Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The Unnecessary Football League

United they stand, United they fall

It's a dead time in the sports world. The NFL is roughly halfway between last season's Super Bowl and next season's Kickoff Weekend. Baseball is plodding along in its customary drug-addled fog. The NBA playoffs have been so typically compelling that they were easily pushed off the front of the sports section by Kobe Bryant's PMS. The NHL is in the midst of a historic Stanley Cup final -- for the first time since 1918, not a single person is watching. The golf, tennis and NASCAR seasons are in full swing, but the golf, tennis and NASCAR seasons are each eleven and a half months long.

With so little going on that's worth paying attention to, it's no wonder that sports fans were briefly abuzz over the news that a Wall Street financier, Bill Hambrecht, and a senior Google executive, Tim Armstrong, are organizing a new professional football league. What bumped the headlines up a couple point sizes was the news that they have already lined up at least one prominent franchise owner: Mark Cuban, the Internet zillionaire who has transformed the NBA's Dallas Mavericks from a perennial doormat to a perennial disappointment, and made a multimedia nuisance of himself in the process.

The Hambrecht-Armstrong-Cuban venture has been tentatively title the United Football League, or UFL, and you can read all about it in this New York Times article. (Hurry, before it goes behind the TimesSelect subscription wall.)

If the name "UFL" sounds vaguely familiar, it's probably because you're confusing it with either the UFC or the USFL. The UFC is a mixed martial-arts competition known as the "Ultimate Fighting Championship," which is a patently ridiculous name, considering that the rules say you can't bite, can't pull hair, can't head-butt, can't gouge eyes, can't kick a guy in the balls, can't punch him in the throat, can't stick a finger up his ass, can't stomp on his head, can't sucker-punch him after the bell, can't hit him with a chair. "Ultimate," my ass. Pussies.

The USFL, on the other hand, was the greatest threat the NFL has confronted in the four decades since it merged with the AFL. For three years, the USFL raided rosters, sent salaries skyrocketing and tussled with the NFL in city halls and courtrooms across the country. It was the league where Jim Kelly, Steve Young, Gary Zimmerman, Reggie White, Sam Mills, Herschel Walker, Maurice Carthon, Sean Landeta, Bart Oates, Doug Flutie and scads of others started their careers. It was where Carl Peterson earned his reputation as a personnel genius. It was the place where Jim Mora won playoff games, and where Lee Corso was a head football coach instead of just a leathery buffoon. It was in the USFL that the two-point conversion came to pro football, instant replay got its first test, and Jacksonville established its credentials as a major league city.

But the USFL ultimately drowned in a sea of red ink and legal-size files, broken promises and bounced checks. It carefully cultivated fans in small markets, only to throw them overboard. It vainly chased fans in large markets, getting only shrugs and giggles in return. It proved the viability of playing football in the spring, then followed Donald Trump and Eddie Einhorn on a disastrous, logistically impossible and ultimately suicidal march toward autumn.

Anyone thinking of investing in the UFL is well advised to study the lessons of the earlier league. The USFL's many failures are likely to be repeated, because of what hasn't changed in the 22 years since it went under. But what's worse is that the USFL's few successes are unlikely to be repeated, precisely because of what has changed since then.

On first glance, the biggest difference between the UFL and the USFL is simply a matter of the calendar: The USFL played a season running from February to July. The UFL plans to play in the autumn, just like the NFL. Strike one. And probably strike two and three.

The USFL was formed as a spring league precisely because it knew it couldn't compete head to head against the NFL. Founder David Dixon believed the league would appeal to the hardcore football fans who were left hanging every year after the Super Bowl ended and the NFL went into hibernation for seven months. The USFL would be their fix. To play in the fall, Dixon reasoned, would be absurd. With NFL games on television every autumn weekend, who would ever watch teams of guys who couldn't make NFL rosters? And that's not even getting into the matter of competition from college football.

If you hope to compete head-to-head against the NFL, you need to have players approaching NFL quality, which means you have to be prepared to pay what the NFL is paying for talent. The USFL wasn't, at least initially. The league's original 12 teams agreed to a salary cap that would keep average player salaries in the $30,000-to-$50,000 range, with a little left over for each team to sign two "stars" -- defined as players with regional appeal, such as a high-profile graduate of a local university. The NFL, meanwhile, was paying at least three times that for players. An NFL survey in the 1981 season, two years before the USFL began play, found that the average player salary was about $90,100. At its inception, the USFL was determined not to get into a calamitous bidding war with the NFL like the one that the AFL waged in the 1960s.

(The average NFL salary in 2006, two years before the UFL hopes to begin play, was about $1.4 million. That's a 1,454 percent increase from 1981 in nominal dollars and a 559 percent increase when adjusted for inflation.)

The UFL masterminds are also determined to keep player salaries relatively low -- but they also intend to compete directly with the NFL in the fall. Hambrecht told the Times, "Bill Walsh used to tell me that the last 20 players cut from every team were almost interchangeable with the last 20 players to make the team." So the UFL will stock its rosters with those guys, and will go after the top players from Arena ball and the Canadian league. Also, the league will be able to offer most rookies -- particularly late-round picks and undrafted free agents -- more money than they could make under the NFL salary cap.

Walsh's statement about the quality of the last players to be cut may well be true, but all it means is that the UFL will compete for fans' attention with rosters full of bubble players. And the "top stars" in the Arena league and Canada aren't playing there by choice. They're there because they can't make NFL rosters. Most rookies, meanwhile, don't get much money because they aren't very good. What the UFL is proposing to do is kind of like starting a new baseball league and saying, "We can be just as good as the major leagues. We'll just sign the best players in the minors."

The USFL, of course, abandoned its focus on keeping costs down, one of the cornerstones of its business plan, by the start of its second season. Wanting "name" players to sell tickets, its teams began pursuing top-tier college players and raiding NFL rosters. The Oklahoma Outlaws signed Buccaneers QB Doug Williams. The Boston Breakers signed Bengals tight end Dan Ross, a Massachusetts native, then rewarded him by moving to New Orleans. The Los Angeles Express not only signed Steve Young to play quarterback, but also added three top young linemen to protect him: Zimmerman, Mark Adickes and Mike Reuther. The Birmingham Stallions signed Bills running back Joe Cribbs, a three-time pro-bowler. And, of course, Trump's New Jersey Generals signed Browns QB Brian Sipe and Chiefs safety Gary Barbaro to complement Herschel Walker, then added Flutie a year later. (Sipe was dealt to the Jacksonville Bulls.)

The free spending shredded the USFL's cost-control mechanisms and ultimately contributed to its collapse, but it did have one positive effect: It brought the league sustained attention.

This is a critical element. The Times article that introduced the UFL concept said, "A new league's biggest issue ... is whether it really can approximate the NFL's level of play." This is dead wrong. A new league's biggest issue is whether it can get people to pay attention. The lifeblood of any pro sports league is not the drum-dyed, hardcore fan; it's the casual fan. And casual fans are not going to pay attention to a league made up of NFL final-cut casualties, Arena all-stars and third-round draft picks -- even if they're good players. They want to see stars, and football stars are created in two places. One of those places is the college game, but any player who comes out of college already a star will command too high a price for the UFL, according to its own financial strategy. The other place, of course, is the NFL.

For obvious reasons, the Times article is compelled to play the dog-eared Tom Brady Card: "It's also worth remembering that many late-round draft choices are good football players. Tom Brady, for instance, was a sixth-round draft choice." True. But Brady became a star by winning three NFL titles. Suppose Brady had signed with a rival league. Even if he led his team to, say, three straight title games and won two of them, how much of a star would he really be? About as big a star as Chuck Fusina, who won two championships in three years with the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars of the USFL. There's a reason you don't know Fusina's name today: The USFL never created its own stars. The only names from the USFL that anyone recognizes today are those that came into the league already having attianed stardom in college or the NFL, and those that became stars in the NFL after the league folded in 1985. So will it be with the UFL.

(On the topic: Here are some other quarterbacks drafted in the sixth round since 2000: Reggie McNeal, Bruce Gradkowski, Jeff Smoker, Jim Sorgi, Kliff Kingsbury, Josh Booty and Josh Heupel. I've said it before and will say it again: The fact that Tom Brady was a sixth-round choice says nothing about the sixth round and everything about a blind spot in NFL teams' player evaluations.)

But let's pretend players won't be a problem for the UFL. Let's say somehow the league manages to convince fans that it plays a fairly decent brand of football without bankrupting itself on player salaries. Now will anyone watch?


As said above, the USFL played in the spring because spring was the deadest period of the football calendar, especially in the early 1980s. Remember, this was before the NFL draft became a television event. Before the NFL scouting combine became a television event. Before the Arena Football League even existed. Before NFL Europa. Before the NFL Network existed to show pro football 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The USFL gave football fans something to watch. It gave ABC and ESPN something to show. It gave football writers something to write about for those seven months when they would otherwise be covering golf or tennis or God-knows-what for the general assignment desk. And even if those writers often paid more attention to the front office ("Can the league survive?") than the activity on the field ("The Wranglers beat the Federals!"), at least they were paying attention to something in the USFL.

Which is why the foolishness of the Trump-engineered move to the fall was obvious to nearly everyone not named Trump (and maybe to him, too). From the time he bought into the league, Trump had agitated for a fall schedule, arguing that football was "meant" to be played in the autumn. Never mind that the whole league was built on the proposition that football was so popular you could play it any time of year. Trump -- abetted by Einhorn, who had taken over the bankrupt Chicago Blitz on the condition that the USFL move to the fall so as not to compete with his own White Sox -- pointed to the TV money being thrown at the NFL and said, "That's where we have to be." But they had cause and effect backwards. That money was being thrown at the NFL because it was the NFL, not because the games were being played in the fall. If the NFL had chosen to move its games to the spring, the money would have followed.

The USFL abandoned the spring for the fall for the same reason the New Jersey Generals raided NFL rosters and signed top college players: Trump hoped to force a merger with the NFL, a merger that would include his Generals and maybe someone else, and to hell with the rest of the league. He should have listened to John Bassett, the owner of the Tampa Bay Bandits and a fierce opponent of the move. Bassett had owned the Memphis Southmen of the World Football League of the mid-1970s. After that league collapsed, Bassett kept the team together as he petitioned for entry into the NFL. The response from the NFL was the same then as it would be ten years later, when NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle would say of a USFL merger or expansion: "I just can't see it happening. There's just no sentiment for it. When we expand, we'd want to pick our own cities and our own owners." Ultimately, the proximate cause of death for the USFL was not the decision to play in the spring. It was the decision to quit playing in the spring.

In the 22 years since the USFL played its last game, the NFL has gone ahead and filled the spring and summer with football. The combine. The draft. European games. America's Game. Minicamps. NFL Replay. Plus there's the Arena league, with which the NFL has developed an informal partnership. Still, the football traffic in the warm months is nothing compared with the fall and winter. The new UFL will be trying to penetrate a football market in which the NFL plays games not just on Sundays and Mondays but also on Thursdays and Saturday nights. College football has long since expanded beyond Saturdays, and now plays just about every day of the week except Sunday. A week's worth of football on TV once consisted of two college games Saturday afternoon, maybe two or three NFL games on Sunday and Monday Night Football. Today, it's wall-to-wall football on CBS, Fox, NBC, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN U, the various Fox Sports Networks, NFL Network and hundreds of local channels. You tell me where the UFL is going to find room to set up shop. The Times article says, "One television advantage the UFL will have is Friday night. Thanks to the 1961 Sports Broadcasting Act, the NFL is prohibited from televising games on most autumn Friday nights. (The prohibition was meant to protect high-school football.) Any new league would have televised football all to itself that evening." Well, televised pro football, at least. ESPN2 has been showing college football on Fridays for years now. The reason there isn't already more football on TV on Friday? Because no one watches TV on Friday.

Then there's the question of who's going to televise the UFL. The NFL has locked up all the broadcast networks except ABC, whose parent, Disney, owns Monday Night Football on ESPN. The Times floats a few ideas in the USA network, TNT and Versus, the sad-sack stepsister of the sports broadcasting universe. USA is owned by NBC Universal, which is laying out $650 million a year to show Sunday night NFL games, so ... probably not. Versus is essentially fictitious. As for TNT ... Look, content is precious in the 500-channel universe, so someone will be willing to put UFL games on, but the economics argue against any major basic cable channel making the necessary investment.

Still, let's say the UFL gets a national TV contract to go along with all those great players it's going to sign. Where are the teams going to play? The UFL has said it will put franchises in Las Vegas, Mexico City and Los Angeles, the great white whale of professional football in America. (Let me venture to guess two more sites: Birmingham and Memphis. Only five markets had teams in the WFL, the XFL and the USFL: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Birmingham and Memphis.) Back to the Times article: "... the NFL does fine despite not fielding a team in 21 of the country's top 50 markets -- including such enormous metropolitan areas as San Antonio, Las Vegas, Orlando and (of course) Los Angeles." The suggestion is that those non-NFL cities are the kinds of markets that are ripe for UFL franchises. Take a look at the top 50 media markets in the United States, ranked by the number of television households:

1.New York Yes (2)
2.Los Angeles No
3.Chicago Yes
4.Philadelphia Yes
5.San FranciscoYes(2)
6.Dallas Yes
7.Boston Yes
8.Washington Yes
9.Atlanta Yes
10.Houston Yes
11.Detroit Yes
12.Tampa Yes
13.Phoenix Yes
14.Seattle Yes
15.Minneapolis Yes
16.Miami Yes
17.Cleveland Yes
18.Denver Yes
19.Orlando No
20.Sacramento No
21.St. Louis Yes
22.Pittsburgh Yes
23.Portland, OR No
24.Baltimore Yes
25.Indianapolis Yes
26.Charlotte Yes
27.San Diego Yes
28.Hartford No
29.Raleigh No
30.Nashville Yes
31.Kansas City Yes
32.Columbus No
33.Cincinnati Yes
34.Milwaukee Yes
35.Salt Lake CityNo
36.Greenville, SCNo
37.San Antonio No
38.Palm Beach, FLNo
39.Grand Rapids No
40.Birmingham No
41.Harrisburg No
42.Hampton Roads, VANo
43.Las Vegas No
44.Memphis No
45.Albuquerque No
46.Oklahoma CityNo
47.Greensboro, NCNo
48.Louisville No
49.Buffalo Yes
50.Jacksonville Yes
(54.New Orleans Yes)

All of a sudden, those 21 major markets aren't so attractive. San Antonio may be the nation's seventh-largest city, but it has no suburbs, and its metro area is dwarfed by those of much smaller cities like Minneapolis-St. Paul, St. Louis, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Orlando is larger than nearly half the NFL's markets, but good luck to anyone trying to establish a fourth pro football team in Florida, which also has three college teams stocked with NFL talent. And most of the "available" markets on the list -- Sacramento, Raleigh, Harrisburg, Grand Rapids, Palm Beach and others -- are so close to existing NFL teams that they are for all intents and purposes in the same market.

The UFL could try to compete directly with NFL teams in NFL cities -- if it wants to die a quick death, as opposed to a drawn-out one. One thing the USFL discovered in its three-year history was that you can put a new football team in a major market, but that's no guarantee that people will watch. The Breakers lasted one season in Boston before moving to New Orleans, then Portland. The Chicago Blitz played in front of tiny crowds for two years before going under. The Washington Federals eventually fled to Orlando. The Los Angeles Express were lucky to draw 10,000 people in the 90,000-seat Coliseum and played their last home game at a junior college in the San Fernando Valley. The move to the fall, meanwhile, killed some of the league's relatively successful franchises. The Philadelphia Stars and Michigan Panthers couldn't compete with the Eagles and Lions, so the Stars moved to Baltimore (actually, College Park, Maryland, just outside D.C.), and the Panthers merged with the Oakland Invaders (the Raiders were still in Los Angeles.) The Houston Gamblers and Trumps's Generals were planning a merger, as were the Denver Gold and Jacksonville Bulls, when the league went out of business. These teams were essentially established franchises, and they had no hope of competing against local NFL teams in the fall. The UFL has less than no hope.

We could also discuss the issue of stadium availability, but that would just be piling on, wouldn't it?

The UFL does have Los Angeles to itself. Too bad L.A. is a nearly impossible market to crack, even after losing two NFL teams (mostly over stadium issues). The UFL also does have Mexico City. And it does have Las Vegas, a metropolis that is about to find itself in the same position Phoenix was in for most of the 1970s and 1980s: the boomtown that pro sports franchises threaten to move to in order to extort better stadium deals from their own cities.

I love pro football. And I love rebel leagues. Look over the Down and Distance archive, and you'll find an astonishing amount of information about the USFL, the WFL, the AAFC, even a little about the XFL. It'd be great if the UFL could succeed. But it won't. It can't. Even if it manages to round up attractive players, even if it manages to get itself on a network people actually receive, even if it manages to find investors to pay the bills and stadiums to play the games in, it will fail for simple reasons of supply and demand. There's an endless supply of football in the 21st century, but there's only a finite demand.

No comments: