It’s a strange-weird sight to raise binoculars and look out to a vast boneyard of dead professional football leagues. And weirder still to see, over there, in the far distance, a file of new professional football leagues marching lockstep into the same boneyard.
There have been four American Football Leagues, two Arena Football Leagues, one af2 league, a Continental Football League, Continental Indoor Football League, American Professional Football League, Indoor Football League, Indoor Professional Football League, Professional Indoor Football League, Professional Spring Football League, USFL, World Football League, XFL, and many, many others, including at least six women’s professional football leagues. Oh, and three new professional football leagues (male, two outdoor, one indoor) are scheduled to begin play next year. Everybody goes broke or struggles to make gas money and still they come on.
The question is, why would anyone invest in a professional football league? Why not put your savings into transistor radios? By way of an answer, let me introduce the 2010 United Football League (UFL).
You say, “UFL, so what.” Well, other than the NFL, they are the only professional, outdoor, fall season, nationally televised football league we’ve got. True, they’re televised on Versus, HDNet, and that powerhouse up-and-comer New England Sports Network, but that’s enough to reach a national audience. The UFL plays in the fall. They are a professional league: players earn $50,000 for an eight-week season, more if they play in their championship game.
The UFL season opens in the midst of the college football season, the NFL season, baseball playoffs and World Series, start of the NBA season, start of the NHL season, finish of NASCAR Sprint Cup...in other words, the UFL competes with every big-time sport the country has to offer. Big-time sports don’t seem to notice.
Here’s a bit of background. Original UFL
investors are William Hambrecht, founder of WR Hambrecht + Company, an investment banking firm (he owns the Las Vegas franchise); Paul Pelosi, husband and manservant to Nancy Pelosi (speaker of the House of Representatives) and owner of venture capital firm Financial Leasing Services (and the Sacramento franchise); and Bill Mayer, founder of Park Avenue Equity (he owns the Hartford franchise). Then, there is Silicon Valley boy Zach Nelson, owner of NetSuite (and front man for the Omaha franchise). Finally, the league owns the Florida franchise. I’m counting three investment bankers owning three teams in a five-team league. Another owner is a business buddy, and nobody owns the fifth franchise. The league is creepy with investment bankers.
Many believe the UFL was put in place on the cheap (last year the league had one general manager for all four teams) with the sole purpose to be in place when the NFL locks out its players in 2011. That lockout is very likely to happen, by the way.
It’s hard (well, impossible, really) to imagine the UFL would have the muscle to buy up enough players and establish enough franchises to threaten NFL World if the lockout comes to pass. The UFL will get some shake if the NFL goes dark, but that begs the question, how long are you willing to watch Philip Rivers quarterback the Laredo Border Patrolmen?
Last year the UFL had four teams and put two of them in NFL markets playing in big-league stadia (San Francisco and New York); two teams played in big non-NFL markets with big stadia — Las Vegas (Sam Boyd Stadium) and Orlando (Citrus Bowl). TV numbers were below modest, attendance was abysmal.
This year they’ve moved two teams to smaller, non-NFL markets (San Francisco to Sacramento, New York to Hartford) and added an expansion team in Omaha. Las Vegas and Orlando franchises stayed put. (The league has granted a conditional franchise for a team in Norfolk, Virginia, and it’s scheduled to play next year.)
In 2009, the UFL was able to sign well-known NFL coaches, which may tell us more about NFL coaches than we want to know. There were a few bottom-feeding NFL players on UFL rosters (I’m thinking of J.P. Losman and Tim Rattay). This year, Daunte Culpepper and Jeff Garcia are the big ex-NFL names.
What surprised me most last year was the quality of play. Even a sub-low-budget-mini-season-pro-league was able to prove — at least to me — that there are enough skilled players around to populate another NFL-type professional football league. I watched four or five games, attended two. The UFL is better than college football, better then CFL football, and better than the XFL ever was. This, on no money and bad publicity. Strange.
The UFL season begins on September 18. Regular season ends November 20; the championship game follows on November 26. Check ufl-football.com for particulars.