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  • Writer's pictureJed

Spring Football League Merger: Shooting the Elephant in the Room / Part 1

The elephant in the room for Spring football has always been that the leagues don’t stick. They have a long and colorful history of folding:


-The original USFL lasted three seasons, from 1983-6 (though we shouldn’t count the last season because it was played in the Fall, directly opposite the NFL).


-The NFL tried its own NFL Europe experiment at various times from the early 90s to the mid ‘00s.


-The original XFL tried its best in 2001 and lasted precisely one season.


-The poor AAF played pretty exiting football (in this writer’s humble opinion) but didn’t last a full season.


-And there are a multitude of smaller leagues that didn’t even reach these extremely low bars for viability. (https://footballstadiumdigest.com/2019/01/from-usfl-to-aaf-a-history-of-spring-football/ )


Jim Kelly posted impressive numbers with the USFL’s Houston Gamblers.

Why, says the average sports fan, should I get invested in this sports team when it probably won’t exist in a year or two? And if I hold on another few months, I get the full NFL experience, with all its history and expensive packaging. What’s the point? This commonsense approach is echoed by the professional sports media industry, but its wariness (‘I won’t get fooled again!’) is further augmented by the fact that reporters have finite time and capacity, and another fully functional league simply adds that much more work. Better to ignore the new league, and the crisis of added responsibility will pass. And so far, it always has.


But with the relative success of the reborn USFL the last few seasons, and the successful run of at least one season of the reborn XFL, there is a real puncher’s chance that this sad start-and-stop history will end with the merger of these two leagues.


Why might it work this time around?


First, there’s no inherent reason that football can’t thrive in the Spring. It’s not as if the sport of football is some delicate plant that only blossoms in a particular season. And as far as we know, there’s no lingering curse that dooms all non-NFL professional football in this country (although we might want to check on this—occultists, please report your findings to the USFL league office). There are literally millions of football fans, and it stands to reason that many of them would like an off-brand version of what they already love to supplement their existing rooting interests. There is also a huge surplus of gentlemen who would love to play football at the professional level, but who can’t make it in the NFL due to the cutthroat nature of that business. Spring football, in short, seems like not just a reasonable idea, but an obvious moneymaker.


Why, then, have all the other attempts failed? Well, there are reasons. And that too is part of the good news for this new merged league: if the failures of previous leagues are explicable, this league can learn, in good Darwinian Capitalist fashion, from their mistakes and avoid them.


To proceed: the original USFL failed for lack of money, and because a certain impatient not-yet politician decided to use what money the league did have to launch a bizarre lawsuit against the NFL (see Who Killed the USFL, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1501756/ , the best 30-for-30 ever made). The

original XFL failed not for lack of money, but for lack of good football. It was brash and risqué and not very interesting; it was basically an attempt to use real guys to enact the NFL Blitz video game franchise, where the important thing was not the football but the elbow drops and body slams you could perform after each play. The AAF failed because of impossibly idealistic management combined with traitorous moneylenders. (There was also an XFL that tried to reboot during the COVID year, but that didn’t work for obvious reasons.)

The NFL Europe attempts are a little more complicated and need some more thought, but it seems reasonable to suggest that they failed at least in part because they were exporting a knockoff version of the NFL’s product. Consider: If I were thinking about becoming a real soccer fan, I wouldn’t want to watch an MLS team; I’d try to figure out how to watch Barcelona or Real Madrid or something, to see how the game looks in a state of near-perfection. Whereas, if I were a fanatic professional European futbol fan, I would happily watch a Philly Union game occasionally during the offseason, because it would whet my appetite for what I know to be the real thing.


Being a knockoff brand isn’t a death knell; it just needs to be pitched to the right audience. The right audience is the one that needs more of the same, not something totally off brand.


What we can learn from all of these taken together is simply this: if a league can commit to putting good football product in front of a springtime audience, it may well catch on with viewers and become a moneymaker. Given the amount of ambient money floating around for sports viewership and the love that Americans have for professional football, this seems to be a reasonable expectation. The problem is, we don’t yet know if this is the case, because the leagues that produced good football (USFL, AAF) didn’t have the money to keep play going and attract invested audiences and sponsors, and the leagues with money (NFL Europe, XFL) weren’t committed to putting a strong product on the field.


Thus this USFL / XFL merger puts a group with lots of money (Vince McMahon, The Rock, ESPN itself, which refused to mention the USFL to even the most dedicated reader on their website) together with a brand that has produced not just good watchable football, but legitimate NFL level talent two years running and has shown real talent in making itself fiscally responsible.


(Briefly, here is a list of the savvy financial moves the USFL has made: 1. Instead of having games in the cities of all its teams, and the rental and transportation fees that would entail, it had a limited number of ‘host’ cities to keep costs minimal. 2. It retained control of its franchises, rather than selling them to anyone who could wave fifty thousand bucks around; if this league does take off, we’re talking about huge influxes of cash whenever it does get around to selling its franchises. 3. Its advertising was totally on point: the “United by Football” campaign that emphasized how the league allowed guys to play a game they love was masterful, and also nailed the patriotism that tends to accompany football fans but without being too heavy handed about it. 4. Its scheduling was strong: it both waited a decent month after the Superbowl, when people started realizing that they missed pro football again, to launch its seasons, and it scheduled games in Canton, which is one of those Mecca-esque places for football fans. Great move. The XFL failed notably in all these regards.)



Essentially, the XFL cash fund just needs to keep USFL-style football going for a few years. And it could: McMahon, like Juliet, has “bounty as boundless as the sea” (https://coopwb.in/info/vince-mcmahon-worth/#:~:text=at%20%243.1%20billion-,Vince%20McMahon's%20Net%20Worth%20Overview,revenue%2C%20demonstrating%20its%20substantial%20earnings. )


Once people realize that the merged league is a good and trustworthy NFL knockoff, playing good recognizable American professional football, and won’t end up on the scrap heap at the end of an unlucky season, they will watch happily. TV money will be able to fund the league and make it self-sustaining, and higher salaries will be able to attract more fringe NFL talent. Think of a guy like Gardner Minshew: given the choice between riding the bench for the Colts or firing bullets for the Showboats—if the money were even near equal—which do you think he’d choose?


This merger is a brilliant move for everyone involved. I can’t wait to see the Battlehawks playing against the Maulers. Long live the UXFL

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