With an XFL return in 2022 looking very unlikely. The Spring League is in a prime position to fill the void left behind.
The XFL and TSL have very little in common, but one similarity, in particular, stands out the most. As things currently stand, neither entity is a fully formed pro football league. One was a year ago, and the other has never been one.
But the times they are changing. The current landscape and delay in the XFL’s return has created an opening for TSL to get to the marketplace before the XFL does again. Much the same way that the Alliance of American Football did back in 2019. Except in The Spring League’s case, they are taking a much more modest approach.
Both the XFL and TSL are taking baby steps towards becoming fully-fledged pro football leagues. But in very different ways, with the XFL still in their planning stages, plotting something on a grand scale; in comparison, TSL is planting seeds for growth by starting small first, with the long-term goal of becoming a traditional league down the road.
The current status and future plans of the XFL
While, RedBird Capital, Dany Garcia, Dwayne Johnson, and XFL reps continue their extensive collaboration talks with the CFL. One thing is clear; The new ownership group has not finalized the direction they want to take their proposed league. A lot of that is contingent upon where things eventually land with the Canadian Football League.
The recent talks have taken the new XFL owners on an entirely different path than what they initially planned. As chronicled here last month, there is a strong possibility that the XFL will not return to the field for a 2022 season. It doesn’t mean that they won’t be active in the runway leading to play, but the timeline on league play has been pushed back, regardless of where the CFL-XFL talks land.
Some recent reports suggest that there could be a global element to any potential merger between the XFL and CFL. With teams eventually landing in Mexico and London. On paper, that sounds great. And while there is undoubtedly a shared international vision between both leagues, making that work, in the short and long term, logistically and financially, is a whole other story.
RedBird has the necessary capital and the expertise in sports business, in the states and abroad, to go along with the marketing and promotional power of Dany Garcia and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson to make their grand vision work. But the journey doesn’t start until their path is chosen. And ultimately, until those keys are put into the ignition. XFL 3.0 isn’t ready yet.
There’s no getting around it. Another extended delay in the XFL’s return to the field, regardless of the reasoning behind it, will only strengthen the doubt of the naysayers and test the loyalty of the XFL’s most ardent supporters.
Despite all the false narratives and ignorant takes currently existing in the ether. The XFL in 2020 was a great league. The key phrase, however, in that prior sentence is WAS.
When the XFL returns, it will be different than the league that existed in 2020, and the XFL’s absence is creating an opening for other leagues to enter the marketplace and attempt to recapture what they had. Like the Spring League.
The history and current status of TSL
The Spring League, founded and owned by CEO Brian Woods since 2016, has been a league in name only. The reality is that, since its inception, TSL has been a periodic showcase, with a select number of games, where players pay an application fee to practice and play in front of pro scouts. (the current TSL model has some exemptions for players with NFL experience in the last three years and those who participated last fall.)
The ultimate goal of The Spring League is to be a fully-fledged developmental league. Once upon a time, TSL CEO Brian Woods tried that when he launched The Fall Experimental Football League. The FXFL lasted for two years before folding in 2015. The league had four teams max and played short seasons in minor league ballparks. With games airing on regional networks.
The chances are that many football fans have never heard of the Florida Blacktips or the Hudson Valley Fort. The FXFL was positioned as a minor league and operated as such from a budgetary standpoint. The league’s ultimate goal was to serve as a feeder system side by side during the NFL season. The hope was that the National Football League would eventually fund the company. That never happened, and so the FXFL ceased to be. One could argue that no one even knew that it existed, to begin with.
Out of the ashes of the FXFL came the Spring League, with a similar model but using an entirely different runway. For a stretch, TSL lurked in the shadows operating as an instrument for other non-NFL leagues. But the circumstances surrounding alternate pro football leagues the last two years have created an opening for TSL to emerge and claim a stake in the game for themselves.
In the midst of the pandemic, with the AAF long gone, the XFL out of the picture, and a CFL season canceled due to the pandemic. TSL, in the fall of 2020, decided to push forward with a bubble concept in San Antonio to orchestrate their standard showcase.
But this time, instead of just a handful of games over a two or three-day period, the Spring League would feature a six-team, four-week, twelve-game format from October to November. What set this apart from TSL’s operation in the past was FOX Sports joining the cause by agreeing to air select TSL games on FS1. As part of the agreement, FOX Sports secured an option to acquire a minority stake in TSL.
The interesting thing is that a significant factor in FOX Sports teaming up with TSL was their success with the XFL. FOX’s positive experience with the XFL warmed them up to this idea, and the option to buy a stake in a league made this an enticing low-risk proposition for them.
During the XFL’s test run of their rulebook with TSL, back in 2019, where the XFL paid TSL six figures, FOX first started developing a relationship with The Spring League. FOX Sports and ESPN were on hand during these sessions. And FOX’s first-hand knowledge and experience with an alternate pro league like the XFL is why they are investing in the Spring League’s potential and future.
The Spring League in 2020 and their plans for the future
Things didn’t go as planned for The Spring League in the fall of 2020. For starters, TSL had to halt and shorten their four-week season amid a COVID outbreak within the league. To make matters worse, as reported by Daniel Kaplan of the Athletic, there were complaints from multiple players about how they were treated and tested during and after the conclusion of league play.
The issues behind the scenes became public knowledge in week three when the Jousters team had several players test positive for COVID, resulting in the cancelation of their final two games. Despite having a modest-sized league and playing for only a month in a bubble setup. TSL couldn’t escape the issues that all leagues have encountered during the pandemic. Except, in the case of TSL, they did not have the resources or budget to operate within a pandemic that established leagues as the NFL have.
All things considered, despite all the issues. The Spring League was able to present a respectable product on the field. However, It wasn’t anywhere near the level of play that the XFL or AAF had, which is understandable considering the circumstances. Still, several standout players participated in TSL last fall, like Generals quarterback and Spring League MVP Bryan Scott and kick returner Matthew Sexton, who recently signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
While the on-field product was respectable, one of the other issues that The Spring League encountered during the fall was the lack of attention they received during the NFL season. Going up against the World Series head to head certainly didn’t help matters. TSL had low viewership totals on FS1. None of their games that aired ranked in the top 150 cable shows. However, there is reason to believe that the enhanced exposure and timing of the next installment of TSL could produce more favorable ratings the next go-around.
The Spring League returns to play on May 6th, with two new teams added to the mix. A total of eight teams will be playing in two separate hub city sites. The Conquerors, Aviators, Alphas, and Linemen in Indianapolis at Lucas Oil Stadium and the Sea Lions, Generals, Jousters, and Blues playing in Houston at Rice Stadium.
FOX Sports is expected to announce a full schedule of televised games, and a select number of TSL games will air on Fox Network. The championship game is scheduled to be played on Saturday, June 19th.
During an optimum time in the schedule where there is no football (post-NFL Draft), the enhanced exposure should help The Spring League improve its meager viewership totals from last fall. FOX will be monitoring TSL’s ratings very closely during this upcoming season. The results could determine whether or not the Spring League has legs to last over the long haul.
TSL is also putting together an impressive group of coaches for their six-week May/June season. Several of whom have been a part of the XFL. Like former New York Guardians Head Coach Kevin Gilbride and Tampa Bay Vipers DC, the legendary Jerry Glanville. Former San Antonio Commanders HC and Seattle Dragons OC Mike Riley was reported to be heading up the Sea Lions team, but it appears that he has bowed out and will be replaced by another former Seattle Dragons assistant in legendary WR coach Larry Kirksey.
The Spring League, by waiving the developmental fee for players who are within three years of NFL experience could see a vast improvement in the quality of players on their rosters. It’s expected that there will be players that finished their seasons on NFL practice squads in 2020 who end up playing for TSL in May.
The expansion to eight teams, and two sites, with tickets being sold to the games, is one of many baby steps that The Spring League is taking in its growth pattern. If things go as planned in 2021, the goal is to become a fully-fledged league with each team operating in different markets by 2022.
Here’s the kicker and perhaps a clue of where things may be headed for FOX Sports and TSL in the future.
Since the start of the new year, the Spring League has filed for several USFL trademarks. Could a return of perhaps the most notorious alternative pro football league be in the cards? The USFL brand might have scar tissue from its demise a few decades ago, but there is still some nostalgia and goodwill within that property.
The end game for TSL is the same as it was for Brian Woods and the FXFL, to become a feeder league, potentially funded by the NFL. Except, this time, with or without the NFL, the odds are more favorable for TSL to carve out a piece of the market simply because of the current landscape and FOX’s involvement.
At some point, for TSL, if the intention down the road is to become a true professional football league with teams in markets playing full seasons. They are going to have pay their players. The current business model is not set up for that, but whether TSL labels itself as a minor league or not, it doesn’t matter.
The expansion of multiple teams playing over months of time demands a different classification than a scouting showcase, which is what The Spring League has been to this point. Many people within the football community have a hard time supporting TSL’s existence because of its current pay structure. Despite the premise that the Spring League benefits young players in getting them valuable experience and game film.
It’s a leap of faith for many to assume that any alternate pro football league can make it work when so many haven’t. The graveyards are filled with the corpses of alternate leagues from the past. Some of them earned their demise, while others had circumstances that led to it.
The Spring League, if run properly, with a disciplined approach, can capitalize on how close the AAF and XFL came to bucking history.
By the time the XFL returns to the field, The Spring League might be waiting there for them as a viable challenger. It’s an assumption and a projection, and perhaps, I am putting the cart before the horse, but right now, the only horse at the starting gate is TSL. If it’s still called that by the time 2022 rolls around.
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