The Next NBA? Or Just The Next UFL?

I don’t know about you, but if I were to run into Dwayne Johnson in a cab line and he asked me to allow him to take the next one, not only would I step aside, I’d probably to offer to pick up his fare.  Yeh, I admit I’ve got a soft spot for people who’ve spent time in Florida born in 1972.

But my own nature of favoritism aside, Johnson, who toiled for years in the world of Vince McMahon’s professional wrestling before becoming a highly successful actor and entrepreneur, also continues to find ways to keep passion projects of McMahon’s alive, despite any true empirical evidence that suggests there’s a reason.  Other than, of course, sheer desperation, and the inexorable belief among most sports programming executives that pro football, even when it’s that in name only, remains far and away the most desirable form of content any time of year.

For more than four decades professional spring football leagues have come and gone, starting with the original United States Football League that burst onto ABC and the still-nascent USFL in 1983.  They actually found a fairly decent audience with their counterprogramming, particularly in the wake of an NFL season that had been ripped apart by a strike that reduced the regular season to just nine games.  As most historians know, the greed of a subset of owners, led by one particularly odious one who employed a future candidate for the Georgia senate, led that league to an early and expensive demise. 

Subseqent attempts over the ensuing decades have fared even worse, most notably the XFL that McMahon was able to convince an NBC desperate for some form of pro football after losing NFL rights to CBS to launch in spring 2001.  Using elements of bravado and hype that made WWE a rousing success for USA, the first XFL crashed and burned after a single season, its most notable acheievement delaying a live broadcast of Saturday Night Live for an overtime game in Los Angeles that yours truly actually attended.  A second attempt launched in February 2020, on the heels of the one-and-done Alliance of American Football, was derailed by COVID after only five games.  And a revival of the USFL backed by a content-desperate FOX Sports, who acquired the rights to the league’s IP, that was launched in 2022 was anything but a rousing success–though it filled a spring programming void for the company, particularly college-heavy FOX Sports 1, at a time of year when neither football nor basketball are going on.

Into this landscape, Johnson acquired the assets of the XFL for a bargain basement $15 million and launched a third iteration last spring, going head-to-head with the USFL.  XFL 3.0, unlike USFL 2.0, actually played their games in eight different cities before actual hometown crowds.  Some were smaller than some high schools.  But at least they actually played there.  The USFL borrowed the bubble concept from the pandemic, more for cost-effectiveness than safety, and played their games in three “hub” cities–Birmingham, Memphis and Detroit.

Neither spring league set any records last year when they played overlapping seasons.  But Johnson is undaunted.  Indeed, he’s found some well-heeled partners and given both his league and the USFL new life, and used this past holiday weekend’s NFL and college pregame shows to announce details.  As VARIETY’s Meredith Woerner reported:

The XFL and USFL have unveiled key details of the merged football franchise that will debut next March.

The two formerly competing leagues officially confirmed their new name and logo as the United Football League on Sunday. Dwayne Johnson and Dany Garcia, who resurrected the XFL back in 2020, revealed the plans on Fox’s NFL pregame show.

We wanted to join forces for a few reasons,” Johnson said on air. “I think number one to grow the game of football. It’s a game that we all love, and create opportunities for players and we all know how important that is. And also, deliver for the fans. If you think about it, this is thirty years of spring football starting and stopping, starting and stopping. So this merger between USFL and XFL, it feels like we got a shot to establish that spring football is here to stay.”

And as FORBES’ Ty Roush added, like the mergers of the media world, there’s gonna be some shakeout and movement of deck chairs:

The UFL will include five teams from the XFL and three teams from the USFL: the D.C. Defenders, Arlington Renegades, Houston Roughnecks, San Antonio Brahmas, St. Louis Battlehawks, Birmingham Stallions, Memphis Showboats and Michigan Panthers, according to the Washington Post.

The merger will close some teams from both leagues, including franchises based in Orlando, Seattle, Las Vegas, Houston, New Orleans, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, though it is not immediately known how players from those teams will be included in the new league.

Not that the fans of New Orleans, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, let alone the fans of the 2022 New Jersey Generals, will miss going to these teams’ games.  Fox resurrected these franchises in name only; these iterations never played a down in those markets.  The Houston Gamblers “competed” with the Roughnecks only for merchandise, not for tickets.

Matt Young of THE HOUSTON CHRONICLE–the only city to have teams in both leagues–added some additional details on who’s making the cut:

Every coach in the new league was in the XFL or USFL last season with five of the eight coaches remaining with the same team: Arlington’s Bob Stoops, Michigan’s Mike Nolan, Birmingham’s Skip Holtz, St. Louis’ Anthony Becht and D.C.’s Reggie Barlow. John DeFilippo, who coached the New Orleans Breakers in the USFL, will lead the Memphis Showboats. Phillips replaces Hines Ward in San Antonio.

Former XFL president Russ Brandon will hold the same title in the UFL and former Cowboys fullback Daryl Johnston, who was the USFL’s president of football operations, will lead the new league’s football operations.

To me, it sounds like yet another Hail Mary.  A few more optimistic souls on social media suggested that comparisons can be made between the early days of two professional basketball leagues called the NBL and the BAA.  After years of struggling, they merged to form the NBA in 1949.  I think you know what’s happened since.

And, as FORBES’ Roush reminds, it’s not like nobody’s been paying attention to the two spring leagues.  Bubbles and all, the USFL attracted an average of 751,000 viewers for its 2023 games.  The XFL, despite its previous failures tainting its launch, delivered an average of 627,000 viewers for its slate.  Look around at what spring college sports deliver.  Not too shabby.

Still, the choice of name leaves something to be desired.  While the need for an NFL minor league has never been great, a previous league called the UFL tried to fill the “void”.  As Wikipedia recalls:

The United Football League (UFL) was a professional American football minor league based in the United States that began play in October 2009 and played four seasons, the final one being cut short in October 2012. The small league, which never had more than five teams playing at one time, played most of its games in markets where the National Football League (NFL) had no current presence.

It’s not a particularly impressive or memorable existence, so it’s no surprise that Johnson, Garcia et al probably weren’t paying much attention to this history.  But the teams that did play did make it through four years.

Let’s see if this UFL and its teams can equal that.

Courage…

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