The four major professional sports leagues in America all have monopolies over their respective sports. The NBA certainly does, for one. However, that doesn’t mean other competitor leagues haven’t tried to challenge their dominance in the past. In football, the AFL in the 1960s and the USFL in the 1980s both gave the NFL a run for its money.
The NBA has had its challengers over the years. Most famously, the ABA established itself as a worthy competitor before merging with the NBA. Another league called the USBL (United States Basketball League) also had a long run, even if it never came close to the NBA’s legitimacy. It did feature some former and future NBA players, like Boston Celtics great Robert Parish.
While the USBL is now defunct, it did have one major advantage over the NBA that the league refuses to replicate. Here’s the story of the USBL, one area in which it one-upped the Association, and its eventual downfall.
The history of the United States Basketball League
According to the Association for Professional Basketball Research, the USBL began to play in 1985. It had seven charter franchises with the following names:
- Connecticut Colonials
- New Jersey Jammers
- Long Island Knights
- Rhode Island Gulls
- Springfield Fame
- Westchester Golden Apples
- Wildwood Aces
Some notable names who played in the USBL and later went on to play in the NBA included Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues, Manute Bol, John “Hot Rod” Williams, Eric Musselman, Bubba Wells, and Adrian Griffin. Even former NBA great Darryl Dawkins logged some time in the league following his prime. One of the players featured in the classic hoops documentary, Arthur Agee, played in the USBL as well. After more than 20 years of trying to stick as a professional sports league, it folded in 2007.
The one advantage the USBL had over the NBA
While the USBL was never a serious challenger for the NBA’s market share as the dominant American basketball league, there was one area in which it had a leg up on the NBA – particularly near the end of its run as an active basketball league.
The NBA is represented in just about every metropolitan market across the country, with some notable exceptions. Two regions where the league isn’t well-represented are in parts of the Midwest and the Southern United States.
According to Our Sports Central, the USBL had several teams playing in these areas in its last few seasons. Its final few seasons season featured franchises in Oklahoma, Kansas, Tennessee, Nebraska, Iowa, and Mississippi, among others.
The league seemed to be filling a void where there was a lack of professional basketball. While the league never figured out how to capitalize on this, a large part of the country had no NBA representation – only USBL basketball teams to watch.
The USBL’s advantage may have also been its downfall
Of course, while the USBL’s regional approach may have been seemingly taking advantage of the NBA’s lack of coverage in the Midwest and South, it ultimately wasn’t successful. Many of the teams in these parts of the country folded due to a lack of fan interest. Perhaps the NBA not having teams in these regions was a feature, not a bug. Several teams folded even before the league going under.
Could the USBL have found success? Possibly. College and professional football rule the Midwest and South, but a developmental minor league for the NBA may have been semi-popular in these parts. Now the G League plays that role, but the USBL could have also provided a supplement to the NBA for any basketball-starved fans in some non-NBA states.
The truth is that the NBA would never allow an independent league to serve as its developmental space. The NBA would have always wanted to take over control. Either way, the USBL never got a shot to see how it could coexist with the NBA. Eventually, the USBL became just another footnote in the NBA’s dominance over American basketball.