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USFL II: Dead on Arrival

Another spring season has arrived, and while the NFL off-season grinds past the draft and towards the schedule release, we the consumers are blessed with another “novel” upstart league to whet our appetites for football in the meantime.

This time it’s a real throwback, one that has been about a decade in the making if you were paying attention. After years of rumors and failed launches, the United States Football League has returned, albeit a much tamer version when compared to its progenitor from the 1980s. And while I may have been excited to see the USFL return if this happened a decade ago, my opinion on spring football has soured considerably in that time.

Due to the nature of it being a minor league, I wholeheartedly expect the new USFL to fail after this season for one simple reason: it’s a minor league that’s afraid of being a minor league.

First let’s look at the attendance and viewership of its opening weekend. On Easter weekend four games were played at Protective Stadium in Birmingham, Alabama, the league’s “hub” city. The first game between the Birmingham Stallions and New Jersey Generals managed to draw a respectable crowd. According to league officials, “around 17,500 for the game, though about 40,000 tickets were sold or distributed.”

One thing I’ve noticed is that a new spring league usually draws well on its opening weekend, everyone wants to be a part of history so seeing a new football league kick off is a great way to satisfy that feeling. But in the ensuing days, attendance dwindled. Of course, there are some valid reasons as to why this was the case. It was Easter weekend after all, and the weather was so bad that one of the games had to be postponed to Monday night. Valid reasons for why attendance at such an event may be lackluster.

But therein lies another piece of the equation: viewership, which proved to follow this similar trend. Generals-Stallions garnered 3.07 million views and a Nielson rating of 1.8, but it only trends downwards from there. Gamblers-Panthers: 2.15 million, 1.1 rating; Breakers-Stars: 0.77 million, 0.4 rating; Bandits-Maulers: 0.27 million, 0.06 rating. These games are being carried on major networks too, these games aren’t hard to find. Fox Sports, NBC Sports, Peacock, USA Network, and FS1 are all under contract to broadcast USFL games this spring.

In the following weeks, the situation hasn’t improved. But what is causing this downward trend so early on? To understand this, we need to understand the components of a modern spring football league, and its true purpose in the wider ecosystem of American football, namely technological innovation and entertainment value.

While a minor league in any sport has substantial drawbacks set before them, from subpar talent to a general lack of support, there are also some unique advantages afforded from their position. For one thing, they’re allowed to innovate more whereas larger, more established leagues are generally slower in accepting change. The original USFL pioneered the two-point conversion, which was adopted by the NFL some years later.  It also pioneered the use challenging rulings using instant replay, another feature of the game that was later adopted by their triumphant competitor.

In this department, the new USFL is certainly trying to come up with some novel developments of its own, albeit minor. Their main changes are allowing for 3-point attempts after touchdowns and experimenting with a 35-second game clock to make the game run faster.

In the realm of technology, the league is experimenting with things such as helmet cameras to allow first-person perspectives of players in action and Bolt6 cameras that use light detection to spot the ball more accurately. Because of this the league isn’t even using a chain crew. Tracking chips in the football and first down laser lines are fine additions, but technological innovation alone a football league does not make, and in this is where the new USFL is sorely lacking.

Along with being a minor league, an added benefit is that the league doesn’t have to take itself too seriously. There’s a reason that the NFL is called the “No Fun League” when it cracks down on touchdown celebrations and sack dances, because the league itself isn’t just a league, but an institution of American culture. It must present a clean and professional image, whether the fans want it to or not. The power of institutions comes from their appearance, from the perception of their power, and to lose face would be to lose power. The NFL is rigid because it must be, but minor leagues don’t have to adhere to that same framework.

By contrast, let’s look at the re-launched XFL. The league was hyped up for months on ESPN and social media, where you had guys like Pat MacAfee regularly talking about it on his podcast. Running the show was Vince McMahon, perhaps the greatest presenter of all-time. It learned from the mistakes of the original XFL in the early 2000s and let it be a football league, but a high energy one.

By comparison, there was seemingly no enthusiasm for the new USFL. The most newsworthy development to come out of the league (so far) was when Pittsburgh Maulers running back De’Veon Smith was cut from the team for wanting pizza instead of a chicken salad. That was the main headline to come out of opening weekend, not the pre-game hype or the actual games themselves which barely anyone saw. An overbearing a response from a league that desperately wants you to take it seriously.

Another recent example would be Fan Controlled Football (FCF), an indoor league that brought Madden NFL to the real world and allows fans to call the plays that the players execute on-field. Instead of a coin toss, possession is decided by a game of rock, paper, scissors. Each team has “power ups” they can use: Fifth Down (an extra down), Flip the Field (moving the ball back to the opponents 10-yard line), and Power Play (forcing the opposing team to use only six players for one play).

But another advantage the FCF has is its star power: Johnny Manziel, the perennial burnout, and Terrell Owens, the rowdy legend who refuses to die. The best the USFL can offer right now is Kyle Sloter, who while tearing up the field with his play, was otherwise a third stringer at best in the NFL. And he didn’t have nearly the entertainment value that Manziel or Owens had.

FCF and the relaunched XFL are examples of that minor league football should be: self-aware. They know their status in the larger ecosystem of American football and use it to their advantage, to experiment with new technology and be as entertaining as possible. If this were a jungle, the NFL would be the proud lion watching over the pride lands from his perch while the FCF and XFL would be the cackling monkey’s hurling feces at each other. Maybe it isn’t much, but it’s still entertaining to watch.

We live in an era where no other football league can truly compete with the NFL anymore. It’s simply too big, with an expansive history and near unlimited resources at its disposal. Like I previously said, the NFL is an institution. Any new leagues that come into existence now only exist in greater service of this institution. Any rule changes they experiment with or technology they use will potentially be absorbed by the NFL after the fact, only when enough time has passed to separate the innovations from the leagues that made them, which will have faded into the public memory. The XFL knew this and played it to their strength by being as entertaining as it could be, while the new USFL appears to have no vision of what it wants to be.

As I have seen footage of USFL games from their second and third weeks, their attendance situation looks no better, even with nicer weather and no holidays preventing others from attending games. Looking at viewership numbers for the second and third weeks shows a downward trend. Truthfully, I don’t think this league will have a second season next spring. The XFL is slated to return, this time led by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s ownership group, which means more memes and more hype that the new USFL will never have.

In a way it’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy in how everyone expects it to fail, and the league thus fails. Then again, it just doesn’t bring anything new to the table. It drudges up the old USFL name, recycles some random teams from the old league despite them not even playing in their respective markets, and isn’t even entertaining to watch. The USFL name should’ve been left in the 1980s, alongside Die Hard and trickle-down economics. But alas, our late-capitalist society demands that old brands be recycled, because nostalgia is a sweet, low-hanging fruit.

If there is one thing to take away from all of this, it’s to make sure to visit the league website and buy your merchandise now before it closes forever. It may be the only chance you have before the new USFL is tossed into the dust bin of other failed spring leagues.

(Photo Credit: Vasha Hunt – USA TODAY Sports)

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