.

The uniform, locker, coat, and equipment trunk once used by Ernie Nevers.
Haugsrud, who eventually took sole control of the team, was determined to make his $1 investment pay off. Even the players agreed to help by agreeing to play for just $50 a game if they lost, $60 if they tied, and $75 if they won. All of which was below the average pay of the day. The upside, however, was that Haugsrud scheduled as many games as he could find takers, thus guaranteeing his players more paydays.  

As a part of his plan, Haugsrud made the Eskimos a traveling team. After just one game at home, the Eskimos set out on a coast-to-coast journey that included more than 20 games and more than 17,000 miles of travel. To keep expenses down, the Eskimos rarely traveled with more than fifteen players. To make the squad look larger, Haugsrud would often suit up as if he were a player.

Famed sportswriter Grantland Rice was so impressed by the vagabond team, he named them "the Ironmen of the North."

The Duluth Kelleys bill of sale. Click here for larger image>>>
Just as Haugsrud had predicted, Nevers was a terrific gate attraction. He was also a terrific player. He did most of the ball carrying and passing and all of the placekicking and punting. He even returned punts and kickoffs and played defense. During the entire season, Nevers missed only 26 minutes of playing time, when doctors ordered him to sit out a game in Milwaukee. But when the Eskimos fell behind, he put himself back in and threw a touchdown pass to defeat Milwaukee 7-6.

In 1926, the team was a financial success. However, the 1927 season was much less successful and in 1928 the team suspended operations. Finally, at the urging of the NFL, Haugsrud reluctantly agreed to fold his franchise. When he did, however, he gained a promise from the league that if ever another franchise was granted in the state of Minnesota, he would be given an opportunity to purchase it. In 1960, when it was announced that the Minnesota Vikings would join the NFL the next year, Haugsrud reminded the league of their commitment and purchased 10 percent of the team. Not bad, considering it all began with a $1 investment.

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