A long, long time ago in a swamp far, far away a wise old green puppet said, “long enough live you do, all things old become new they will.”
Okay, maybe I am not remembering the exact source of the quote but the force behind it is that if one waits long enough, everything old will become new again; even things one never thought would return.
The latest example of this recycling of retro chic is the recent announcement that the United States Football League, aka the USFL, plans to make a return to the gridiron in the spring of 2022 after a lengthy time on the sidelines.
For those unfamiliar with the USFL, it was a spring football league that played for three seasons from 1983 through 1985. Some notable USFL players who later joined the NFL include Jim Kelly, Doug Flutie, Steve Young and Hershel Walker just to name a few.
Ultimately like the myriad spring football leagues that followed, the USFL went the way of the dinosaurs and became extinct. Of course, with the number of failed leagues trying to come back to life lately perhaps one should say the USFL is trying to rise like a phoenix from the ashes of its own Icarus style hubris of flying too close to the sun during its initial three season run.
I will not get into the inner workings of why the USFL failed aside from saying that had they stayed in their lane it is possible the USFL would have never disappeared from the sports landscape all those years ago. At least that was the thesis statement of a research paper I wrote during my M.S. in Sport Management studies.
For those wanting more specifics on what ultimately killed the USFL, numerous books and documentaries cover that subject in grave detail. However, for those wanting to get down in the weeds on why the league failed, I do recommend the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary “Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?”
Aside from my academic studies of the USFL, I am old enough to remember the league from the perspective as a fan. Granted a very young fan. Growing up in Florida I was a fan of the Tampa Bay Bandits and the Orlando Renegades who were coached by Steve Spurrier and Lee Corso respectively.
Spurrier would of course spend his post USFL days reinventing college football at the University of Florida, while Corso became a key member of the College Gameday crew that changed how college football pregame shows were done.
So, as a fan of the old USFL with the hats, programs, media guides and team buttons to prove it, I am both intrigued and horrified at the thought of the league making another run.
Would I love to see Orlando get yet another minor league sports franchise while continually getting passed over as a serious contender for the NFL and MLB? Sure, I suppose.
But, at the same time I am skeptical that any spring football league can make a serious dent at long term stability. If I thought that the USFL, or any league stood a real chance at being financially independent and not just some made for TV revenue stream to fill the air on the airwaves or a streaming service, I would dust off my Sport Management degree in a heartbeat and stand in line with the rest of the applicants wanting to make a lasting impression on the wide world of sports with spring football.
Instead I will quote Lee Corso and say “Not so fast my friend” when it comes to my belief that the USFL can succeed in the current sports climate. I just do not have a good feeling about the USFL succeeding as more than just a gimmick and a way to for Fox Sports to sell some ads on television.
It should be noted that Fox Sports, which has a minority equity stake in the company that owns the new USFL, will serve as the league’s official broadcast partner.
One has to wonder how quickly Fox will run away from the deal if their ratings expectations are not met. It is also a slippery slope when the people creating the content are also the same channels broadcasting it.
Of course, the rising symbiosis between leagues and broadcast partners is a column and/or research paper subject for another day. Suffice to say, as a classically trained sports journalist I am deeply troubled by the trend of mergers and blending of networks and leagues.
It goes back to the age-old journalism school question of whether sports events are news or entertainment. Based on the number of leagues jumping into bed with gambling interests I would say sports are sliding into the easy to manipulate realm of entertainment programming which could very well soil the sanctity of the game.
So, the USFL selling a portion of the league and perhaps their soul to Fox Sports is a huge red flag for me in terms of whether I should get excited about yet another Spring Football league coming to town.
I have gone down this road many times and it never ends well. One of the first sports articles I ever wrote for my high school newspaper was about the arrival of the World League of American Football (WLAF).
My article focused on the Orlando Thunder and the excitement that the City Beautiful was getting another chance to be a professional football town.
The excitement lasted all of two seasons as the WLAF became NFL Europe and the Thunder and the other domestic teams ceased operations. A fun fact tying the WLAF to the USFL was that Lee Corso was the Orlando Thunder’s general manager after coaching the Orlando Renegades of the USFL.
So, the Renegades and the Thunder were strikes one and two. My skepticism is further fueled by the rise and fall of the Alliance of American Football (AAF). The AAF came out of the gate strong in 2019 and even lured the Old Ball Coach Steve Spurrier himself to coach the Orlando Apollos. Despite good coaching, and decent on field action, the AAF folded during the inaugural season after it was unable to secure additional funding to make payroll.
Of course, leagues will always say that they learned from the mistakes of others as they climb over the smoldering remains of all of the spring leagues that came before them. In this way they really are like the classic tale of Icarus who flew too close to the sun and fell down to earth after his wax wings melted.
It really would be fitting for a spring football league to use Icarus for one of their teams if one could decide if the plural should be the Flying Icaruses or the Flying Icuri.
In making the announcement of their return, USFL 2.0 noted that it will play the 2022 season in the spring with a minimum of eight teams. The league also noted a desire to “deliver high-quality, innovative professional football to fans.”
In keeping with other big spring league announcements over the past few years no details were given on which eight cities will be blessed to be given an USFL franchise. The USFL did note that they still retain all of the naming rights and intellectual property of “key original team names.”
For those who are curious, the key names that the USFL could select from based on their first go round include; Wranglers, Stallions, Breakers, Blitz, Gold, Gamblers, Bulls, Express, Showboats, Panthers, Generals, Invaders, Outlaws, Stars, Maulers, Gunslingers, Bandits, Federals, and Renegades.
Over the course of the USFL three seasons only five teams played all three years without relocating or changing team names. Those lucky teams with the most stability were the Denver Gold, Los Angeles Express, Birmingham Stallions, New Jersey Generals, and Tampa Bay Bandits. It is likely that those markets will be included as part of the new version of the USFL.
While the new USFL claims to have the intellectual property rights for all things USFL, Steve Ehrhart, the executive director of the original USFL was quoted in a Philadelphia Enquirer article following the news of USFL 2.0 as questioning the legitimacy of those claims.
In the Enquirer article Ehrhart noted that when it comes to claims that the new USFL has all of the rights to logos and names, “I was surprised when I heard about it this morning. I want to dig into it and see who they’re claiming they acquired these rights [to the name] from. Because it didn’t come from any legitimate source.
“My guess is there’s some knucklehead out there who claimed he had registered the name and had the rights to it. We’re not being antagonistic. But if they want to do this, they should do it the right way and talk to the actual people, not some guy who sent in an internet registration or something like that.”
Assuming the right knucklehead is located, and the rights really do belong to Fox and friends, time will tell whether the latest iteration of the USFL can match, or best the three-year high-water mark of spring league viability it set nearly 40 years ago. Perhaps Icarus will use some stronger wax this time.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I am off to dust off some USFL gear and take a trip down memory lane.
Copyright 2021 R. Anderson