- ESPN.com national NFL writer
- ESPN.com NFC North reporter, 2008-2013
- Covered Vikings for Minneapolis Star Tribune, 1999-2008
Football fans got quite a treat this week. As the NFL moved into the final stages of its preparations for the 2022 draft, two new spring leagues began a long anticipated joust for attention.
The USFL will debut Saturday night, reviving a long-lost brand and team names first established four decades ago. The XFL, meanwhile, made a series of strategically timed announcements, culminating with naming all eight of its head coaches, to preserve interest in its plans to retake the field in 2023.
The USFL has raced to the front of the starting line, moving from its public introduction to kickoff in 11 months, all while implementing an infrastructure that shares many similarities to the XFL’s 2020 product. In an interview this week, USFL executive vice president of football operations Daryl Johnston said he expects the league to “be ahead of the curve” by the time the XFL gets back on the field.
Johnston had some other thoughts about the looming competition between the leagues, which we’ll delve into as part of this deep dive into the USFL’s origins, ambitions and innovations.
Is this the same USFL from the 1980s?
No. That USFL was owned by a group of individual businessmen, including future President of the United States Donald Trump, and played for three seasons from 1983 to 1985 before dissolving. The current USFL is owned by Fox Sports and is an extension of its previous partnership with The Spring League, whose founder and chief executive officer Brian Woods is now the USFL’s president of football operations.
But they are using the USFL team names, right?
Yes, but at least for 2022, those names will be more about branding than representing local markets.
The league will use a single-site format and play all 10 weeks of its regular season at Protective Stadium in Birmingham, Alabama. Its postseason semifinal games and championship will be held at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio.
Here are the 2022 team names, all of which reference original USFL markets:
New Jersey Generals
New Orleans Breakers
Tampa Bay Bandits
The decision to use USFL branding and team names has not come without controversy. Representatives of the original owners filed a lawsuit earlier this year, alleging trademark infringement, false advertising and false association. David Bernstein, an attorney for Fox Sports and the USFL, said the allegations are “completely without merit,” and a federal judge on Thursday decided against granting a preliminary injunction against the current league using the USFL brand.
Every alternative football league has failed. What makes the USFL any different?
The league’s organizers are counting on two attributes to establish a foothold. First, its expenses will be minimized by having the single-site format. Second, it hopes to leverage the resources of its owner to create a unique television product.
According to Johnston, Saturday night’s opening game between New Jersey and Birmingham will have more production elements than any football game Fox Sports covers other than the Super Bowl. It will include, for example, two sky cams and multiple drone cameras. Two players from each team will wear helmet cams for every game and 16 players will be outfitted with microphones that will air audio from both before and after the snap.
The broadcasts will also introduce new technology to display ball placement relative to the line to gain — among other innovations — but officials will not use it to measure first downs.
“On television,” Johnston said, “it’s going to be completely different to what people are accustomed to seeing.”
Is Fox Sports the sole broadcaster?
Actually, no. The USFL has an agreement to split the broadcasts of all 43 games between Fox, NBC, FS1, USA and Peacock. (Each team will play 10 regular-season games with no bye weeks. The top four teams will then play two semifinal playoff games, followed by the championship on July 3.)
Saturday’s opener, in fact, will be simulcast by Fox, NBC and Peacock in what the USFL said will be the first scheduled sports competition to be aired simultaneously by competitors since NBC and CBS both televised Super Bowl I in January 1967.
Will there be fans in the stands?
Birmingham is a relatively small market for professional sports. But the USFL has employed aggressive ticket pricing to draw people to Protective Stadium, the new 45,000-seat facility built for the University of Alabama-Birmingham. Adult tickets are $10. Up to three children can accompany an adult for free. Games will be played on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Who will people be watching?
The USFL took an approach similar to the 2020 version of the XFL, hiring head coaches with significant name recognition and pursuing quarterbacks that most college football fans would be aware of. Here they are, with their previous head-coaching experience:
Skip Holtz (Birmingham), previously with UConn, East Carolina, South Florida and Louisiana Tech
Kevin Sumlin (Houston), previously with Houston, Texas A&M and Arizona
Jeff Fisher (Michigan), previously with Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans and St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams
Mike Riley (New Jersey), previously with Oregon State, San Diego Chargers and San Antonio Commanders (AAF)
Larry Fedora (New Orleans), previously with Southern Miss and UNC
Bart Andrus (Philadelphia), previously with Amsterdam Admirals (NFL Europe), Toronto Argonauts (CFL), Omaha Nighthawks (UFL) and The Spring League
Kirby Wilson (Pittsburgh), who has no previous head-coaching experience
Todd Haley (Tampa Bay), previously with Kansas City Chiefs
The quarterbacks include Jordan Ta’amu (Tampa Bay), Kyle Lauletta (Pittsburgh), Shea Patterson (Michigan), Clayton Thorson (Houston) and Kyle Sloter (New Orleans), among others. Ta’amu was one of the breakout stars of the XFL in 2020 and has since spent time on NFL practice squads.
What is the talent level for USFL players?
None of the players in the USFL can be on NFL offseason rosters, based on the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement. But Johnston said there was plenty of talent available for the USFL draft, in part because of a domino effect from the COVID-19 pandemic and related decisions to remain in school at the college level.
Unlike the original USFL, but more in line with recent spring leagues, the new USFL did not pursue costly elite players or seriously consider anyone who was eligible for the NFL draft. Instead, they identified a pool of 1,000 players who are at least one year removed from college football but for the most part have some professional experience, either in NFL camps or other spring leagues.
There are a total of 360 USFL roster spots this season and the league’s coaches double as the teams’ general managers.
Fisher, for one, said: “In a perfect world, a USFL player has been in an alternate league, or has been in an NFL camp and has some experience as opposed to the guy who left college but really hasn’t done anything for three or four years and now wants to give it a shot.”
Players on the active rosters will earn $4,500 per week, Woods told al.com earlier this year, and will also have the opportunity to earn bonuses based on games won.
What should we expect for the on-field product?
That is probably the biggest challenge related to the USFL’s sprint to the field. Coaches were hired in January, the draft was Feb. 22-23 and training camps lasted about three weeks. The league’s 45-man roster limit required some creative scheduling and practice planning for coaches who are accustomed to 80 or more players in camp.
“Our players are practicing full speed,” Fisher said. “We’ve had some practices with pads on. We’ve banged around a little bit. But your numbers are not such that you can have an offensive drill against a scout team defense. When you go against each other, offense against defense, it’s the starters. You’re competing. You can literally compete for six plays maybe, and then you’ve got to take a break.”
The time crunch also forced coaches to prioritize some of the individual situations they prepared for.
“You look at some things and say, for example, ‘What if we have to kick off after a safety?'” Fisher said. “What we find ourselves doing is prioritizing [some of] those and hoping [others] don’t come up, because we just didn’t have time to cover them. … There are going to be some situations that come up and it’s going to be really fun to watch to see how teams will respond.”
What will the games look like?
The USFL moved in the direction of other recent spring leagues, most notably the XFL in 2020, in hopes of speeding up the game and using rule innovation to maximize viewer attention. Some USFL rules that will be different from the traditional NFL game include:
A 35-second play clock
Three options after a touchdown: a one-point kick from the 15-yard line, a 2-point try from scrimmage at the 2-yard line and a 3-point try from scrimmage at the 10-yard line
The option to kick off or have an untimed down from their own 33-yard line in which the team retains possession if it gains 12 or more yards
Kickoffs from the 25-yard line, which Fisher predicted will nearly eliminate touchbacks
Best-of-three shootout format in overtime, where each team gets three plays from the 2-yard line, and the one with the most points after each team has three plays is the winner (after that, overtime extends to sudden death, and the first score wins)
On punts, gunners can’t line up outside the numbers and can’t be double-teamed until after the ball is kicked
A 15-yard walk-off for defensive pass interference
Multiple forward passes are allowed, as long as they are all attempted behind the line of scrimmage
NFL competition committee chairman Rich McKay said recently that the league will watch the results of the USFL’s punt scheme as it contemplates its own changes to the play.
USFL referees are supervised by former NFL officiating chief and current Fox Sports analyst Mike Pereira, and the league is using officials who are part of the NFL’s officiating development program.
How will the USFL measure success?
Johnston worked with both the AAF in 2019 and the XFL in 2020 and he said those leagues proved that demand exists for spring football, both from fans and player interest. (Both leagues debuted with television ratings that equated to major college football games but declined over time.)
But after the AAF folded because of a cash shortage, and the XFL shuttered at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Johnston said getting through a full season will be the most significant marker. Asked what success would look like, Johnston said: “Crowning a champion in Canton, Ohio, on July 3, and then popping a bottle of champagne and starting to talk about Year 2. That’s our definition of success.”
As was the case with the AAF and XFL, however, the ultimate decision will be made by ownership’s financial commitment. Fox Sports has the money to fund the USFL for multiple seasons, but there is a difference between having money and being willing to use it.
If the USFL makes it to that point, what would that mean for the XFL?
The XFL is well-funded and there is every reason to believe it will return to the field as projected. But when Johnston envisions the spring of 2023, he sees a USFL that has hit its stride competing against an XFL that will “be going through all the growing pains that we’re going to go through this year.”
Johnston recalled the AAF explicitly pushing in 2019 to beat the XFL to the field, based in part on concerns about the level of talent available at the time. USFL players signed two-year contracts, which could lead to a legal challenge if they try to sign with the XFL next year. But Johnston said that the sheer size of this year’s draft pool “maybe shifts things a little bit.” The question moving forward is not about talent as much as it is about competing for the eyes of a finite pool of interested fans.
“I don’t know if it’s so much a race to see who gets there first,” Johnston said. “It’s now that we’re offset by a year, and who has that experience? It goes back to our [television] partners. Where would [the XFL] be able to compete with us when we talk about the presentation of the product? Let’s say the product is the same on the field, which I think is going to be a challenge for them to be able to match us, but how do you then deliver that to the fan? When you’re talking about Fox and NBC as partners, I don’t think there is a way for the XFL to match what we have created there in the ability to broadcast the USFL into television for the fans.”
The XFL declined to comment.
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