UFL Downsizes to Smaller Markets
By Evan Weiner
April 13, 2010
(New York, N. Y.) --- The United Football League might have once had lofty goals to provide a rival to the National Football League but reality has set in. The UFL is at best an independent minor league that grooms a few players for spots on NFL rosters. The league will add a fifth team with Omaha joining Hartford, Sacramento, Las Vegas and Orlando. None of those cities are major markets and if the league is to survive, it is probably better for the organizers and owners to be in those cities rather than New York and San Francisco, two metropolitan areas that apparently had very little interest in the UFL in 2009.
Hartford, Las Vegas, Omaha, Orlando and Sacramento are not going to get the league a major TV contract. In 2009, Versus and Mark Cuban's HDNet were the league's TV partners. A league needs a TV partner in the United States to succeed
In the late 1950s, television became an integral part of sports.
The National Football League became engrained in the American culture on December 28, 1958 when Johnny Unitas lead the Baltimore Colts downfield in overtime to beat the New York Giants. That game changed pro football and led to the formation of the American Football League. National Basketball Association owners also took notice of that game and the power of TV according to Bailey Howell who was a rookie with the Detroit Pistons in 1959.
“It was a period of transition because shortly after that they started adding teams,” said Howell of the NBA in 1959. “They added Chicago and teams were moving out of the small markets to the big market areas, Minneapolis moved to LA, Philadelphia moved to San Francisco and Syracuse moved down to Philadelphia so they were targeting the bigger markets and hopefully the TV revenue that would result from it.”
Major League Baseball was entrenched in the American psyche although most of Major League Baseball was played east of the Mississippi River until the late 1950s with Kansas City the most western outpost until 1957. The NBA and National Hockey went all of the map in search of markets to fill in the national footprint gap that TV demanded.
The American Basketball Association and the World Hockey Association never did get network TV deals. The World Football League had Eddie Einhorn's ad hoc network in 1974 but was a miserable failure because WFL owners did not have money. The United States Football League overspent for players in 1983 and did have significant TV deals with ABC and ESPN. The league made two gigantic mistakes after the first season. USFL owners accepted Donald Trump's money and reputation as a media darling after he purchased the New Jersey generals from Walter Duncan and the league expanded by six teams to cover the financial losses generated by the 12 owners in 1983.
Trump spent and somehow persuaded league owners to switch to a fall schedule which was strategy the killed the league. The USFL did win an antitrust suit against the NFL but the jury awarded Trump and his associates a dollar which was triple in an antirust case.
Other leagues have come and gone since the Trump-led debacle.
The United Football League originally was supposed to launch in 2008 but economic concerns long before the economic crash of September 2008 scrubbed the 2008 plan.
The UFL, at this time last year, was looking at Monterey, Mexico and Los Angeles as expansion sites for 2010. The league also was looking at six to eight to 10 teams and figured on losing $24 million in the first year of operation playing a six week schedule and a championship game. That was before the first kickoff last October.
That business model has changed. Hartford has a stadium and a business community that claimed it was eager for a "big league" team. But a one game trial run in the city last year was met with indifference. Sacramento had a Canadian Football League between 1993 and 1994 but there wasn't much fan support and the team moved to San Antonio.
Las Vegas is still in the league but there was a general indifference to the league champions in the Nevada city in 2009. Orlando, a team owned by the Tampa Bay Rays, is also back but the franchise received a blow when city officials scaled down Citrus Bowl renovations because there is not enough funding to go around for the new Orlando Magic arena and other projects that were part of the new arena plan.
Omaha is an interesting choice. It may be far enough off the beaten path from University of Nebraska football that it might not be totally swallowed up by the Cornhuskers. Omaha has a minor league baseball team, but there is no other professional sports team in the city with the departure of an American Hockey League team in 2007. Omaha did serve as a home for the NBA's Kansas City Kings between 1972 and 1975.
The UFL has a tight salary structure and will not compete with the NFL for players. The league served a useful purpose in 2009 as players got some game experience under the tutorage of veteran NFL coaches like Dennis Green, Jim Fassel, Ted Cottrell and Jim Haslett. Cottrell is gone, replaced by another long time NFL coach Chris Palmer in Hartford.
The UFL will probably add another team soon, but it will not be in a major market. The league has made a decision to go where they might have a chance to succeed. There is no point in competing in New York, Los Angeles (even without an NFL franchise), Chicago and other top ten markets.
At one time, the UFL might have had teams in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, the top three markets along with Detroit so that they could capture automakers marketing dollars. Those days are gone. The UFL is now in secondary markets and that might not even be enough to keep the enterprise going in the long term even with strict budgets.
Evan Weiner is a radio-TV commentator, author, lecturer on the "Politics of Sports Business and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org