In the early 1980s, investors brought the United States Football League (USFL) to life. They recruited a not insignificant number of bona fide players who played in the NFL for the USFL.
The idea behind the league was to play in the spring, thereby filling a vacuum between the end of the Super Bowl and the start of exhibition games in mid-summer. The USFL had played three seasons when the owners flipped the business model. In 1986, they decided they would compete against the NFL in the fall.
It was the beginning of the end. Perhaps the owners came to their collective senses before playing a single down. For whatever reason, the USFL ceased operations. Since then, a handful of other spring leagues have come and gone—the AAL and the XFL, to name a couple—but they cratered even faster than the USFL.
Now Spring League co-founder Brian Woods is bringing back the name, the schedule, eight of the teams and the trademarks to take a crack at the new USFL. Woods serves as president of football operations for the 2.0 version.
This league won’t have the old one’s liabilities or its ownership. The new league owns the eight teams, and Fox Sports, in turn, owns the league—a good deal when you want to televise the games.
And the new USFL also has something the old USFL could only dream about— sports betting.
“Responsible sports wagering is important in our strategy,” said Edward Hartman, executive vice president of business operations for the league and senior vice president of digital partnerships and wagering at FOX Sports. “It’s great way to engage. Fox is all-in on sports wagering.”
Of the eight teams, five are based in locations with legalized sports betting. Another good deal, said Josh Swissman, gaming consultant and founding partner of the Strategy Organization.
“The proliferation of sports betting across the U.S., coupled with the built-in solid broadcast schedule, could make this incarnation of the USFL actually work,” Swissman said. “With Fox as the major investor, they could benefit from both sides of that equation. There are also other interesting ways for Fox to monetize the USFL, like through data rights and feeds.”
According to PlayNJ, the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement has not approved USFL betting, but gave no reason it would be delayed. In other words, don’t sweat it.
In another promising sign, on February 15 the USFL agreed to a multi-year partnership with Sportradar, establishing Sportradar as the official sports data partner of the league. Sportradar will develop new data-collection and delivery systems for the league and its related businesses, including media and gaming, and provide data to betting operators advertising during USFL telecasts. As the league’s official integrity partner, Sportradar will also conduct bet monitoring and reporting via its Universal Fraud Detection System and conduct an audit of the USFL’s integrity policies.
“The USFL is thrilled to have forged its first data and integrity partnership with Sportradar,” said Hartman. “With more than 60 percent of American adults living in states where sports wagering is now legal, it was critical to the new USFL that we partner with the market leader in integrity solutions, and Sportradar is the gold standard.”
Added Ed Blonk, Sportradar’s chief commercial officer, the partnership is “a proactive step to … safeguard the league from match-fixing and betting-related corruption.”
What’s in a Name?
Woods put the new USFL together last year, along with co-founder Eric Shanks, CEO and executive producer of Fox Sports. They are focusing on an April launch, with a season that runs to July 3 in Year 1.
“The relaunch of the USFL is a landmark day for football fans and Fox Sports,” Shanks told the Hollywood Reporter. “Football is in our DNA and the return of this innovative and iconic league is a fantastic addition to our robust slate of football programming.”
Woods is no rookie, of course, having co-founded the Spring League, a developmental league for the NFL (the Spring League continues as a business, but football operations are suspended).
“It is definitely interesting to think about businesses and people investing in the return of the USFL,” Swissman said. “After all, there have been many attempts to tackle the lackluster springtime sports calendar with an alternative football league since the USFL’s previous incarnation in the early ’80s. Between the XFL, the Spring League, the Alliance of American Football and even the USFL itself for another time in 2010, this is a road traveled many times before…and all unsuccessfully.”
So why not come up with another name, not use the name of a league that folded after three years? Hartman and the ownership believe there’s equity value in the name, despite its less-than-stellar track record.
“I’ve been blown away by the nostalgic equity value,” Hartman said. “The significant equity value more than 30 years later is an indication of its success.”
For the initial year, all teams will play games in Birmingham, Alabama, at Protective Stadium and Legion Field. So no games in the home field of the Philadelphia Stars or Houston Gamblers or New Jersey Generals or the other four teams.
How will the league develop brand loyalty with no home games except for Birmingham? Turns out brand loyalty is overrated in the age of TV, Hartman said.
“I live in L.A. There are plenty of people who root for the Knicks and the Yankees. The Fox network owns and operates TV stations in these local markets. We’re off to a flying start. The TV exposure we’re getting is unrivaled for any start-up.”
And if you think about it, only a tiny percentage of fans attend games in person compared to those who watch on TV or listen on the radio. “And they’re still passionate,” Hartman said.
Besides, this concept of playing all the games in Birmingham is not etched in stone beyond season one. The league’s intention is to eventually have its teams play in their designated cities. When that will happen is to be determined, according to league executives.
“There is undoubtedly a big uphill battle in educating the public on the new league and players nobody has ever heard of,” Swissman noted. “They’re also going to play all of their first season games in one location, so no home games for people to attend.
“If the USFL is able to overcome those obstacles, I think they may have a shot this time.”