The USFL is back. Kind of. Just not in the way some of us remember. That’s presuming that some of you were around in 1983-1985 to remember it.
Full disclosure, I was. My fandom for Doug Flutie and Herschel Walker started back then. And that’s where my fascination with alternate non-NFL pro football leagues began.
I’ll spare you all a long trip down memory lane. The USFL back then was trying to take over the world. And in an alternate universe, they might have. They went too big, too soon, with 12 teams in year one and then 18 in year two in 1984. It’s hard enough to find one good owner who can pay all the bills, let alone 18.
The USFL flew too close to the NFL sun and burned out very quickly. But the league left an impression that is still felt today, which undoubtedly changed the landscape of pro football forever.
The USFL of 2022 is starting on a much more modest scale this time. Taking what appears to be the opposite approach than the original USFL had, starting small in the hopes of one day reaching the great heights the USFL achieved for a fleeting moment in time.
FOX Sports own the new USFL league, with eight teams all playing in one site (Birmingham), with designs of one-day entering markets for which these teams are intended. Admittedly, it’s going to be a strange setup, trying to convince football fans from specific cities to root on teams that bear their location’s name but yet are playing somewhere else.
There’s no doubt that the new iteration of the USFL wants to tap into what the AAF and XFL started. Although they met the same fate as many entities that have come before them, both those leagues proved that there is a potential market for the existence of a pro football league during the non-NFL part of the year. Once upon a time, although the history books haven’t been kind, the original USFL did too. The XFL is also returning to reenter the landscape, but that’s a story for another time.
Let’s look at the markets and team names that the new USFL has chosen for 2022 and potentially beyond. The league has to get to 2023 first, but the real fun and challenges start when they presumably and inevitably do.
USFL NORTHERN DIVISION
The Michigan Panthers
Right out the gate, the USFL has decided to tap into their past and towards one of their glory franchises, but the league is not following the suggested path of many to avoid NFL cities in an alternate pro football league. Seven of the USFL’s teams on FOX are, in theory, going to be represented and one day will be playing in NFL locations.
Although, one could jokingly state that the NFL has been without a genuine NFL team in Michigan for quite some time. Sorry Lions fans, one day it will turn around. I promise.
Another no-no in the alternate pro football league category is setting up shop in Northeast markets during the Spring. The prevailing thought is that the weather during these months will affect attendance. But with the new USFL playing in mid-April through June, the elements shouldn’t be an issue. Although an argument can be made that the winter months of February and March help guarantee added viewership with people more likely to be indoors. Michigan is a top 15 TV market. So there’s no doubt that potential TV viewership came into play for Eric Shanks and FOX Sports when choosing the Panthers.
The Michigan Panthers were a smashing success in the USFL in 1983, league champs with a strong following, but things fell apart quickly. Financially and creatively, the league and the franchise weren’t in tune. After winning it all in 83′, The Panthers were moved out of their division to accommodate new team arrivals. By 1985, Michigan merged with Oakland in and the Panthers were no more.
Revitalizing this franchise means something to the old USFL fans. It’s one of the few rights that went wrong the first time around. They say you can’t go home again, but the USFL is going to try.
The Philadelphia Stars
Much like the Panthers, this is another glory franchise from the old days of the USFL. And another northeast team in an NFL market.
The Stars were a part of USFL royalty on the field. Except they didn’t have the same success that some other franchises had at the gate, unlike the Panthers, who were competing with or even outdrawing the Lions in their state. The Stars struggled at the gate and ended up in Baltimore. Partly because of the proposed move to the Fall in the future. But the business wasn’t booming the way it was on the field. The Stars had an NFL quality star-filled roster and did a tremendous job unearthing hidden gems like the legendary Sam Mills.
The franchise has a soft spot and is remembered kindly by fans. But they weren’t as well-received as many believed. Will the city of Brotherly love show some to the reborn Stars? Philadelphia ranks in the top five. So again, FOX may be angling to tap into that stronghold.
The Pittsburgh Maulers
The Maulers should have a natural rivalry with in-state Philly. But this is the most ambitious team announced by the new USFL. Pittsburgh’s expansion into the original USFL seemed curious back in 1984. The team lost millions of dollars and didn’t draw exceedingly well.
Quite frankly, the Maulers had the same NFL knockoff appeal that the Oakland Invaders had in the USFL. The Maulers logo is a sledgehammer-wielding worker that can be seen in steel foundries. The team also played its games at Three-Rivers Stadium and had ties to the Steelers in their front office.
The Maulers franchise quickly bottomed out from 53,000 in their first game to only 16,000 at home in their last. To be fair, there was hope that the Maulers could build upon their modest success in year one, but the idea of going to the Fall and competing with the Steelers killed that.
Pittsburgh is a top 26 market, not as strong as Philly or Michigan, but competing with those northeast rivals for supremacy could carry weight over time. Provided that the Maulers are in this league for the long haul and not a one-year wonder like last time.
The New Jersey Generals
A pro football team that is proud to call itself ‘New Jersey.’ Arguably, the most infamous USFL team is back. Having a franchise in the northeast area makes sense. Can the new iteration of the USFL find a way to make it work or get people in New Jersey to care?
The Generals were one of the model franchises from a business standpoint back in the 80s. They fielded a strong team with excellent front-line players, and they drew respectable crowds. They were the all-in franchise, signing Heisman trophy winners and daring to take on the NFL with grand designs of eventually moving into New York to fill the void the Jets left when they departed Queens decades ago.
Something tells me that the Generals this go-round will be taking a much more humble approach. It would be best if you went big in the big cities. But the new USFL won’t be able to do that from day one.
USFL SOUTHERN DIVISION
The Houston Gamblers
A curious move by the USFL. With all the available Texas cities to embrace like Austin or San Antonio. The USFL is going back to Houston. This is yet another USFL franchise slated for an “NFL City.” The TV market and nostalgia choice make sense. But ignoring San Antonio doesn’t.
It remains to be seen what the XFL does in Houston when they return. But in theory, the Gamblers could be competing for attention in Houston with the Roughnecks come 2023.
The Gamblers were one of the guilty pleasure teams of the USFL in the 80s. They were a fun franchise with a wide-open Run and Shoot offense and stellar players like quarterback Jim Kelly. The USFL will need to recapture some of that flavor to draw Houstonians back.
The Tampa Bay Bandits
It seems like the only way this will make sense is when Steve Spurrier heads up his former team. Things could be coming full circle for him and the league. As reported months back, there has already been contact between Spurrier and the USFL.
There are some drawbacks to the Bandits going into a market that struggled in the XFL and heading into an NFL city that hasn’t always been a great draw for the Bucs. However, like several of the other team names chosen by FOX,
Tampa is a strong TV market. That’s a part of this equation, but nostalgia is playing a more significant role in the return of the Bandits.
Once upon a time, the Bandits were Tampa, and they hit lightning in a bottle in the old USFL. They were a fun franchise and highly likable. Much more competent at the time than the creamsicle Bucs. The Bandits were one of the most successful teams in the USFL, both on the field and at the ticket booth. Spurrier’s “Bandit Ball” offense led them to three winning seasons and two playoff appearances. Their exciting brand of play combined with innovative local marketing helped the Bandits lead the league in attendance.
The new USFL has a running theme of embracing its past. Nothing illustrates that further than going back into the time machine with the Bandits.
The New Orleans Breakers
The USFL is breaking from convention with the Breakers in New Orleans. NOLA is one of the best places in the South. However, this choice doesn’t check all the boxes in either the nostalgia or market share category. There’s nothing wrong with having a franchise in this neck of the country. But when weighing it against other potential sites, does it make sense?
The Breakers USFL history alone is strange. From Boston to New Orleans to eventually Portland inside of three years. The Breakers had some excellent players and drew decently at specific points, but the team doesn’t have the same cache over some of the other legacy USFL originals.
Several sources close to the league suggest that some sites were chosen explicitly with prospective owners and venues in mind. It’s possible the USFL and FOX already have potential owners/owners lined up for the Breakers in 2023. But it’s a case of; I will believe it when I see it.
The Birmingham Stallions
The only USFL team that is not in an NFL market. And it’s arguably the one choice that makes the most sense. The Stallions check off all the boxes. Birmingham can be for the USFL, what San Antonio was for the AAF, and what St.Louis was for the XFL. A cornerstone franchise.
The USFL found the perfect partner for their bare-boned approach in 2022. Birmingham has new facilities and is desperate to make a pro football teamwork after years of failed attempts in every non-NFL league possible over several decades. Birmingham is helping to put the USFL in business and could serve as the launching point for the league in the future. Without the Stallions and the cities willingness to give the league carte blanche to operate. The USFL in 2022 might not have come to fruition.
There are a lot of ifs, maybes, and buts when it comes to the USFL. Birmingham is an excellent venue, and the market desperately wants to attach itself to a pro football team. A bonus will be if the Stallions are a good football team. They are going to have a home-field advantage for every single USFL game in 2022.
The end game for the USFL is, landing their teams in individual markets by 2023? The league and Birmingham already have their home. Seven of the other initial teams do not. Can the USFL find owners, sponsors, and venues to orchestrate a fully functioning pro football league? That’s the aim for what will be a showcase season in 2022.
Although I wrote about and reported the USFL’s return earlier this year. With FOX and TSL teaming up to make this a reality. For someone who was an original USFL fan, this all seems unreal to me. And perhaps it is. After all, the likelihood is that this USFL will only resemble the original in name alone.
Nevertheless, The new USFL on FOX will be fantastic for the football landscape by providing players and coaches opportunities to shine on a major sports network.
However, The name value of the USFL and even FOX can only take you so far. Tapping into nostalgia is nice, but you need to produce a quality product that draws modern-day sports fans. The new USFL has to go beyond trying to reel in die-hard football enthusiasts from generations passed.
The chances are that most football fans have only vaguely heard of the USFL, probably because of a particular narrative attached to a former president. Most current fans weren’t even born when Generals RB Herschel Walker rushed for 2,400 yards (Not a typo) in a single season.
The new USFL wants to be the league that finally made pro football last in the Spring. Sooner or later, someone will. Ironically enough, it’s the original USFL that has kept all these league attempts coming, decades after their spectacular demise. The NFL even tried their own spring league, WLAF/NFL Europe and it eventually faded away.
One more shot for the USFL on the road back from the very distant past. Provided that this road leads back from Birmingham to Michigan, New Jersey, Philly, Pittsburgh, Houston, New Orleans, and Tampa in 2023 and beyond.
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