The rebirth of the United States Football League
NFP: Is there a real need for a true NFL minor league? Jim Steeg
First, a little history lesson...
Over the course of the decades, many professional football leagues have been formed. Very few have been successful. The All-America Football Conference, which operated from 1944 to 1949, brought the Cleveland Browns and Otto Graham into the National Football League (NFL). The Foolish Club, the self-described nickname taken by the owners of the eight original American Football League franchises, including Texas billionaires Lamar Hunt and Bud Adams, Jr., merged with the NFL after a successful decade of the 1960s. Since then, groups have started up, failed…played a little, failed…and been the brainchild of many. Most have carved out the fall as the time of the year to play.
And then, along came the United States Football League (USFL), born from an original idea of New Orleans businessman David Dixon, who had brought the Saints to town in 1965. Dixon envisioned football to be a spring and summer sport, and for the next 15 years, he worked tirelessly on a plan, finally launching his league on May 11, 1982, at the 21 Club in New York City. In the spring of 1983, the league began play with twelve teams. Over the course of three seasons, the league succeeded in many ways, including the fact that none of the original franchises ever folded. By playing its games in the spring, the USFL established its own niche and following. However, an ill-fated attempt to move the season from the spring to the fall, and a subsequent lawsuit against the NFL, caused the demise of the endeavor. All that remained were memories, multiple successes in communities and a $3.76 check from the NFL.
It is widely acknowledged that the USFL had a dramatic impact on the NFL, both on the field and off. Almost all of the USFL's on-field innovations were eventually adopted by the NFL, and many of the USFL’s star players, coaches and staff went on to success in the NFL, including six Pro Football Hall of Famers.
The USFL was never heard from again…until 2006, when Michael Dwyer acquired the dormant mark of the USFL itself. He attempted to create a league, but had very little success. And then, in late 2011, San Diego-based EndZone Sports Management, led by CEO Jaime Cuadra, purchased the rights and the logo from Dwyer (but not any rights to the team names or logos). In February 2012, Cuadra asked me to chair his volunteer advisory team. After only three months consulting on this project, I am intrigued by the venture, and I believe that there is a real need for a true NFL minor league.
It has been Cuadra’s vision that many of the precepts of the original USFL and the lessons learned from the failures of the World Football League (WFL), All-American League, XFL, and the United Football League (UFL) could be the foundation for a successful endeavor.
Among the core values of the new United States Football League will be:
• A central, league-run organization that would control all player and coach contracts. It will run as a single entity business in much the same way as Major League Soccer.
• There would be eight founding teams. As many as 18 cities will be looked at to establish the initial eight.
• There will be a 14-game regular season, and three playoff games, running from early March until mid June. Current plans are for a bye week to occur over Mother’s Day weekend.
• Teams would primarily be located in cities that do not have NFL or Major League Baseball franchises. Cities that will be looked at include Portland, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Oklahoma City, Austin/San Antonio, Birmingham, Baton Rouge, Raleigh, Akron/Canton, Columbus, Memphis, Louisville, Tallahassee, Omaha, Richmond and Newark.
• Team budgets will range from $8 to $10 million.
• The ideal stadium would seat 25,000 to 35,000 fans.
• Players would be comprised of those that had not been successful in playing for the NFL. In an average fifteen-month period, as many as 3,200 players come in contact with the NFL, but only 1,696 make opening-day rosters.
• There will be a degree of “regionalization” to each roster with players coming from nearby colleges.
• The NFL would have unfettered access to the players from practice to game days.
• An opportunity to develop front office, football staff and support personnel would be provided to give career development.
• Players would be paid approximately $3,000 per game and be provided housing.
• At the core, current NFL rules would be used, with the ability to experiment with new technology and rules. This is to provide a smooth transition into the NFL.
• Emphasis will be placed on preparing players for life after their football career ends. There will be mentorship programs, community involvement with local business leaders and a fostering of continuing education.
• The fans will have increased access to players and coaches.
• The games themselves will be transformed into affordable entertainment events
There have been so many changes in sports since the USFL of the mid-80’s. The success that minor league baseball and hockey have enjoyed. The ability to communicate with fans through social media. The growth in television and cable networks; there is now competition to ESPN, including NBC, Turner, CBS cable networks, and plans by FOX to add an additional sports cable company. The ability to enhance revenues by creating innovative, unique and captivating logo designs as many minor league baseball teams have done. The ability to provide a tangible evaluation of any sponsorship.
The changes recently instituted by the NFL will limit the ability to develop players. The chances of an individual like quarterback Kurt Warner, an undrafted free agent who stocked shelves at a Hy-Vee grocery store in Cedar Falls, Iowa, for $5.50 an hour and made a name for himself with the Arena Football League’s Iowa Barnstormers, to play in the NFL are reduced. There is no longer NFL Europe, an American football league operating in Europe from 1991 to 2007, financially backed by the NFL. Under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the number of Organized Team Activities (OTAs) has been reduced to ten. NFL teams’ offseason workout programs have been reduced from fourteen weeks to nine. Full-scale hitting in training camp has been reduced. And, the NFL is contemplating eliminating two preseason games and adding to the regular season.
One of Cuadra’s most unique concepts is the fact that there is an investment opportunity in the league as well as with the teams themselves. Although the team entry price is $7.5 million, $6.0 million is be put into a fund to run the league, including guaranteeing that all players and coaches would be paid. In addition, it is possible to purchase shares in the league itself.
The experience from the past with the USFL being properly capitalized is the key ingredient to success.
Sporting events are about creating memories. Being able to create those is at the core of league. For myself I remember vividly the minor league Fort Wayne Warriors of the Continental Football League and going with my father to games in Zollner Stadium in 1965 to see former New York Giants 1st round pick QB Lee Grosscup. Hard to believe those franchises cost $5000, and Jackie Robinson (yes that Jackie Robinson) was the General Manager of the Brooklyn team.
It takes individuals with the ability to dream big to accomplish great things. The importance of acting on those dreams will determine the success of the rebirth of the United States Football League.
Former NFL Head of Special Events Jim Steeg was responsible for changing the Super Bowl from a championship game into the event it is today. He also was the man who turned the NFL Draft from a behind-the-scenes meeting into a televised spectacle.