This weekend, for the first time since early 2020, two spring football leagues will be competing at the same time as the USFL joins the XFL in a battle for viewers and fans in the great quest to fill those football free months between the end of the Super Bowl and the beginning of NFL training camps.
The experiment in 2020 regarding whether two spring leagues can survive between the XFL and the Alliance of American Football was cut short due to financial troubles with the AAF and a cancelled XFL season due to COVID-19.
The XFL returned to the gridiron this year under new ownership and his entering the final stretch of their season. The United States Football League, aka the USFL, is set to return for season two since arising like a phoenix from the ashes in 2021.
While there will be two leagues for the next couple of weeks, the approach between them could not be more different.
The XFL returned for its third iteration following a sale of the league from Vince McMahon of World Wrestling Entertainment owning fame, to an ownership consortium that includes Dwayne “can you smell what the Rock is cooking” Johnson fame.
The third version of the XFL has already lasted longer than version two in 2020 and seems to be on strong footing despite lackluster attendance and television ratings.
For someone used to watching football on television, it can be a bit of a shock to see near empty football stadiums during a time without the COVID-19 limitations that forced games to be played fan free for two years.
Nearly empty stadiums were something that also plagued the USFL during their reboot season last year.
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.
Ultimately, like the myriad spring football leagues that followed, the USFL went the way of the dinosaurs and became extinct. With the number of failed leagues trying to come back to life lately perhaps one should say the USFL is trying to atone for its 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 during their initial late 20th Century incarnation. 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?”
Spoiler alert, the answer to the question of who killed the USFL may surprise some, and seem completely on brand to others.
While the original USFL included individual owners for each of their franchises, the current version of the USFL is owned in part by Fox Sports, which will share broadcasting rights with NBC. The XFL games are televised on ABC, ESPN and FX.
As I noted in a column last year when the return of the USFL was first announced, the rising symbiosis between leagues and broadcast partners is a troubling trend that is certainly column subject for another day.
Suffice to say, as a classically trained sports journalist, as well as someone with a Masters degree in Sport Management, I am deeply troubled by the trend of mergers and blending of networks and leagues.
I am equally troubled by the way that sports leagues have gone from acknowledging sports betting with a nudge, nudge, wink, wink, to fully embracing it by including live betting lines on their broadcasts.
I have nothing against someone wanting to bet on sports. I just trhink it sets a bad example when players can be banned for life if they bet on their games, but fans are free to bet until their hearts content.
Turning professional sports leagues into glorified Jai Lai and dog racing is bad optics from my point of view. Then again, that is another column for another day.
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.
Further proof of the football as mere television commodity model is the fact that despite recycling the cities and team nicknames from the USFL of old, for the second straight year, the USFL will not play games in the host cities. Instead, all USFL games will be played in the hub cities of Detroit, Canton, Memphis and Birmingham.
Currently, Houston, TX is the only city with a team in both the XFL and USFL.
Someone wanting to catch a Houston Gamblers game would need to travel to one of the USFL’s four hub cities to see their “home” team play a home game.
Fans of the XFL’s Houston Roughnecks can actually see the team play in Houston.
The XFL realized that home field advantage and leaning into a fan base is a smart business model.
Given the chance to actually see a game in your own town, versus watching them from afar is definitely likely to earn more fans for the Roughnecks than the Gamblers.
The USFL is gambling that enough people will attend the games in the hub cities to make it look good on TV without actually caring if the people in the stands have any connection to the towns the teams claim to represent.
I am no stranger to spring football leagues. One of the first sports articles I ever wrote 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.
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.
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.
Already in year two of the USFL, the Tampa Bay Bandits are a casualty of teams that were around last year and failed to take the field for year two.
The official word is that the Bandits, who were once partly owned by the Bandit himself, Burt Reynolds, and coached by the Old Ball Coach himself, Steve Spurrier during “classic” USFL, have gone “on hiatus.”
Although the USFL issued a statement that the move to replace the bandits with the Memphis Showboats is based on a restriction of only eight teams in the made for television league, one has to wonder whether anyone will really notice if the Bandits return based on the whole not playing in the home markets approach.
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.
Since spring football leagues seem to be all about gambling these days, my money is on the XFL making more of an impact on football fans than the USFL based on the ability of fans to actually go to a stadium in their home town and root for their team.
To see how much fun spring football can be for hometown fans, one need only look at the XFL’s Washington Defenders, where fans have the opportunity to make an awesome beer snake in the stands, and the St. Louis Battlehawks, where football hungry fans have brought life back to a long abandoned domed stadium.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a trip to a football stadium to plan.
Copyright 2023 R. Anderson