Can Football Spring Eternal?

This Wednesday those fans of the gridiron reach what is an unofficial official end to all things football for a while…the media frenzy of national signing day. From coast to coast on every sports network and radio show, young men who are the best at their sport tell the world in choreographed press conferences, streaming video feeds and press conferences where they have decided to go to join the big business ranks of major college football. From this day, booster hopes rise, coaches careers are stabilized, dreams are dashed and season tickets are sold, all on the backs of 17 and 18 year old student athletes. Ironically the day follows another American tradition that is also based on what might be…Ground Hog Day. Whether a little furry creature sees his shadow doesn’t really determine the fates of thousands, but it is just as safe a prediction as to whether those who commit to college on National Signing Day can turn the fortunes of college football.

Signing Day has turned from a clerical necessity to a media extravaganza in just a few years, but now for football it really serves as the end of a long trek that starts at the NFL Draft and marches almost unceasingly through the Super Bowl. On every level across America, the pageantry of college football starts in Radio City Music Hall in New York and goes through the day when high school players officially make their mark for where they will go. After that, the sport goes into a lull, despite the passion and yearnings for millions of fans who can’t seem to get enough.

Now there is the Arena Football League, although the latest version is nowhere near the media and entertainment draw that its previous bankrupted version was. This spring there remains the specter of the UFL returning to finish a season which started in the fall and never went anywhere amidst a sea of red tape and financial losses. Other than that, fans have to wait for the draft, and talk about the perils and fortunes of free agency for the NFL, with maybe some spring practice banter mixed in.

So with the lull in gridiron action, is there a chance that a spring football league can fill the void? It is a sexy, intriguing idea, but can it work?

The sad thing is that the UFL could have made great brand inroads had they played in the spring in their first few years, as the NFL went through its now completed labor pains. 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.  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. 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 16 games, still limits the in-season experience for fans, which could create an off-season alternative.

Over a quarter century ago the USFL saw that opportunity and had some level of success, in the days before regional sports networks were en vogue. The latest version of the USFL has made some noise to grab the space again, but a 2013 launch was scrubbed and a 2014 season announcement has come and gone with little talk of capital raised, TV contracts signed or cities announced. Another spring league has proposed public funding, selling shares to raise the millions needed, but that effort is doomed before it starts, as using the public markets for sports is fraught with needs to satisfy millions of investors and pay down the large administrative costs needed to keep a business running in the public sector. If you can’t find investors in the private market, forget the dealings of a business that has to be transparent to all who come looking.

So is there a need and a void to bring football back to play in a league format in the space from say, early March to early July? The NFL could use a developmental component, especially one they would not have to fund but could look seriously at technology and enhanced player safety. The plethora of regional and now national TV networks still have time to fill, albeit not on their own dime for production. There are any number of brands which would enjoy the engagement of football but not at NFL prices, and technology partners would crave using the space as a way to test activation projects that they could then implement at the NFL level in a more refined manner. Would fans turn out in numbers to make franchises financially viable? Would TV audiences tune in to watch a product that may be quality but not at the level of the NFL, on a national level? Would the digital space provide enough of a revue stream to also offset costs of running an expensive proposition like professional football, given its size of rosters and events? Could you find stadia that would be of the right size and standard in enough markets?

We don’t know the answers yet, but the demand for more football has grown in recent years, not shrunk. There are markets that clamor for more professional sports, but whether the private sector will take such a high risk remains to be seen. Secondary leagues in an age where the primary major team sports are striving to give fans more access are not what they once were, and the launch of any league in the United States, major or minor, has not seen any level of true success since Major League Soccer.

So while we hit the football lull, the specter of a never-ending stream of live games to tide the public over is still ripe in the entrepreneurial mind. Whether that mind can bring the league to bear is a pipe dream right now, but certainly one that bears watching as the dollars and the interest in football still seem to hold strong as we head into the final phase of a winter where the gridiron falls silent, at least for 2013.

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