Are you ready? Here we go again. The USFL is entering the dead zone of previously failed leagues. And this time, the entity tempting its fate has a familiar name in this space, one that arguably inspired so many football leagues who fill the graveyards of Spring’s past.
The United States Football League returns on Saturday, April 16th, 2022. That’s probably not a sentence that long-time football fans ever thought they would read. But here we are. Hope springs eternal yet again. And believe it or not, despite the perils of the past, there is some reason for optimism. But there are also plenty of reasons for negativity, based on what history has shown us in the last few decades.
Let’s take a look at both sides of the field.
Reasons why the USFL might succeed
The last two leagues that gave this concept a try. The AAF and XFL made quality impressions before their unfortunate and untimely demises. Many would dispute that last statement. However, the fact that FOX Sports has entered the picture as owners of the USFL is evidence that they see spring pro football as a viable property.
FOX is taking this plunge because of the positive results of teaming up with the XFL two years ago. They aren’t just retaking the same road; FOX is at the controls behind the wheel, driving the vehicle this time. And to add to that, NBC is riding shotgun right by their side.
The USFL has a next-level broadcast package
On the surface, the USFL in 2022 has a lot going for it; first and foremost, they have a built-in next-level broadcast package. Something that many upstart leagues can only dream about. But unlike most start-up leagues. The USFL is not reliant on the faith and patience of a network partner because they already are one.
Let’s face it; sports leagues have become the last beacon of hope in the live viewership model. And the overwhelming success of College and NFL football on television proves that American Football is king in this country. But it isn’t just football; sports leagues like the NHL and MLS, which produce modest numbers, have netted robust rights deals because there is a strong demand for live content with a proven fan base. No matter the size. NFL or otherwise.
Look around you; the TV and viewing landscape has changed dramatically. It goes beyond the standard Nielsen ratings and ‘key demos.’ Networks want content that helps drive consumption across all of their media platforms. That goes for the ever-evolving medium of streaming services as well.
The goal now is figuratively to get the customer in your store looking to buy shoes to check out your jackets and shirts. Get them to your websites, apps, and social media channels, and while they are there, maybe they will check out your other business partners as well.
The USFL is ahead of the game when it comes to potential exposure. They will be airing all 43 of its games this year on FOX, NBC, FS1, the USA Network, and the Peacock streaming service. Twenty of the games will air on the main networks of FOX (12) and NBC (8) this coming season. It’s a multi-year media rights partnership between two powerhouses in the broadcast industry.
The USFL being on FOX and NBC adds visibility and credibility to the brand. But it is also potentially a huge selling point down the road for prospective business partners, football players, and coaches. Concerning the latter, the USFL recently announced four of their eight head coaches that will be leading their teams in the Spring. Mike Riley with the New Jersey Generals, Kevin Sumlin with the Houston Gamblers, Todd Haley with the Tampa Bay Bandits, and Bart Andrus with the Philadelphia Stars. The rest of the league’s coaches will be named soon. Each team will also have a Director of Football Operations to help assist the head coaches with roster management.
Football talent better than ever
There’s no shortage of available talent when it comes to football players. According to figures released by the NCAA, Only 1.9 percent of all college football players make the NFL every year.
In 2022, college football universities and their athletes are more potent than ever. The ‘smaller schools’ are producing top-tier pro prospects. While, conversely, the ‘smaller schools’ continue to attract top recruits. Whether it’s FBS or FCS, hundreds of programs produce next-level quality football players. There’s not just not enough room in the NFL for the 98 percent of college football graduates that don’t make it every year.
It’s a different world than it was decades ago. College programs are much more advanced and pro-league compatible than they were in the past.
There’s no doubt, based on all the success stories of former XFL and AAF players in the NFL, the last two years, that there are plenty of good players out there worthy of playing pro football in the United States.
For every Tyler Huntley or Taylor Heinicke that slips through the cracks multiple times before breaking through. There are others just like them who never get the chance to shine simply because the numbers game doesn’t favor them.
As the XFL proved in 2020, you can produce a quality and entertaining pro football league that is not the NFL. That league had style and substance on and off the field. Can FOX be innovators in the same space with the USFL? Time will tell. But following what their former partner, the XFL, did would be wise.
It goes beyond the players you have in your league; it’s also how you present and embrace them. IF RUN CORRECTLY, the USFL has a chance to find the hidden gems and overlooked players. They are out there. Just open your eyes.
The on-screen spread and gambling aspect was in its infancy with the XFL on FOX and ESPN two years ago. Expect that aspect to be ramped up even further with more doors opening in that realm. There’s no doubt that FOX will try to tap into this element further than they did with the XFL through their gambling partnerships. And the league has an added advantage because they already have their own in-house sports betting service in FOX Bet.
The one area where recent spring football leagues have come up short is Fantasy Football. The XFL had strong partnerships with DFS outlets like DraftKings. But they didn’t make playing fantasy football easy and accessible, especially when it comes to season-long fantasy.
The number one aim with these leagues should be to immerse their new audience with the players. The way to do that is to properly integrate all aspects of fantasy football. It’s one of the top driving forces that gets football fans to follow and watch games of their non-favorite NFL teams.
The Bengals could be playing the Cardinals at 3 am on a Wednesday, and fantasy players will still watch to make sure Joe Mixon and Tee Higgins produce numbers for their team. It doesn’t even matter if the game is non-competitive; fantasy owners will watch every second of a game if they have players involved scoring for or potentially against them.
Fantasy football is also a clever way to get fans to learn about the players who play in your league. One of the many issues these leagues face is that most people are unfamiliar with these players, and fantasy football helps alleviate that problem.
Engage with any die-hard fantasy football player from any region in the United States. These fans have knowledge of every team’s roster and will spend countless hours reading daily injury and news reports attached to those teams because of the players they either have, want or are playing against in fantasy.
The USFL needs to tap into this properly. It has the same lasting appeal that gambling has.
It would also help to have a league-dedicated App that is much more advanced than what the AAF or XFL had. Make it easy for fans to gamble, play fantasy, shop for merchandise and follow every team in the league. FOX has the capability of doing this correctly. Will they?
Fiscally Responsible Business Model
One other thing that could play into FOX’s favor with the USFL is their business model. Failed leagues of the past have struggled to withstand the financial burdens of keeping themselves afloat, especially in the early going, where losses are an expected outcome. Owning and operating a pro football league is extremely expensive. And some leagues in the past learned that the hard way.
Perhaps by necessity and design, FOX is taking a baby steps minimalist approach with the USFL, starting small in the early stages in the hopes of creating a league that can financially sustain itself over time.
With Birmingham as the league’s primary site, not only has the league found a willing partner to house their teams for three months. But the USFL has found an entire city that can help shoulder and minimize the financial burden in year one of their league’s launch.
Operating in eight separate cities/markets out the gate would’ve proven to be time and money-consuming. The USFL of 2022, in many ways, is a low-cost, low-risk proposition for FOX. The USFL wasn’t ready to become a full-fledged traditional football league in 2022.
They have eliminated the high costs of operating an entire league in year one by starting in Birmingham. The expenditures of traveling, team staffing, facilities, venues, leases, etc., have all been wiped out. A HUB setting in Birmingham enables FOX to showcase their league and teams to each prospective market, with the idea of enticing prospective owners and sponsors to join the cause and help cover what will be considerable costs in year two and beyond.
Although there is some early scuttlebutt as to how much players will be compensated in the USFL. The belief is that they will be paid modest salaries, similar to or lower than what the XFL and AAF hoped to pay their players. The costs in this area will be tempered.
FOX already has the broadcast talent and production teams in-house to produce games. And they also have NBC doing the same. There are no middlemen involved here for the USFL because they are the middle man. In theory, FOX’s business plan could work, and it’s a more sound and safer model than we have seen in this space before with other spring pro football leagues.
Is the revived USFL repeating the same mistakes other failed leagues made?
The comparisons to other spring leagues that have come before are inevitable. While many look at the USFL brand name and think of the one that dominated the Spring for a brief period decades ago. It’s challenging not to think of the very recent Alliance of American Football when looking at all the steps the USFL has rapidly and haphazardly taken to get to this point.
Like the AAF, the USFL is rushing into the market space to get out in front of a potential competitor in the XFL, who is scheduled to return to the field in February of 2023.
However, there are some apparent differences between the two leagues. The USFL will not be a fully functioning traditional football league like the AAF was. Hence the reason that their teams won’t be playing in their cities.
The tradeoff is that it will be challenging to get people in Pittsburgh invested locally when the Maulers are playing all their games in Birmingham. And it is in this area, the similarities between the rushed AAF and USFL diverge significantly.
For the most part, the Alliance got the football right; their issue was that they never got the infrastructure or financial aspects set up correctly before launch. Two things that the USFL is purposely avoiding. Having to build up the league’s infrastructure and spend a lot of money.
Even still, the USFL, just a few months away from their season starting in April, just like the AAF, is racing to get to the field without everything lined up way ahead of time. To followers of alternate pro football leagues, this all looks very familiar. We have seen this movie before, even though it has different producers and an entirely different script. Hopefully, it’s doesn’t have the same ending.
Potential pitfalls of attracting and retaining football coaches
The USFL’s journey to announce their coaches has hit several snags along the way.
Former Auburn coach Gene Chizik was in talks with the USFL, as were several other coaches with name recognition who turned the league down over the last few months for various reasons. If you missed it, Chizik took the DC job in North Carolina after the league tried to entice him to coach in Birmingham.
The truth is that these types of leagues have a challenging time convincing top football coaches to join them. It’s not just a financial thing either. Often, leagues like the USFL settle for coaches who have limited options elsewhere on the pro and college football landscape.
Even when the USFL announces their initial eight head coaches and coaching staffs, write them down in pencil. Much like the Atlanta Legends in the AAF experienced with Brad Childress before their season began. It’s likely that if a better option comes along, the USFL could lose the coaches that they initially announced. This period of the football year is firing season, but it’s also hiring season. Other opportunities could present themselves. There is also the possibility that some of the coaches who agree to join the USFL might not be happy with what they see when they peek behind the curtain.
Getting the football right
You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.
What’s most troubling about the USFL’s plan so far is their lack of attention to detail on the football side. Let’s dive into those details.
The eight-team USFL will have 38-player rosters and seven-player practice squads. The league will hold a player selection meeting on February 22nd and 23rd. No word yet on whether this will be televised or monitored on some social media channel. Provided that the USFL gets a YouTube channel up and running shortly.
Training camps will start on March 21st, running for three weeks before the USFL season begins, presumably in the not-so-secret centralized location of Protective Stadium in Birmingham.
Notwithstanding the short amount of time these eight teams will have to get ready, which will affect the quality of play that the league displays when it launches. The designated roster size of 38 players plus seven on the practice squad will hurt the league’s ability to field competitive and competent teams. And ultimately hinder the quality of the product on the field.
There’s no doubt that roster size is a financial decision, not a football-friendly one. But it’s penny-wise and pound-foolish to limit your active players to 304 for eight teams. There really should be at least 40 more players involved in the league each week, five per team—bare minimum.
The roster size is an issue that several coaches have recently expressed to me on multiple occasions since the USFL’s roster numbers became official. FOX’s bare-bones and minimalist approach for the USFL has made its way onto the field.
Fielding only 38 players is foolhardy in a ten-game season. This isn’t the Madden video game; you can’t turn injuries off. And even if you could, there’s also this minor issue called the Pandemic, which depending on if the USFL decides to use resources to test their players, coaches, and personnel, could prove to be problematic in fielding teams and playing weekly games. Look no further than the hurdles that all sports leagues like the NFL have encountered, in that matter.
There is serious doubt whether the USFL will follow the COVID protocols other leagues have. There are conflicting reports from sources close to the Spring League that things might’ve been very loose in that regard a year ago.
That aside, for now, The Spring League in 2021 pulled the 38 player roster off, kind of, but that was done in a much shorter season (6 games). Thirty-eight players per roster is something that spring leagues of the past did several decades ago. But the times and football have changed a lot since then. After a series or two, players who were concussed back in the ’90s and early 2000s would re-enter games. Nowadays, while the system is far from perfect, players will typically miss their next game if they encounter any type of head injury.
Player health and safety notwithstanding, even if you decide to have only one specialist on your roster to assume kicking and punting duties, that still leaves coaches minimal depth in several other areas.
Here is what the standard weekly active USFL roster breakdown could look like;
QB: (2) RB: (2) WR: (5) TE:(2) OL: (7) DL: (6) LB: (6) DB: (7) K/P: (1)
Presuming that one of your reserves is pulling double duty as a long snapper. Weekly USFL rosters could look like this, and the numbers game could look different for individual teams, depending on the schemes utilized.
Some teams will play the 3-4 on defense, while others don’t. Some teams may decide to utilize a fullback, while others don’t. The likelihood with this limited depth is that a non-offensive player could be playing the role of lead blocker in goal-line or short-yardage situations.
A 7-player practice squad can help you fill weekly gaps to compensate for injuries. But even still, unless teams are allowed weekly activations to add to their active rosters, several positions will be severely thin on game day. Add to that the fact that multiple starters will have to play special teams. Increasing the likelihood of injuries. In-game fatigue could also play a factor and would bring down overall performance and the quality of the football product, especially as the season progresses.
The quality of the football presented by the USFL should be an essential aspect, and it is what will make or break them to the viewing public. And they are behind in being prepared to present a great product on the field and in their design of how to accomplish that.
Lack of transparency/promotion/marketing
In this day and age, you need to have a solid social media presence. And preferably, it endears itself to the consumer. The USFL is still in its infancy stages in this department, and it shows.
There’s not a lot of transparency involved with the USFL right now, and it’s fair to wonder whether it’s deliberate or because the league is genuinely struggling to get everything lined up before launch. Either way, both positions are less than ideal.
Insuring the league and its players
One of the areas of the USFL that is unknown at the moment is if the league has lined up workers’ compensation and insurance. No official word yet on that front.
One of the many complications in running a start-up pro football league is the certainty of injured players.
Not only do leagues and teams need to provide top-of-the-line medical and training staffing throughout a long season. But if leagues can not secure insurance policies to protect their players from injury, mainly when neurological and spinal cord injuries occur. It’s a non-starter because there are no ceilings towards the types of liabilities that would exist if your league doesn’t have them.
Lining this up is critical, not just for player safety but for protecting the league itself.
Banking on luring fans from the past with the USFL name will attract some of the nostalgia crowd. The brand itself has some value. But the revived United States Football League will be so different from the one people loved many moons ago.
The USFL would love to have modern-day fans embrace their history like the series Cobra Kai has for those who had previously never seen the Karate Kid movies. But the truth is that the brand name of the USFL doesn’t have the same cache on this generation. And the name USFL probably has a different effect on those unfortunate souls who are consumed by politics 24 hours a day.
The bottom line is that the new USFL currently lacks product awareness to the mainstream crowd. Save for brief FOX commercials and announcements on ‘The Herd.’ The league is barely visible to the non-alternative pro league crowds.
The most attention that the league has received to this point was Antonio Brown insulting the USFL by revealing the contents of a text message he received from Tampa Bay Bandits head coach Todd Haley, where Brown mocked his former Steelers coach for asking him to play in the league this April.
Perhaps the USFL’s slow-burn marketing plan will pick up steam as the season inches closer. But to this point, it’s been easily forgettable, and that’s the last thing you want if you are looking to get sports fans to sample your product in April during the draft season in the NFL.
College & Pro Player Recruitment
To the USFL’s credit. They are working with Strategic Education, Inc to offer a tuition-free, debt-free college program to its players and league staff. It will allow league employees the flexibility to pursue their education.
There are plenty of skeptics who will question the genuine motives of all the parties involved here.
That aside, It’s a good look for the now named USFL, which previously operated under The Spring League banner, a league that didn’t compensate their players for playing, and in some cases, required fees from them. Kudos to the USFL and Strategic Education for setting this up. Whether it was for PR purposes or not.
But an additional benefit and motive for this setup is to potentially entice college players in the future to declare pro early and join the USFL.
The early details are that the USFL will accept college players into their league who have been in school for two years, creating a window for non-NFL draft-eligible players to play in their league. It’s worth a try from the USFL standpoint to attempt to do what the XFL did successfully with WVU transfer portal player and current Carolina Panther Kenny Robinson.
The problem with enticing early entry-level college players to consider playing in a non-NFL league like the USFL is that the ball game has changed now. The fact that college athletes can be compensated for their name, image, and likeness has opened up a once forbidden door.
College players who desire to be in the NFL are less likely to forego playing at a university by playing in the USFL for a year or two. That’s unless FOX is willing to pay college players a salary that is worth them skipping playing at Oklahoma or UCLA, or Michigan State. Perhaps FOX and the USFL can leverage a company to foot the bill to pay players to turn pro early. But that scenario is unlikely.
The scenario mentioned above is already playing out on the college level. For example, Former players and businessmen like Charlie Batch are openly recruiting standouts like Oklahoma QB Caleb Williams. Batch is trying to lure Williams, who is in the transfer portal to play at Eastern Michigan for a million dollars for one year.
It’s just the beginning. There’s no cap to how much college players can now make. Not every college player will make millions, but receiving compensation from various sources is likely if handled correctly. Getting paid while staying in college is a thing now, and it’s only getting started.
In theory and practice, the USFL can convince some lesser-known college players to play in their league. But this isn’t quite the bonanza for an upstart league that it could have been a few years ago.
The USFL Calendar
Calendar faux pas in the above photo aside, the USFL’s actual in-season timeline might work against them.
For example, when it comes to attracting fringe NFL players who hope to get back onto an NFL roster. Or players who have slipped through the cracks and haven’t received that opportunity yet. The USFL’s season timeline hurts their potential recruitment of these players.
The league’s strategy to play their seasons from April to mid-June seems like a sound one at first blush.
After all, it allows enough time for football fans to recover from the NFL and College season and avoids March Madness. However, any prospective players who desire to latch onto an NFL roster after the draft or during the summer could pass on playing in the USFL because their seasons will end in June.
Not only is the summer an inopportune time for players to get onto already formed 90-player NFL offseason rosters. But the players who come off playing an entire season in the USFL will be physically worn out. Not to mention the potential for injury before the USFL season ends, which could also jeopardize their NFL chances.
In theory, to combat this, The United States Football League could allow all players to leave during a season if an NFL opportunity arises. But once again, that hurts their league. Because the USFL teams will be losing their best players as the season starts and during. It’s difficult for fans to get attached to players who can leave their teams at a moment’s notice during the heart of a season.
Proponents of alternate pro football leagues like myself want to see this concept finally work. Admittedly, finding true believers of that possibility will be challenging because history has not been kind. It’s like watching a football team that has never had a winning season. You have heard all the grand promises and delusions of grandeur before. But you will only believe winning is possible when you see it.
Personally, after all these years, I am happy that entities keep trying to make this concept work. I will be rooting for the USFL to succeed, and I am happy that FOX is giving this thing a shot. Right now, all you can do is take a wait-and-see approach.
Forgive me for being skeptical; part of what I am seeing thus far from the United States Football League doesn’t line up correctly. My expectations are tempered, and I am allowing for some bumps in the road and inevitable growing pains for the USFL because, despite the history attached to the name, it is a first-year league.
However, The question is, Will the football viewing public exercise the same patience if the USFL doesn’t provide a quality product right out the gate. Especially with another league on the horizon set to arrive shortly on the scene. Time will tell, but it’s running out quickly.
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