Where once there was famine, there may be an embarrassment of abundance. At least as far as spring professional football is concerned. The twice-terminated XFL is planning on making a return at some point. Now, another long-defunct spring football circuit has announced it is also coming back from the dead to provide NFL fans with a football-type substance during the offseason. The USFL — complete with the original logo and rights to the old team names and colors — is planning a relaunch next spring as well.
Many spring football leagues have come, and most have failed to this point. The USFL was one of the longest-lived of the bunch, playing three seasons from 1983–85. But the new USFL already has a television contract and plans to field a minimum of eight teams.
What is behind USFL 2.0?
The USFL’s television partner, Fox Sports, issued a press release announcing the league’s return. Brian Woods, the founder of The Spring League (the only spring football league that has managed to survive), is involved with the reboot of the USFL.
“We look forward to providing players a new opportunity to compete in a professional football league and giving fans everywhere the best football viewing product possible during what is typically a period devoid of professional football.”Brian Woods
The Spring League opened its six-week regular season in early May and currently includes eight teams. It has a colorful array of head coaches with NFL ties, including Jerry Glanville, Kevin Gilbride, and Ted Cottrell. According to the league’s website, 104 players have signed with NFL teams from The Spring League since 2017.
Competition right out of the gate
The XFL has scrapped its plans to return to play in 2022. There are also reports the XFL is talking to the venerable Canadian Football League about a potential merger, according to Pro Football Talk. The CFL has dealt with declining attendance for nearly a decade. Three CFL teams may have lost less money not playing in 2020 than completing an entire season in 2019.
That doesn’t bode well. The CFL has delayed the start of its 2021 season until early August. It has long been a summer-fall league, with its season typically stretching from mid-June to its culmination with the Grey Cup game (its championship) in late November.
Former professional wrestling star Dwayne Johnson is the face of the XFL ownership, RedBird Capital Partners. But while the XFL operates as a single entity, the CFL has nine franchises. There are six private ownership groups and three community-owned teams. That could be a hurdle to a merger unless Johnson’s group buys out the entire CFL. To its credit, the XFL was doing well during its 2020 comeback season, that is until a pandemic shut everything down.
The USFL will have an advantage — provided it can get off the ground — with a one-year head start on whatever comes out of the XFL-CFL alphabet soup.
What the USFL did the first time around
While the original USFL couldn’t compete with the NFL in paying for star players, it made significant inroads with younger talent. Most famously, the USFL broke the long-time prohibition on drafting and signing non-seniors when the New Jersey Generals (before Donald Trump bought the franchise) signed Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker. In each of its three seasons, in fact, the USFL signed the reigning Heisman recipient. Besides Walker in 1983, the league also landed Nebraska’s Mike Rozier and Doug Flutie of Boston College.
The USFL also grabbed other young stars, and all three of its MVPs went on to play significant roles in the NFL after starting their careers in the spring. The MVPs were Kelvin Bryant in 1983, Jim Kelly in 1984, and Walker in 1985. Four Hall of Famers began their careers in the USFL as well. Kelly was one, along with Reggie White, Steve Young, and Gary Zimmerman.
Walker holds all of the USFL’s significant career rushing marks. In just two seasons, Kelly threw 83 touchdown passes and was the USFL career leader. Marv Levy coached in the USFL before leading the Buffalo Bills (with Kelly) to four straight Super Bowl appearances. Other coaching notables such as George Allen, Steve Spurrier, Jim Mora, and Lee Corso walked USFL sidelines.
An unfortunate decision to try and challenge the NFL in the fall led to the USFL’s demise. Can a reboot of the league avoid falling victim to fan indifference? The Alliance of American Football opened to solid TV numbers in 2018 before running out of money during its first season. The stories were similar for the XFL in 2001, the World Football League in the 1970s, and the United Football League in the 21st century.
Football fans keep saying they can’t get enough. But when presented with inferior alternatives outside the NFL season, the reaction has almost universally been a loud yawn. Can a revived USFL be any different? History says it’s doubtful.