Spring Football Returns
Like a lot of football fans, I go into withdrawal after the Super Bowl. Can't wait ‘til the fall, when college and pro football resume.
That's why a lot of very smart people have tried, on a number of occasions, to launch spring football leagues to fill the void.
The latest of these, the USFL, kicked off last weekend. The league has the same name and many of the same team names and locations as the previous incarnation of the USFL, which lasted three seasons (1983-85).
The original USFL had a good product on the field (including great players like Steve Young, Reggie White, Jim Kelly and Sam Mills), a viable concept (spring season, a cap on salaries, and a territorial draft), and decent crowds (the Denver Gold drew an average of 41,000). But the league was doomed by owners who got into bidding wars for top players and insisted on moving the league to the fall to compete directly against the NFL.
One of those owners was New Jersey Generals’ principal owner Donald Trump, who mistakenly believed that moving to the fall would force a merger with the NFL. Instead, the league joined the ranks of Trump's other failed ventures (Trump Steak, Trump Air, Trump Vodka, Trump University, Trump Mortgage and Trump: the Game, to name just a few).
But I digress.
The new USFL has a lot going for it. One of its owners is Fox Sports, which ensures lots of TV exposure and promotion. NBC, FS1 and USA network will also carry games, and some will be streamed on NBC's Peacock Network.
A number of USFL coaches with track records in the NFL and college ranks gives the league some needed credibility. Among them: my old friend, former Oregon State, Nebraska and San Diego Chargers coach Mike Riley; former Oilers, Titans and Rams coach Jeff Fisher; former North Carolina coach Larry Fedora; former Texas A&M and Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin; former Louisiana Tech coach Skip Holtz; and former KC Chiefs head coach Todd Haley.
To keep costs under control, all eight teams (Birmingham Stallions, Houston Gamblers, New Orleans Breakers, Tampa Bay Bandits, Michigan Panthers, New Jersey Generals, Philadelphia Stars and Pittsburgh Maulers) will be housed in Birmingham, Alabama in the league's inaugural season and all games will be played in Birmingham at Protective Stadium and Legion Field.
Teams will have 38-man active rosters and a seven-man practice squad. Players will be paid $45,000 and receive a "tuition free" and "debt free" college education. Tickets to games are $10 for adults, free for kids under 15.
The league is experimenting with some interesting rules changes. After touchdowns, teams have three PAT options: one point for a kick from the 15-yard line (same as NFL), two points for a conversion from the three-yard line (same as the NFL) and three points for a score from the 10-yard line.
A trailing team can try to retain possession after a score by recovering an onside kick or by gaining 12 yards (essentially converting a 4th and 12) from its 33-yard line. Overtime will consist of the two teams alternating two-point tries; if tied after three attempts, overtime becomes sudden death with initial possession determined by a coin flip.
With all the games all played in one city, attendance is going to be spotty. The first weekend was a perfect example. The Birmingham-New Jersey game attracted a respectable crowd of 17,500 (pictured above). The next day a matchup between Philadelphia and New Orleans drew about 175 people.
But ticket sales, in this case, are almost irrelevant until the teams move to their home markets and are responsible for stadium, staffing and promotional costs. In all likelihood, that won’t happen until season three.
So the key factors will be money and TV ratings. Fox has committed $150-$200 million to get the league off the ground. Since everything is centralized, let's assume the salary structure will remain in place and other costs will be kept under control.
Then the big question becomes, will the ratings be high enough to keep Fox and its advertisers satisfied?
The opening game between New Jersey and Birmingham did well, pulling in three million viewers on a Fox/NBC joint broadcast. It attracted 1.52 million viewers on NBC and 1.43 on Fox. (The fact that the game was a 28-24 cliffhanger that went down to the final 23 seconds didn't hurt).
Those are respectable numbers, given that the game was going up against NBA playoffs, MLB, NHL, and a PGA event on Easter weekend.
Historically, opening games for other new sports leagues have drawn well, before declining. The curiosity factor, perhaps.
Going forward, the USFL's survival will depend on whether fans will find the quality of play good enough, and the games interesting, exciting and competitive enough to tune in and turn out. And whether Fox will pony up more money if the league struggles.