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Best Kept Secret: UFL Edition
Best Kept Secret: UFL Edition
Ever since the collapse of the popular USFL in 1985, there have been several secondary professional football leagues that have failed in their attempt to offer an alternative to the NFL to our football-drenched society. And now, a new league has emerged, the UFL. Games will be played o Thursday nights, they are in four major US cities, and have attracted some pretty big name coaches. Dave Kolonich talks about the UFL in his latest piece for us.
Start-up UFL Aiming to Complement NFL
Growing up in the 1980's, there are some things I truly hold dear to my cynical heart, such as spending a dollar to watch Burt Reynolds in his divorce settlement inspired, "I'll take any movie role" phase, (witness the majesty of
), the time I met Mr. T at Turney's Department Store, Bernie Kosar displaying his glib sense of irony towards my brother at an autograph signing, endless hours of Tecmo Bowl and poring through the USFL preview edition of
, dreaming of the possibilites that a powerhouse New Jersey Generals squad would have wrought on the league in 1986.
But, much like a consistent winner in Berea, all things must pass. Sadly, Burt Reynolds managed to somewhat bring respect back to his career (at least in
), Mr. T is now sans gold chains thanks to Hurricane Katrina, Bernie has his own struggles, football video games now feature defenders who actually cover the deep ball, and unfortunately, the USFL is a long forgotten footnote in the annals of start-up football leagues who have been crushed by the weight of financial burdens and by the monolithic beast that is the NFL.
However, every so often dreamers arise to ponder the possibilities of adding a new league to satiate our football-drenched society. The emergence (using this term loosely) of the UFL is the latest example of this visionary quest to fill the void created by the NFL's refusal to become more than just a weekend football league. Is the UFL a legitimate contender to fill in the gaps of the yearlong football season?
Considering the recent history of start-up football leagues, the answer is obvious. After the collaspse of the USFL following the 1985 season, there has been only one legitimate contender to the NFL, at least for about four hours on a February night in 2001.
The XFL had two things going for it: money and an omnipresent hype and marketing machine. The Vince McMahon led XFL remarkably attracted a huge viewing audience to its' first night of games. Unfortunately, after people actually watched the games, most decided that the talent level of the players ranged somewhere between high school and I-AA college. Of course, after one season, the XFL was no more.
Which brings us back to the UFL. What can this start-up offer football fans that will be unique and not parallel the failures of the USFL or XFL? Good football is a start. Like the XFL, marketing is another. So far in its brief existence, the UFL has become the most closely guarded secret in the sporting world. Publicity for the UFL has been incredibly non-existent, as evidenced by the almost secret player draft the league held last month.
So far, the UFL has maintained a low-key profile, practically whispering its Thursday night football agenda to the viewing public. This polite, "excuse me" approach has not helped to build any buzz towards the league's debut this fall. In viewing the
league's official website
, it's possible that this is how the UFL wants to conduct business.
Four teams, low salaries, cable-only telecasts and few household names. Is this any way to run a pro football league?
The people behind the UFL think so.
The United Football League will kick off in October with teams in New York, San Francisco, Orlando and Las Vegas. The maximum salary will approach the minimum $620,000 a four-year NFL veteran gets, with some players making as little as $35,000, plus incentive bonuses. All those players will be seen on the Versus TV network on Thursday nights during the six-game season, with a championship game on Nov. 27, the day after Thanksgiving.
One thing working in the UFL's favor is their realization that they cannot possibly compete with the NFL. The idea of supplementing or complementing the titan NFL seems to be a sound strategy, however the Thursday night placement on the Versus Network screams of an NHL-esque viewership black hole. This TV contract suggests that the UFL is aiming to stay off the radar, before possibly going quietly into the good night of football leagues past.
However, the UFL does have some things working in their favor.
"The model for us was one where we realize there's an abundance of talent out there, but player costs come to nearly 70% in the NFL," says Huyghue, former senior vice president of football operations for the Jacksonville Jaguars. "So we had to make sure to not outspend ourselves with players. The attraction with this league for those players will not be the money but the opportunity.
"There's such a lopsided system with the salary cap that keeps players from getting their opportunity in the NFL and we knew the lure of that opportunity would be the hook."
Keeping salary costs down is an obvious strategy for the UFL to exist longer than their debut season. Considering the bulk of the league's talent will derive from quality college players who could not or have not made it in the NFL, the minimum base salary seems pretty reasonable for all parties involved. The high end salary of the UFL is roughly the same amount a player with 5 years of experience would make at the bottom end of the NFL. This salary could be intriguing to an older veteran who can no longer catch on in the NFL.
The UFL is featuring four franchises in its debut season, which should again help to moderate the financial costs of the league. Starting small with the number of teams should help to establish the financial well-being of those teams, before the inevitable expansion begins in the coming years. Obviously, the UFL has learned some lessons from the USFL's overexpansion, which saw multiple teams fold, merge or relocate throughout their tumultuous existence.
Much like any startup league, the UFL is going to be picking up the scraps from the NFL in terms of players. The bulk of the UFL rosters will feature training camp cuts, undrafted free agents and the occasional quality NFL veteran. Not to mention, the UFL could add some more
notorious NFL head cases
And while such stars as Marvin Harrison and Derrick Brooks, both currently unsigned by NFL clubs, could wind up in the UFL - so might Michael Vick, something commissioner Michael Huyghue is considering - most of the players won't register highly on the recognition scale.
The NFL won't hook those players, Huyghue reasons, because it has no expansion plans, setting the number of available jobs per team at 53 per roster, plus eight per practice squad. Former Vikings and Cardinals coach Dennis Green, who is in charge of the San Francisco team, cites players who fell through those crevasses as proof there's a place for the new league.
"I always believed there are these additional players and the NFL can't get them all: Kurt Warner, Robert Griffith, guys who had to find their way into the NFL and some had to go to other leagues to get there," Green says. "Fifty years ago, they wouldn't even have had a place for Lance Alworth in the NFL. They would have said he was too small. They had a set system for players.
"Most of the college stars didn't make it and you needed this alternative league and that is what the AFL was back then. And that is what the UFL is."
One thing working in the UFL's favor is the looming presence of the NFL's salary cap, which has created a system that makes outcasts of long-tenured veteran players. Derrick Brooks is a classic example of such a player. This possible future Hall of Famer has had a phenomenally consistent NFL career, yet because of age and salary concerns, will probably not suit up for an NFL team in 2009.
Adding to Brooks' problems is the cutthroat nature of the NFL roster system, which dictates that a veteran, backup linebacker must perform the supplemental duties of a younger player, such as covering kicks and playing all forms of special teams. In the NFL, roster spots are at a premium and most teams would rather utilize the cap relief associated with a first year player, rather than pay a much higher veteran minimum salary. The UFL could benefit from the capitalist ageism that currently pervades the NFL. Also, if the UFL can survive until 2010, it could benefit from the looming uncapped NFL season, which should be highlighted by a gutting of rosters around the league.
Despite their under the radar approach to publicity, one thing the UFL has successfully accomplished is the hiring of veteran coaches to run their virgin franchises. Dennis Green, Jim Fassel, Jim Haslett and Ted Cottrell are all quality coaches who have enjoyed NFL success. Adding these names helps to legitimize the league and considering the raw talent they will coach, should allow for a better on-field product.
Another incentive for these coaches is the motivation to return to the NFL as the head man of a franchise. Jim Fassel is a great example of a coach who was desperately seeking work. To understand Fassel's mindset, just remember that he actually wanted to coach the Raiders.
But then again, the UFL has some serious hurdles in its attempt to florish as a secondary league.
As I've mentioned before, people who have sought information regarding the UFL have had to find it for themselves. The release of the UFL's initial draft was among the least publicized events in recent sporting history. The secrecy of the UFL draft rivaled Eric Mangini hiding Marla Ridenour's IPhone within an anonymous blocking sled in Berea. Besides the annoucements of the coaches, the only real media coverage of the UFL has been the slight mention of former Buffalo quarterback J.P. Losman's signing with the league, and of course, the speculation regarding Michael Vick's possible association.
The UFL has a working contract with the Versus Network to broadcast its' games, but then again, Versus is not exactly a high-profile network, unless you enjoy the NHL or the Tour de France, assuming Lance Armstrong is racing. Unfortunately for the UFL, and much like the NHL, hopes for raising their profile lie in ESPN coverage of their league. The current kingmakers of sport, ESPN holds the keys to the UFL's legitimacy. If ESPN's coverage of the UFL is presented in a mocking manner, or not at all, the UFL will quickly be established as a joke.
The UFL also is in two cities the NFL never has touched, Orlando and Las Vegas. And such cities as Hartford, Sacramento and Los Angeles each will stage one game this season.
"It's a regional approach in our premiere season, to premiere in as many cities as possible," Huyghue says.
Huyghue expects to have eight teams in 2010 and to continue building the UFL's membership, perhaps even overseas, or closer to home in Mexico and in Canada. But that is getting way ahead.
The advantage of having just four teams is an obvious financial consideration, but the idea of building local interest is very limited. While these cities have certainly been underserved, especially in Las Vegas, the biggest hurdle in building fan bases is the often overlooked idea of fans being able to identify with their respective teams. It will take several seasons for UFL teams to establish their own unique identity, which could ultimately hurt attendance....along with people being broke.
Much like I've just done, the success or failure of the UFL will be directly linked to the fortunes of both the USFL and XFL. Since the epic failure of the XFL is fresher in most people's minds, the Xtreme league will likely serve as an unfair comparison for the UFL. Add to this the media skepticism that pervades our sports culture, and the UFL has to hope for a solid start to their debut season.
By playing on Thursday and Friday nights, the UFL won't have much direct competition with NFL games - although the established league begins its NFL Network lineup of Thursday night matchups on Nov. 12, smack in the middle of the new guys' schedule. The UFL never considered a spring season, reasoning that football interest is highest in the fall and winter.
While the UFL obviously doesn't have a death wish by directly competing with the NFL on Sundays, it will still find competition on Thursday and Friday nights. ESPN's college football has found a foothold on Thursday nights in recent years, and of course Friday nights are devoted to high schools across the country. The early test of the UFL's viability could come when it is matched up against a premiere college game on ESPN. Assuming that the college matchup features quality teams, the UFL could get slammed in the ratings.
So, is there any hope for the UFL succeeding?
Much like the UFL's philosophy suggests, the league will have to become a complementary league to the NFL. Or, perhaps in following the blueprint of the NFL's Europe league, the UFL may find its niche as a developmental league. Much like Jake Delhomme and Kurt Warner used NFL Europe as a launching pad to NFL success, the UFL could exist solely as a feeder league to the top. Initially, the UFL could realize this by serving as a place where coaches can revamp or develop their skills.
Ultimately, the fate of the UFL rests in the acquisition and development of its on-field talent. Real football fans will not tolerate a lesser league and the national sports media will pounce on such a prospect. However, if ESPN can get on board with the UFL and not immediately dismiss the league, the UFL could indeed fill the voids found in the fall football calendar.
The best hopes for the UFL's survival, or even potential prosperity could be as a haven for quality NFL veterans who have fallen through the salary cap cracks of the NFL. Combining these players with unproven talent who have not received a shot in the NFL, mixed with quality coaching and a limited number of franchises could all form a suprisingly effective product.
But then again, if no one knows about it, the UFL shall too pass.
Jul 15, 2009 7:00 PM
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