The USFL is returning in the spring of 2022. On June 3rd, FOX Sports and The Spring League announced that they were bringing back the United States Football League. Nearly four decades after the most infamous spring pro football league flew too close to the sun and drowned into a sea of its own doing. The USFL relaunches next year. The name’s the same, but will this league have any resemblance or match the impact of its notorious predecessor? And how will the new owners of the property make the league work?
Since last month’s announcement, followers and supporters of the spring pro football concept, which has seen a mini-renaissance, with the AAF and XFL drawing favorable interest and reviews in recent years, have been waiting anxiously for the first big piece of news to drop about the USFL.
Presuming that the USFL takes the field between March and May of 2022, the timeline gives them eight to ten months to get everything set up in time for kickoff.
The truth is that the plan by Brian Woods and FOX to bring back the USFL brand has been in the works for quite some time. The seeds were planted in 2020 when The Spring League and FOX decided to partner up and air TSL games in the fall and then the following spring. The goal from jump street was to lead up to a USFL launch, with teams from the league’s past returning to represent their cities.
Back in April, on this site, an article raised the possibility of a returning USFL. Along with Brian Woods and FOX positioning their football partnership to capitalize on the opening created by the absence of the XFL.
“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…… 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.https://xflnewshub.com/xfl-news/the-spring-league-positioned-to-capitalize-on-the-xfls-uncertain-future/
Many questions have emerged about what the USFL is planning to announce in the coming weeks and months. Hints and rumors are circulating about the league’s plans, potential teams and coaches involved, and how the USFL’s ownership will be structured. Let’s look to answer those questions with information that has been gathered.
Ownership Structure Of The USFL
Brian Woods is the founder and CEO of the Spring League and now the USFL. Woods is not the sole owner of the Spring League; although he has the largest equity piece, he’s not the only investor. There are believed to be 11 members in total. Chief Strategy Officer Ezra Levine is one of the league’s minority investors. The main list of investors is not something that the league is disclosing at this time.
The USFL presents Brian Woods best chance of making it as a football league owner. He’s been in the industry for a while now and has had his fair share of struggles and detractors. Many of those issues have stemmed from a lack of financing—the Spring League’s very design of having players pay a fee to play points to that.
Once upon a time, Woods, a sports lawyer, tried to run a genuine pro football league called the Fall Experimental Football League.
The FXFL envisioned six franchises primarily based in minor league baseball stadiums with individual team owners. The goal, like TSL, was to become a developmental league funded by the NFL. The FXFL ended up playing two shortened seasons (13 games total in 2014-2015) with only 4 teams max before ceasing operations. The FXFL had a myriad of financial and legal issues, and long after the smoke cleared, settlements were made, with plaintiffs being rewarded $300,000.
Lending credence, respectability, and hope towards Brian Woods’s chances of making his vision work this go-round is the involvement of FOX. There’s no denying the reach and potential that FOX sports has for the USFL. The question is, are they going all-in?
FOX Sports has a minority equity stake in the company (TSL) that owns the new USFL. They will continue to serve as the official broadcast partner. Despite very little promotion and fanfare this spring, TSL broadcasts averaged 408,000 viewers per telecast Saturday afternoons on the FOX Network. The cable telecasts of the Spring League on FS1/FS2 averaged 81,000 viewers.
To this point, FOX has seen their involvement with Woods and his league as a low-risk, low-cost proposition. The shift to the USFL may change things moving forward from a promotional standpoint but how deep into their pockets is FOX willing to go?
Fox Sports CEO and executive producer Eric Shanks called the USFL’s relaunch “a landmark day for football fans and Fox Sports.” Many wishfully believe that FOX will take a larger stake in the league and start covering half the costs moving forward. Still, unless things have changed in their strategy, there have been no indications suggesting that FOX is willing to spend tens of millions of dollars on the USFL property in significantly funding all of the league’s teams and operations. And tens of millions of dollars is what it’s going to take, even if the league tries to operate on a shoestring budget. The same way the Spring League did in 2021.
Enter the genuine possibility of individual team owners stepping in to help pay bills and cover costs for the USFL’s individual teams. For several weeks now, sources have indicated that the USFL is looking to secure owners for each of their teams in 2022. The FXFL had a franchise fee set at $500,000; the league struggled to find suitors and maintain that goal during its brief run. The USFL may be looking to follow the same model Woods had for the FXFL.
Finding reliable owners willing to invest big money in sports franchises is easier said than done. Still, in recent days, writer Greg Luca’s report out of the San Antonio Express supports the recent scuttlebutt. Former Gunslinger safety Jim Bob Morris told the Express that he has been in talks with an executive from the new USFL regarding the potential of bringing a franchise to San Antonio. It’s worth noting that the city of San Antonio went on record in the story that they haven’t been in touch with anyone from the USFL.
The USFL has trademarked the ‘San Antonio Gunslingers’ and other team names from the league’s past. So the likelihood of the Gunslingers riding again in the new USFL is a good one. However, they may not necessarily play in San Antonio, at least not in 2022.
Teams/Locations For The USFL In 2022
The Spring League has trademarked several USFL team names since the early part of this year. All of which are currently listed as live trademarks on the United States Patent and Trademark Office website. Team names from the USFL’s past, like the Generals, were already in play with the Spring League, but others like the Stars, Showboats, Gold, Gamblers, Express, Bandits, Breakers, and Blitz were all trademarked in early June.
TSL, through their attorney of record Eric Lamb, has specifically filed trademarks for former USFL branded teams such as the Arizona Outlaws, Orlando Renegades, Birmingham Stallions, Washington Federals, Jacksonville Bulls, Oakland Invaders, Michigan Panthers, Oklahoma Outlaws, Portland/Boston Breakers, and five different Austin team names. (Stallions, Wranglers, Renegades, Gamblers, and Outlaws).
In June, the USFL’s press statement stated that it would play next spring with a “minimum of eight teams.” I’ve been told that the goal is to try and play with nine or ten teams or more if possible. Of the nearly two dozen different team names that the USFL has retained the rights for, most of them will be put on the back burner for the future and not used in 2022.
The question is two-fold, which teams will launch in season one of the new USFL, and where will they play? Therein lies the rub.
Several sources have indicated to me the genuine possibility that because of the short amount of time remaining for the USFL to set up shop in markets before their 2022 season, and for financial reasons, that the league could decide to play in an expanded hub city model next spring.
Utilizing a hub city model in 2022 would save the USFL on travel and facility expenses and potentially sell the league’s teams to markets, prospective owners, and sponsors. In theory, the USFL would set up multiple hub sites that would house and train three to four teams at once. TSL had two hub city sites with four teams each in Houston at Rice Stadium and Indianapolis at Lucas Oil Stadium this past spring. One of the valid reasons for hub city sites was to deal with the current pandemic, but from a financial standpoint, the strategy made perfect sense. It might still be a viable model even if better days are ahead in a post-vaccination world.
It’s worth noting that the USFL has multiple team names trademarked in Texas and Florida. For cost purposes, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the San Antonio Gunslingers, the Austin Stallions, and a Houston-based franchise could play at Rice stadium next spring. On the flip side, the Orlando Renegades, Jacksonville Bulls, and Tampa Bay Bandits could all play at a Florida site. With the remaining USFL teams potentially playing at another neutral site location.
The USFL would still sell tickets at full capacity to all of their games but having a San Antonio team play a year in Houston could be awkward to kick off your league but from a financial perspective. It makes sense. The USFL could save a lot of money in expenses and ultimately buy themselves another year.
USFL Head Coaches
It’s quite telling that on the day of the USFL announcement in June that Doug Flutie was front and center in the promotion selling the return of the league with a New Jersey Generals hat on. The USFL’s official website has also gone the nostalgia route showcasing the old league’s trademark logos and colors and photos from the league’s past.
So it makes sense that the USFL would try to reach into the nostalgia playbook and look to bring on some familiar faces with ties to the league’s past.
Enter former Tampa Bay Bandits head coach Steve Spurrier. Sources have informed me that the USFL has already sent feelers out to Spurrier about getting him to come on board. From a storyline and marketing standpoint, it makes perfect sense to bring the former Gators coach back to the sidelines. For Spurrier, a return to the USFL would be like his coaching career coming full circle.
Steve Spurrier already had a taste of spring pro football with the Orlando Apollos in the AAF back in 2019. Despite how things ended, he walked away from the experience favorably. As reported on this site, Spurrier was one of the people who sold Bob Stoops on joining the XFL. So, he is clearly someone who is a proponent of pro football in the spring. Getting Spurrier to put back on his trademark visor for potentially the Tampa Bay Bandits will come down to whether or not USFL ownership is willing to meet his asking price. It will take at least six figures plus for the league to get Spurrier to sign on the dotted line. To make the USFL relaunch have some cache, the league’s leadership might have to. And it would not surprise me if the hiring of Steve Spurrier is the USFL’s first big announcement.
Another coach that the USFL is interested in landing is former longtime NFL veteran head coach and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. Despite not having the history that Steve Spurrier has with the USFL brand. There is no denying that Phillips would lend great credibility to the league. And from a marketing standpoint, the son of Bum has great Texas ties and could work in any of the markets that the USFL plans on playing in that state. Wade Phillips was a guest of the Spring League this past May in their press box watching the action and was featured prominently on the FOX broadcasts.
Spring League head coaches like Hal Mumme and Jerry Glanville have publicly expressed a desire to be a part of the USFL. Mumme is coming off of winning a championship in TSL with the Linemen. Glanville has coached in the Spring League their last two seasons. So, either veteran could be a part of the mix for the USFL in 2022.
Unless the USFL’s owners decide to bend some of their rules economically for a few players, the USFL will have very few players with mainstream name recognition. The league will be mostly comprised of younger unknown players. The names attached as head coaches for the USFL’s teams will be the faces of their franchises and will help draw attention in the league’s early stages.
Despite the failings of leagues like this in the past, surprisingly, I get the sense that there is still hope out there that the USFL could finally be the league that finally bucks history. Perhaps it’s because of FOX’s involvement or the theory that sooner or later, it’s going to work. Or perhaps, it’s because the AAF and XFL showed enough hints of how receptive the market can be towards pro football in the spring.
The bottom line, as always with these ventures, is financing. Running a Pro Football League is an expensive proposition. It all looks good on paper until the bills come due. The choke point for these entities comes when the resources and expenses needed to fund these ventures far outweigh the returns.
Even if FOX, Brian Woods, and company decided to run a barebones league. It’s going to cost them tens of millions of dollars yearly to operate. Especially if the plan remains having eight to ten teams residing in individual markets. You can short-change players on salaries, but you are still going to have to pay anywhere from 320 to 400 players, depending on how many teams you have. Then there are the costs of covering insurance, paying coaching, training, front office, and support staff. As well as the team expenses entailed with things like equipment, travel, facilities, lodging, etc., etc., etc
When you account for all these things, It’s easy to see why the suggestion of individual team owners is coming into play. In theory, it’s great, but history has shown with these leagues how difficult it is to get reliable ownership. See the UFL, FXFL, Reggie Fowler, and Tom Dundon with the AAF.
The narrative of the old USFL tells a tale about a certain famous owner that led an entire league down the wrong path. And while there is merit to that story, the truth is that the USFL got to the brink of looking for a savior and a last-second act of desperation because virtually the entire league had horrible team owners who either failed to live up to their financial commitments or were grossly incompetent. Franchises folded, relocated, or were swapped; players were unpaid or not taken care of. The league was falling apart at the seams with very few owners who could hold up their end of the bargain. The top half of the league’s owners had to attempt to pull the lower half out of the abyss and eventually the latter dragged the whole league down.
The USFL’s failures in team ownership are why so many leagues that have followed, have decided to go the single entity route. The United Football League attempted the individual ownership structure nearly a decade ago and the likes of Paul Pelosi and others stiffed their employees and players so badly that teams like the Sacramento Mountain Lions franchise had issues merely providing their players with athletic tape.
The past meets the future in 2022. The old USFL went too big too soon. The new USFL is being built with a more modest scaled-down approach that will only resemble the 1983-1985 version in name. The real questions are how bold will the new league be and can it survive if it tries to be? We are going to find out soon enough.
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