This coming week, as NFL returns to business, marks the 25th anniversary of the USFL’s demise and their $1 settlement victory over the NFL. For those old enough to remember or have seen the ESPN special, the USFL thrived not because it competed head to head with the NFL, it thrived because it attracted a core of players that the NFL had overlooked, went to markets where the NFL had not gone for the most part, and played at a time where the casual football fan had an interest in seeing games…the spring. The real demise of the league was the Donald Trump-led push to move the league to the fall and go head to head with the NFL, a marketing and business machine that even 25 years ago was still ages ahead of the USFL in depth of talent and business acumen.
Now in the past few years we have had the UFL, which found some market success in places like Connecticut and Omaha, but remains awash in red ink for a slew of reasons, the biggest being it is again at a time of year when the NFL and its fans are focused on the brand NFL...they love their product and they don’t want or need any other in the fall. The UFL rolled the dice on a lockout going into the spring to draw casual fans and maybe some TV time, yet that was probably a poor gamble. Fans of the NFL want the NFL…they don’t want the CFL, college football or the UFL. Loyalties just don’t change that quickly. The sad thing is that the UFL could have made great brand inroads had they played in the spring the last few years, and could have really made a market push as a league for the people this spring. Into the void they could have gone loudly, filling an interest for the casual and the disgruntled, testing the marketing dollars of brands who may have been worried about the NFL, and providing a great showplace for the free agents and unsigned who needed a chance to play somewhere. It would have also continued to have been a great testing ground for new rules, new styles and coaches looking for a chance to either re-engage or find a new home.
Alas we received none of that. What we got was the UFL saying it was delaying their season and fans drooling for training camps to open. So that still begs the question, could spring football still work? This past spring showed that there was ample interest in football in the spring, with fans staying involved despite the lockout, and many very upset not to have minicamps to learn about. the fantasy and gaming world continues to look to football as its driver much more than baseball. There remain mid-markets that love football that probably can use cost-containment professional football, and if the NFL does not grow roster size there has been proof that there is still a solid amount of talent waiting to be turned over. The Arena League is still trying to find its way back with a spring version, certainly not yet at the high level it was when the sport folded, and the UFL has found some real viable markets where they have been successful. Could it work? Would brands take an offseason Hertz to the NFL’s Avis? Would TV support a promotable spring product and not have to worry about NFL backlash when new deals come up? One thing is for sure, America is a football crazy country. The question is…is the market important enough to support year-round football? The WLAF failed with the NFL’s backing, as had other leagues. The UFL started off with the right capital infusion and found some niche’s, but at the wrong time of year for fans to get energized. The argument that you have one NBA. one MLB and one NHL is different…those seasons are very long and give fans ample opportunity to see the product. The NFL, even at 18 games, still limits the in-season experience for fans, which could create an off-season alternative. The USFL at the time was in its way.
Welcome back NFL…it is important to be back, not just for the fans, but for all the brands and employees who need the financial pop. Maybe the quiet of this past spring could open another door in the future as well.