The United Football League Starts in September
By Evan Weiner
June 11, 2009
11:00 AM EDT
(New York, N. Y.) -- The news that the United Football League plans to start playing in October should be great news for players, their agents and even the new Executive Director of the National Football League Players Association DeMaurice Smith. In theory, the National Football League will have a competitor and competition generally has driven salaries higher as was the case in the late 1940s when the All American Football Conference was around and that repeated in the mid-1950s when the Canadian Football League was offering higher salaries than the NFL and the same thing happened between 1960 and 1966 when the American Football League existed as a competitor. In 1974, the World Football League came along and drove up salaries and the United States Football League was writing checks between 1983 and 1985 that delighted players but not NFL owners.
But the new UFL will be a very controlled league and even if DeMaurice Smith wanted to organize a United Football League Players Association as Gene Upshaw and the NFLPA did with USFL players in the 1980s, it probably would not work.
The new UFL's timeline to start play is simple. The league has already identified a pool of players in try out camps and will head to a Casa Grande, Arizona training facility on September 1 to start training camp. All four teams, Las Vegas, New York, Orlando, San Francisco, will be at the Arizona camp.
Can the United Football League find a niche during a rather crowded fall calendar which includes the National Football League, college football, Major League Baseball's playoffs and the World Series, the opening of the National Hockey League and the National Basketball League training camps and regular season and competition from tennis' U. S. Open and even the New York City Marathon?
The answer is to that seems to be no but United Football League officials claim there is a real need for another moderately priced sports venue for consumers and this league, unlike many other start ups will not be throwing money at players. The UFL will have a tightly controlled budget with players not making big salaries which will in turn keep costs down.
The last time a group of owners really tried to challenge the NFL was between 1983 and 1985 when David Dixon's springtime United States Football League was around. There have been other leagues since the USFL such as the Spring Football League in 2000 and Vince McMahon's XFL in 2001 but neither lasted, McMahon's league which had a network TV partner in General Electric's NBC lost millions of dollars and GE/NBC pulled the plug on the venture.
The United States Football League failed in part because certain owners such as New Jersey's Donald Trump and Los Angeles ' William Oldenburg overpaid for players forcing other USFL owners to play catch up. There were other reasons as well including expanding for the 1984 season with the original owners making up losses by charging an expansion fee which allowed the league to go from 12 to 18 teams and the ultimate desire by Trump and a few other owners to switch to a fall season partly because Trump wanted to leverage his team into the NFL.
In the nearly quarter of a century since the demise of the USFL, a lot of people who were connected to the league have blamed Trump for the league's failure and while Trump can be fingered as one of the culprits in putting the business into the ground, there was a lot of blame to go around. Trump certainly did not help the league entering it after year one. Trump signed a lot of players including Doug Flutie to big contracts although he probably did not overspend like Oldenburg who gave Steve Young a 40-year, $40 million contract.
According to United Football League Commissioner Michael Huyghue, the new league has studied the failures of the All American Football Conference, the World Football League, the United States Football League and the XFL and Huyghue is convinced the UFL will succeed because a lot of safeguards have been put into the business which will prevent owners from overspending.
"We have a governor switch on that in the sense that I set the salary cap each year and I also control what the budget is," said Huyghue. "Even if an owner elected to try to do something crazy outside the threshold we have set, he is not authorized to do so. The league signs all the players to their contracts and assigns them to the clubs. So a club can't even initiate that kind of a situation. Plus every contract has to be approved by my office, so I think we have the right kind of parameters in place to eliminate sought of that autonomy that the USFL had that ultimately led to their demise.
"Fortunately (UFL founders) Paul Pelosi and Bill Hambrecht were both investors in the Oakland Invaders in the USFL, so they have a pretty clear sense of what some of the problems were and did that with open eyes when they came into this league. Every one of the leagues we looked at. Many of the folks involved with us have been involved in those leagues. (Las Vegas coach) Jim Fassel played in the World Football League, I was a GM in NFL Europe (with Birmingham) and obviously with Jacksonville (in the NFL), so I think all of us have pretty good experience in other leagues."
The UFL has some owners, Pelosi, Hambrecht, William Mayer in New York, Tim Armstrong, a league founder and now CEO and Chairman of AOL, has some very impressive support people like Huyghue and Frank Vuono, but where will the new league fit in the football fall pantheon? The league certainly will not be as good in quality as the NFL but will it be better than college ball? Huyghue said the UFL will fit in between the NFL and college ball.
"Well I think it is a better product than college football," said the Commissioner. "What makes college football attractive are the alumni loyalty that people have to those alma maters. But in terms in quality of football, this will be a much better talent than college football. I think it fits in the sense that Thursday night viewers are accustomed to watching football (the UFL will be on the Versus cable network every Thursday night during the 2009 season), the NFL has an eight week package, they have talked about during a 16-week package, so I think fans are accustomed to coming to the channel on Thursday night and watching football. I think our league is going to succeed because there is no expansion in the NFL, I know from my experiences in Jacksonville you can build an incredibly competitive team and if you look at the abundance at talented football players out there, I think people are going to be amazed when they find out how many good quality football players are going to be on these UFL teams."
The rag tag, mom and pop operation NFL was not a big time endeavor until the 1960s when something called "leaguethink" took over. In 1960 and 1961 NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle co-opted the American Football League's revenue sharing plan which was implemented by league founder Lamar Hunt when that league started in 1959. Hunt in planning the fourth American Football League, borrowed that concept from baseball executive Branch Rickey who planned to share revenues equally in his Continental Baseball League, particularly TV money. Rickey's league never got off the ground but Rickey's football influence is incalculable. Rickey's ideas transformed football from a mom and pop store operation into a behemoth. Rickey was not involved in Hunt's league but shaped the AFL which in turn influenced Rozelle.
Huyghue's owners at this point seem to have bought into Rickey's concept which was shaped about 50 years ago.
"In the first year, we share everything," said Huyghue. "So all the teams evenly splits it even if one market generates it from a local sponsorship. In the second year everything is put into a pool and the original team keeps 60 percent and the visiting or the other unit keeps 40 percent. So to the extent an operator does better in this market, he will keep 60 percent of the revenue and 40 percent will go into a shared pool."
The United Football League has four teams in what really is a test marketing year and will probably play games in six cities with the New York franchise hosting a game in Hartford and San Francisco playing a contest in Sacramento. The UFL is skipping Los Angeles in 2009 but will explore putting a team in America's second biggest market next year. The league is playing just 12 games with each team playing the other three teams three times. There will be a championship game over the American Thanksgiving weekend.
The UFL will be expanding in 2010 and will not be solely an American-based sports league. At least that is the plan.
"Well we won't expand by more than 12 teams," said Huyghue. "We really believe that the talent pool would be diluted at that. If we only had 10, we probably would be satisfied with that. We have an ownership group for Monterey, Mexico for next year, they may be, we will decide that at the end of the year which group comes in, Los Angeles and Hartford are also vying for teams, we have been to London and we met with a number of people who have a stadium on the Thames River, a soccer stadium. So I think there are a lot of opportunities. Our games may be televised in Mexico, so we certainly going to be an international league."
Huyghue doesn't see the Canadian Football League as either a threat or competitor.
There has been only one rival league to the NFL that succeeded, Lamar Hunt's American Football League although the NFL plucked the Cleveland (now St. Louis) Rams out of the second American Football League in 1937 and took three teams from the All American Football Conference in 1950 (San Francisco, Baltimore, now Indianapolis by way of New York, Dallas and Baltimore, and the first Cleveland Browns, now Baltimore). The NFL took all of Hunt's AFL teams, Boston (now New England), Buffalo, Cincinnati, Dallas (now Kansas City) Denver, Houston (now Tennessee), Los Angeles (now San Diego), Miami, Minneapolis (which dropped out and became Oakland) and New York. The World Football League's presence forced the NFL to expand to Seattle and Tampa Bay. The football highway is littered with the financial wreckage of three AFLs, the AAFC, the WFL, the USFL, the SPL, the XFL and even the NFL backed World League of American Football which became NFL Europa. Professional football, while on the surface looks incredibly successful, is a tough business. It is even tougher in a deep recession and that is the starting point for this new venture.