Sports Arena

Pigskin Spring

The USFL mounts a comeback.

By 3.6.09

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Another baseball season approaches, and the national pastime continues to demonstrate its genius for self-inflicted wounds. The latest steroid scandal involved superstar Alex Rodriguez and only lengthened the shadow cast by past revelations about Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, and others. A fan could be forgiven for throwing his hands up and walking away, but to where?

Starting next year, there may be another option: pro football. The United States Football League, defunct since the 1980s, is planning to relaunch in February 2010.

Michael Dwyer, the new league's founder, is busy organizing teams, securing stadiums, attracting backers and supporters, and getting the word out. Like many of us restless souls who came of age in the eighties, Dwyer loved the USFL -- its underdog status, its opening to cities unserved by the NFL, the generally high quality of play, and the chances it offered to players to build or extend careers. The USFL was probably the most impressive upstart sports league in history: it had an innovative concept, a network TV contract with ABC, a cable deal with ESPN (then still establishing itself), and some big-name coaches (George Allen, Red Miller). Its players were a mix of top college prospects bypassing the NFL (Herschel Walker, Steve Young, Jim Kelly), former NFL stalwarts (Joe Cribbs, Brian Sipe, Greg Landry), and homegrown stars (Bobby Hebert, Reggie White). And the team names were good: Michigan Panthers, Birmingham Stallions, Memphis Showboats, Oklahoma Outlaws, New Jersey Generals.

Most of all, the USFL had that spring thing. Here was America's most popular sport now available during the football fan's quiet time of the year. Now, when one was flipping the channels on a 10-2 baseball game, he had somewhere else to go. Of course, he could also try reading a book, going for a walk, or having a conversation, but if more people were interested in such things, there never would have been a USFL in the first place.

Critics tend to remember the league as a failed experiment, but spring football proved viable, on the whole. The league held on to its ABC and ESPN contracts. USFL teams in Sun Belt cities without NFL teams, like Birmingham, Memphis, and Jacksonville (which eventually got the NFL's Jaguars) packed stadiums, as did those in cities with NFL teams, like Tampa -- not surprisingly, given the pitiful state of the NFL Buccaneers back then -- and even Denver (more surprising, given the Broncos' popularity). To be sure, teams in some cities flopped in attendance (notably Los Angeles and Chicago), and others languished.

What killed the original USFL were two things: overspending on players and a disastrous, hubristic attempt to compete with the NFL in the fall. Teams didn't stick to their salary caps, focusing increasingly on NFL stars or blue-chip college players, and the league fell further into the red. Any expansion league is predicated on operating at a loss for several years, but once the USFL owners began to run amok with spending, any chance of stabilizing the league's finances became hopeless. Eager for more revenue, the league added new teams too quickly, exacerbating the problem and confusing fans as franchises switched cities and in one case swapped teams.

The decision to move to fall play, pushed by owners like the New Jersey Generals' Donald Trump (no surprise), set the league up for an antitrust suit against the NFL. The USFL lost the suit, effectively anyway (it was awarded a few dollars in settlement), and folded. Frequently the butt of jokes from front-running sportswriters, the league drifted into history, but it lives on in the memories of its devoted fans. Now those fans have a chance at a reprise.

Dwyer says the league will start with 12 teams, though specifics are still hard to come by, and the league's website is sparse. Like its predecessor, the new USFL promises innovations on the field, some reasonable (4 points for field goals 51 yards or longer) and some strange (4 points for a safety). It also looks to do things differently off the field, like allowing fans in each city to buy stock in teams in the manner of the Green Bay Packers. Dwyer promises economics and atmosphere more akin to minor league baseball than NFL football, and that would be a major accomplishment in itself. Minor league baseball is the best sports buy around.

Dwyer also pledges not to repeat the mistakes of the old league. He promises that salaries won't get out of control, and that he'll resist a bidding war with the NFL. Of course, all such promises, like generals' battle plans, are tested once action begins. It's hard to persuade ambitious men who like buying sports teams to have a sense of proportion. 

(Curiously enough, the new USFL arrives when another new football league is trying to start up: the UFL plans on starting play this fall, a suicidal vision that never seems to lose its attraction.)

The greatest obstacle for the new USFL, though, is the deepening recession and mounting economic uncertainty. Certainly there are better environments in which to launch a new sports league, unless Dwyer can get some stimulus money from Washington (which really would create jobs). The recession could yet work in the league's favor, though. Americans out looking for work may finally get fed up reading about baseball players holding out for $50 million contracts, and may finally conclude that pro sports' ticket prices, concession costs, and relentless war on their wallets and common courtesy have finally gone too far. If so, we may see stock buying pick up again soon -- at least in spring football teams. 

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About the Author

Paul Beston is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.