Back to the future with the USFL
Mullets, mom jeans, the United States Football League — you’d be forgiven for thinking you woke up back in the ’80s this morning. Fox Sports announced its sponsored relaunch of the short-lived league, scheduled for the spring of 2022. With an eight-team, two-conference model, spring football will return in yet another iteration with the caveat that all of the games during this inaugural season will be played in a single location that is yet to be announced.
The single-arena model may help mitigate some of the financial difficulties that other non-NFL professional leagues have faced in their beginning stages that have cut these alternate leagues off at the knees — difficulties that the original USFL, which ran from 1983 to 1985, also faced.
The original USFL of the 1980s was no small-name operation — they signed three back-to-back Heisman Trophy winners, including Herschel Walker and Doug Flutie, straight out of college. Several NFL HOF members, including Steve White, Gary Zimmerman, and Reggie White, got their starts in the USFL. They pioneered the two-point conversion, a territorial draft, and would never have dreamed of instituting a celebration prohibition. So whatever happened to the original spring league?
To put it simply, they dreamed too big, too fast. After only two years of decently successful spring seasons, the USFL decided it was time to take on the NFL’s monopoly over the fall — with the charge led by none other than New Jersey Generals owner Donald J. Trump, who said that if God wanted football to be played in the spring, “he wouldn’t have invented baseball.” The league owners hoped to force the NFL into a merger that would increase the USFL’s revenue as their spending shot out of control in those first few years. Despite multimillion-dollar spring broadcasting offers from ABC and ESPN, the owners voted to abandon the spring model and move to the fall. After a failed antitrust lawsuit against the NFL that garnered the USFL all of three dollars and 76 cents after interest, the league officially shut down in 1988.
The 2022 USFL reboot has plenty of other leagues’ mistakes to learn from, and if this year has taught us anything, it’s that taking on the NFL is a fool’s errand, to say the very least. The spring leagues will never truly be able to compete with what the NFL has become, both financially and culturally. The spring leagues occupy a space somewhere between college and pro — the best collegiate players get drafted to the big leagues, so leagues like the XFL, AAF, and USFL are left with a second-rate draft, which means that the timing of the spring league can’t be the only thing that sets it apart if investors hope to succeed for more than two or three seasons.
The USFL’s slightly later timing is one mark in their favor — while the XFL chose to act as a sort of extension of the NFL and college seasons, with a season starting in February, the USFL plans on running from April through June. This allows time for interest to rebuild after the Super Bowl, and also won’t overlap with any major tournaments, starting as March Madness finishes up and finishing as the NBA finals get started. The XFL’s attempt to restart was prematurely shuttered by the pandemic in spring 2020, which forced them into bankruptcy, with the new owners hoping to get it up and running again in 2023, where it will be a spring competitor with the USFL if all goes to plan.
Another appeal of spring leagues is the rule changes that improve pace of play and make the game more fun for viewers used to the strict-and-getting-stricter NFL laws (including this season’s controversial celebration rule). The XFL incorporated a three-point conversion, mid-game sideline interviews with players, and shootout-style overtime rules, all of which were fan favorites that the USFL might take some inspiration from. While we may not be able to predict what the XFL’s future would have looked like in a world without COVID, another important distinction between the XFL and the new USFL is the broadcasting rights. ESPN and Fox agreed to broadcast the XFL, but the league made no money off of the contract. With the new Fox Sports ownership of the USFL, the broadcasters will have a higher stake in the ratings and will likely be more willing to pour some extra funds into the league if necessary.
The spring leagues also have yet to create a real identity, largely because of how short-lived they have been. Are they hoping to be a sort of farm league for the NFL? Or just a weirder, wilder, slightly worse league that offers a major draw to football fanatics and sports betting companies? Few founders have had the financial patience to stick with the slow build system and find out — for instance, the Alliance of American Football’s 2019 attempt didn’t even make it through a full season due to severe financial mismanagement.
Maybe this Fox-backed league will finally be patient enough to take some sort of sustainable shape and carve out a legitimate place for spring league football in the American sports scene. On the other hand, I have to wonder whether the corporate-backed model will force the league to be a bit more buttoned-up than some of its predecessors have been, which could drive down viewership with a lack of differentiating characteristics from the NFL.
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