Chronicle: The time for the spring football league has come… and gone
Professional football in the spring.
A once so promising idea.
Now, no matter how many of these leagues keep popping up, there’s little chance of carving out even a small niche in the American sports scene.
Give it up, USFL.
Same for you, XFL.
It’s not the 1980s anymore.
A revived United States Soccer League — borrowing the nickname and team nicknames from a league that went out of business 36 years ago — launched last month with all regular season games played in Birmingham, Alabama.
USFL, The Sequel follows a familiar formula for spring football in recent years: a group of unknown players, sloppy play, and games played in front of mostly empty seats.
Sadly, this watered-down version of the USFL has only brought back memories (at least for those of us old enough to remember) of the last upstart league in a major American sport that had the good fortune to to succeed.
The original USFL, which played for three seasons from 1983, was a concept that made a lot of sense, only to be undone by the hubris of owners such as future President Donald Trump, who viewed the fledgling organization primarily as a conduit to the NFL.
The league could still exist today if it had stuck to the plan hatched by New Orleans businessman David Dixon, who believed there was a market for professional football in the spring and early of summer.
His vision has led to a promising setup with many NFL-caliber players.
“I would say four teams in our group could have competed at the NFL level,” recalled Tom Banks, a longtime NFL center who played the first two seasons with the original Birmingham Stallions. “We had a lot of good players and a lot of good coaches.”
Dixon envisioned a league with teams in major U.S. markets, playing in NFL-caliber stadiums, boosted by a national television contract but keeping costs in check with a salary cap-type mechanism.
The Stallions were a team that largely embraced that philosophy, assembling a roster that included Banks, running back Joe Cribbs, quarterback Cliff Stoudt and receiver Jim Smith.
The USFL was not intended to be a direct challenger to the NFL like its predecessors, such as the American Football League (which forced a merger with the NFL) and the World Football League (which miserably failed).
But it might have worked – especially given the state of American sports when the USFL debuted:
—The NFL, while extremely popular, had not yet become the permanent juggernaut it is today.
-Major League Baseball had yet to expand into Phoenix, Denver, or Tampa Bay, all of which landed teams in the original USFL.
—Michael Jordan’s NBA debut was still a year away, and nearly half of the league’s 23 teams didn’t even average 10,000 fans per game in 1982-83.
—The NHL was largely a regional operation, essentially unknown outside the Northeast and Midwest and devoid of a major television deal.
—The North American Soccer League was on its last legs and would fold in 1984. Major League Soccer did not appear until 1996.
Within this framework, there was room for another football league.
Spring football stands no chance of succeeding in a schedule now ruled by the NBA and NHL playoffs, the start of the baseball season, NCAA college basketball tournaments, and an NFL that doesn’t take never really off-season.
Add to that Major League Soccer, which will grow to 29 teams next year, and the growing popularity in the United States of the English Premier League and the European Champions League.
Had the USFL followed Dixon’s plan, there’s a chance he’s still around to this day, possibly stifling the growth of basketball, hockey and football.
Instead, the league grew too quickly, welcomed questionable owners, and essentially sealed its fate with an ill-fated plan pushed by Trump and others to move through the fall and compete directly with the NFL.
This led to an anti-trust lawsuit won by the USFL in 1986, but it was a hollow victory to say the least. The jury awarded a single dollar in damages, which was automatically tripled to $3 under federal law.
The USFL quietly went bankrupt. Apparently, he never even cashed the check the NFL dutifully sent to cover the judgment.
Since then, none of the countless efforts to create a spring football league have been as bold as the original USFL.
The American Football World League only lasted two seasons with American teams. The original XFL folded after a year. The American Football Alliance went bankrupt after just eight weeks. The relaunch of the XFL has been short-circuited by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now we have this new version of the USFL, with a third attempt at the XFL supposedly on tap for 2023 (we’re not holding our breath for that one).
Fox-owned USFL cuts costs by playing in one city. But it created the embarrassing spectacle of games not involving the hometown stallions played largely in front of family and friends.
“You have to get more people to the games,” Banks said. “It must be depressing for guys trying to play. You feed on the energy of crowds.
Like every other spring league since the original USFL, there is no pretension to land great players. It’s leftovers, pure and simple.
“They really didn’t focus on the players,” Banks said. “I don’t know much about these guys individually, and I still follow the game pretty well.”
Fox, NBC and their affiliate networks have stuck four games a weekend down our throats, bloated by over-the-top announcers trying to trick us into thinking this is actually a worthwhile pursuit. But the ratings for the first three weeks were largely abysmal.
Thanks to the court ruling that ended the original USFL, it will forever be known as “The $3 League”.
The new USFL isn’t even worth that much.
Paul Newberry is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963
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