The United States Football League ranks up there with He-Man figures and Star Wars as one of the principal obsessions of my childhood.
I loved the USFL so much, that I would call a friend on the phone and he would give me play-by-play of games since he had cable television (and some wild thing called ESPN) and I didn’t.
With the new incarnation of the USFL launching this month in Birmingham, I am awash in memories and nostalgia.
The Houston Gamblers and the run and shoot offense.
The New Jersey Generals “Million Dollar Backfield” (Brian Sipe, Herschel Walker and Maurice Carthon).
Bandit ball in Florida.
It was all so fun. It had no chance.
What can this new USFL do to find a niche in the American sports world, and does it have a chance?
Sorry, aspiring legal Texas sports bettors, this option is not available to you just yet. But, with some luck, the benefits of offering legal sports betting will help change the minds of those in opposition in the near future.
Most importantly, let’s temper expectations
This might be the most important thing for the eight-team league to do.
Everyone is going to examine the television ratings and the small number of fans in the stands and compare them to NFL or college crowds, or the MLB ratings. They’re going to look at the attendance and instantly declare whether the league will survive.
It’s fools’ gold. Ratings were strong for the first week and then dropped off. The quality of play has remained strong and the games are competitive. Attendance has only been fair for the games the local team Birmingham has played in.
Recognize, how big is the audience for a spring football minor league? It’s not that big. Spring is about baseball season, proms, and graduation. Soon it will be summer and going to the beach. Not many people are interested in a minor league football operation.
The USFL can’t immediately lose in the battle of public opinion when the ratings drop. Sports still draw big ratings when compared to other television programs. The USFL ratings will look good compared to other serial TV shows, NHL playoffs but not the Super Bowl.
It’s about the quarterbacks
Football at every level is all about quarterbacks. In the pros, it means leadership, throwing accuracy and grace under fire.
In college football, throw in the same characteristics, but also a bit more athleticism. Great college quarterbacks are usually run-pass threats. Even in high school football, the trend is to just make your best athlete the quarterback and let him (or her) run the football.
The thing is, there just aren’t that many good quarterbacks out there. The USFL should do everything it can to let as many quarterbacks play, either mandate two each play a half or something. It’s the one position left in sports that needs real playing time to develop.
If the USFL can find one or two excellent quarterbacks, it would go a long way toward making it relevant.
Innovation, thy name internet
Sports leagues still struggle with this. It can be confusing for a local sports fan to find out when/where/what channel their favorite team is on.
The USFL needs to make it easy for fans to find the games, and have them when they want, where they want.
Streaming of every game on any device on demand. That’s the only way you’ll spark a new generation of fans.
As far as the on-the-field gameplay, sure, a new first down measuring system is nice, and a faster-paced game with new overtime and extra point rules grabs some headlines, but it won’t keep fans tuning in every week.
Besides, this is not the NFL, the USFL is not going to be appointment viewing, especially not at the start.
I give the USFL a ton of credit for being innovative already. The draft was on Twitter, with each pick being posted as it happened. It already has created a cool visual identity for the teams.
It went with eight of the old franchise names, catnip for old guys like me, but gave the logos a 21st-century spin.
Yes, the old USFL was last century.
But, all the best players are already taken
The old USFL had some of the best players in the world at the time. Eventual Pro Football Hall of Famers played in the USFL, like:
- Jim Kelly
- Reggie White
- Steve Young
- Sam Mills
Team names were original, the color schemes were rad. The gameplay was excellent.
Yes, sure, Donald Trump kind of loused things up, but still, the league was never a major ratings hit. I don’t see how the new USFL lasts very long either.
What is always evident whenever one of these new football leagues show up is that all the stars are taken already.
New USFL games will be plodding dull affairs, why? Because all the best players are already taken.
It will be a league of a bunch of players who all run 4.6 in the 40-yard dash.
There won’t be many (if any) stars that emerge. In a way, that kind of balance is cool, it places a premium on execution and strategy, but America doesn’t want to see that over and over again.
It wants the 75-yard touchdown run, the 2-minute drill, and the game-winning field goal. That’s where I see the USFL falling short. That’s the critic in me.
The 10-year-old in me still remembers the phone calls to my friends to get the live updates.
The 10-year-old hopes the league succeeds despite itself.