Are you ready for some (more) football? The nascent reincarnation of the USFL hopes so
Until recently, the USFL was little more than a quirky bit of American football history. While it delayed the NFL careers of stars like Herschel Walker and Steve Young, the name on most lips when discussing the defunct outfit is none other than Donald Trump.
The real estate magnate-cum-GOP presidential candidate was driving force behind both the formation and subsequent mothballing of the USFL after only 3 seasons of play (1983–85). Running on financial fumes, the crumbling upstart sued its big brother for antitrust violations in an attempt to remain viable. Well, that’s not exactly true. Instead of trying to garner a windfall, the USFL’s strategy was to leverage a merger with the NFL.
Having purchased Houston’s franchise and merging it with his New Jersey Generals after the ’85 season, Trump stood to reap substantial gains from being part of the NFL. Of course, his plan worked out about as well as his ridiculous combover in a stiff breeze when the USFL won its suit. Wait, what? Despite finding that the NFL indeed had a TV monopoly, the jury determined that the plaintiffs’ problems were primarily due to their own general dumbassery (which is a fancy way of saying mismanagement).
The USFL was awarded $1 in damages, an amount that was bumped all the way up to $3 under antitrust law. Thus, the league folded and the Donald’s evil plan was foiled. Trump is back with a new scheme, waxing misogynistic and racist on the campaign trail. Hard to believe knowing that he was once an upstanding professional sports owner. Wait, strike that. Reverse it.
Now, after 30 years in stasis, it looks as though the USFL may be funct once more as well. That’s because former NFL exec Jim Bailey has expressed plans to breath life back into the league many had thought relegated to pop culture lore. After 21 as executive VP of the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens (he was with the team when it relocated), Bailey started his own consultancy group called EndZone Management. Two years ago, that company purchased the rights to the USFL for an undisclosed amount with a goal to start playing football as early as 2016.
In an interview with Fortune, Bailey has said that his goal is to operate as a feeder or developmental league for the NFL, employing players who are perhaps too raw to make the final cut of a 53-man roster. Bailey also talks about it being a proving ground for coaches and referees. Hey, I hear Jim Caldwell’s going to need a job soon.
The USFL also plans to own the teams directly, no billionaire blowhards allowed. And they’ll play a spring/summer schedule, avoiding direct contact with the NFL. That was the plan for the Trump’s iteration as well, but in true 80’s fashion, they sought to be bigger and louder and more expensive. Bailey’s plan to use little-known players who otherwise have no outlet to ply their trade will significantly reduce the bottom line.
Speaking of, the USFL claims to require only $5 million in seed money to get the ball rolling. That figure seems more than a bit dubious given the desire to operate an 8-team, 14-game league. To put things in perspective, Trump claims to have paid $5 million (other reports say it was $9 million) for the franchise rights to the Generals back in the early 80’s. You would think it’d be relatively easy for such a project to scrape together such a paltry sum, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
It’s really a little shocking that they’ve not been successful in getting that seed money, what with a Twitter account that boasts just over 2,000 followers and that has generated a grand total of 32 tweets. I mean, they’ve even got a real website and everything too. I’m amazed that investors aren’t falling all over one another to stake this dynamic enterprise. Might want to rethink the online strategy there, folks. Hey, I’m available for a moderate stipend.
Assuming they get the scratch they need though, what makes Bailey and his group think this new league can succeed where such genius confederations as the XFL and UFL failed to capitalize on what seems to be an insatiable appetite for football? Do fans actually hunger for competition between peripatetic pigskin pariahs?
While it had the backing of NBC, the XFL was simply too rogueish in its lone season of operation (2001), what with the nicknames on jerseys and a unique alternative to coin flips that saw one player from each team race after a ball rolled out onto the field. But what it really was was ahead of its time, promoting sideline interviews and a more interactive fan experience. Other leagues laughed publicly while privately taking notes. The NBA has done special nickname jerseys and we’re seeing coaches and managers mic’ed up across various sports.
The UFL (2009–12), while populated by a cadre of former NFLers and infamous redemption stories like Maurice Clarett, was doomed by a lack of major television coverage. The plan was to piggyback on the NFL by playing a fall schedule, but to play games from Wednesday through Saturday in order to capitalize on the void left by the big boys. But with those games being broadcast on either Versus or HDNet, most people who might have wanted to watch either couldn’t or didn’t know where to find them.
At this early stage, then, the only difference between Jim Bailey’s venture and the UFL seems to be an S. Well, that and the scheduling. In theory, though, trying to operate as a feeder league for the NFL sounds like a good idea. If, that is, they can get the NFL’s buy-in, which Bailey admits they don’t have. He’s not closing any doors though.
“The NFL is aware of us, and we haven’t asked them for anything and don’t intend to. As we develop, something may or may not develop, but we plan to operate independently indefinitely. We want to provide a system of development for these guys to give them a wider talent pool.”
I don’t know, Mr. Bailey. This sounds an awful lot like a guy opening up a used car lot down the street from his old man’s well-established dealership. It’s as though he’s hoping people will find their way onto his lot after finding they can’t afford a new model at his dad’s place. Or, perhaps more accurately, that they’ll buy a new car at one place and then want to purchase a lesser version at a lower price.
So while the hunger is there, the American palate isn’t going to readily accept dog food after getting a taste of ribeye. Perhaps the USFL can usurp or capitalize on the NFL’s continuing tendency to treat people like meat, but it would be better off just firing up the grill. Metaphors aside, I’m saying the only real chance for success is in a merger. Tacit approval from the Shield won’t be enough.
Without the brand recognition — not to mention the financial backing — of the NFL, this new league will end up just like the toys in my son’s room, cast aside to become little more than a memory. Kind of like Hank Williams Jr, huh? Or maybe the USFL will find a way to do what none of its predecessors have been able to accomplish. So in the immortal words of Bocephus himself, I ask: Are you ready for some football?