Starting in April, Fox Sports and NBC Sports will be airing a 43 game schedule of the United States Football League (USFL), an eight-team league divided between two divisions . For some, the thought of there being any more professional football in a year is a concerning proposition, but others see it as an exciting opportunity for investors and fans alike. Despite spring football leagues being a consistently obscure and floundering enterprise in the history of pro-football, big networks like CBS and Fox continue to give airtime to them with the hopes that after being financed for a few years, a spring league will find significant favor with the endless supply of NFL fans.
Ever since the Alliance of American Football (AAF) debuted in 2019 and then subsequently had their largest investor pull out in the middle of the inaugural season, many different parties have jumped on the opportunity to fill the football-less void that is March through July (CBS Sports 2019). The World Wrestling Entertainment’s (WWE) CEO Vince McMahon was one of those parties. His experience with alternative football predated the AAF, having run a league called the XFL in Spring 2001.
Provocative team names and extreme approaches to the NFL’s most sacred rules defined the XFL in 2001. New Yorkers at the time could become proud fans of the “New York Hitmen” and watch games that started with an “opening scramble” for the ball instead of a coin toss. According to Forbes, on one occasion, this new, physical game-starter led to a season-ending shoulder injury for one of the players. This initial shock factor didn’t keep fans engaged for an entire season, and the championship game saw abysmal television ratings on NBC, who had televised the league all season. The channel pulled the plug on the XFL after only one year.
In 2020, Vince McMahon announced the league’s revival. The league changed most of their provocative ways and instead made smart and savvy decisions, starting with the team names. New Yorkers could now watch the “New York Guardians” instead of the “Hitmen.” Additionally, the 2020 XFL was interested in expanding on the NFL’s extensive camera operation during games. They had cameras filming the locker rooms during halftime and in the replay booths during challenges. Although this didn’t garner particularly exciting footage, it was a unique way of bringing fans closer to the game narrative.
What personally excited me the most about the 2020 XFL, however, were genuine attempts to elaborate on NFL rules and make them better. They expanded on the NFL’s two-point conversion by creating a three-point conversion, and did away with the kicked extra point entirely. Additionally, they fixed the NFL’s unfair overtime rules that favored the winner of a coin toss. Changes like the three-point conversion was exciting new territory for football coaching tactics and the overtime changes to more of a “shootout” style was a logical and time sensitive way to finish a game without ending in a tie.
Finally on a very basic level, spring leagues like the XFL and USFL create a significant number of jobs in the football industry. These leagues have the opportunity to nurture and financially support potentially NFL-level talent that simply isn’t ready for the league out of college, much in the same way minor league baseball teams interact with the MLB. The NFL notoriously lacks the minor league development paths that leagues like the NHL and MLB have. With the addition of televised leagues like the XFL and USFL, players like Taylor Heinecke, who played in the AAF and then became the Washington Football Team starting quarterback, have a much easier time getting a second chance in the NFL. With these factors of the XFL in mind, it was certainly disappointing when the inaugural season of the 2020 XFL was cut short by the pandemic, washing away thousands of jobs and years of future plans. Looking forward to 2022, the USFL may become the first spring league to truly establish itself.
The USFL is a similar revival story to the XFL. It ran for three seasons from 1983-1985, and then fell apart because of out-of-control spending and ill-conceived plans laid out by then New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump to try to compete with the NFL in Fall 1986 (NBC New York 2021). Now the league is coming back with what appears to be a similar philosophy to XFL about fixing NFL rules and hopefully better financial sense too.
These leagues now know not to challenge the NFL. A competing televised fall league would fail much quicker and even more horrifically than any spring league ever has. The more likely and worrisome problem for a spring league would be if another ran concurrently with it. As the USFL gears up for its inaugural season this spring, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, having purchased the XFL from Vince McMahon, has officially announced the third coming of the XFL. There will be a 2023 XFL and they will be running at the same time as the USFL. Let’s hope the two leagues don’t run each other into the ground.