Will spring football ever work?

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Officially, XFL 2.0 gets an I not an F, because the pandemic killed the resurrected league long before normal market forces had a chance to do the job. So with another spring league gone, the question becomes will any spring league ever make it?

Spring football always will have a hard time because people don’t care as much about football when it’s not football season. The spread of legalized sports betting may change that, a bit. But the betting industry will need to be rebuilt post-pandemic, and more states will need to come online with legal sports wagering to create the most robust nationwide appetite possible. (Actually, the financial damage created by the pandemic may accelerate the process of legalizing sports wagering, and it may persuade states that otherwise wouldn’t have adopted it to do so in order to better balance state budgets.)

An alternative professional football league that plays during football season — with nationally-televised games on Tuesday and Wednesday nights — makes a ton of sense, providing football viewing and football betting opportunities every day of the week.

Then there’s the lingering appetite for football the way it used to be played, with the kind of brutality that the NFL has legislated out of the game over the course of the past decade. It’s surprising that no one has launched a football league embracing old-school football. Yes, many would object. Many would complain. Many would protest.

And many would watch, reasoning that the players are fully aware of the risks and that they are willing to assume them, no different than other sports that entail much greater risk of short-term and long-term brain trauma, like MMA and boxing.

Regardless of whether new-school or old-school football would work in the spring, it likely will take some time for someone to give it another try. First, the world will need to get back to something approaching normal. Second, more legalized gambling will be needed. Third, fans will have to truly want it. The longer sports are gone, the greater the chance that habits and taste will change, permanently.

Just as no one knows when games will start, no one knows whether fans will return to the games, especially if the games are new and different from the pre-pandemic sporting events.

19 responses to “Will spring football ever work?

  1. The NFL is too rich and powerful to be challenged . Spring leagues like the XFL aren’t sustainable because they only appeal to an limited audience at a time of year that presents many other opportunities for people to watch and do other things . I think even a minor league system linked to the NFL directly would only survive with ownership and financial support from the NFL not as an independent league . Vince McMahon would have had a better chance of making money investing in kazoo factory then a spring football league .

  2. I don’t think it’s because it’s not football season. I think it’s because it’s not NFL teams and players. If NFL teams played year round, people would watch. American football fans gravitate either to a college team or NFL team or both. Trying to get someone interested in a new league with unknown players is like taking a Yankees fan and making them watch the Yankees AA farm team. Yes, it’s still baseball, but not the name recognition or quality or competition of the real Yankees.

  3. Yes it can work. Just need people running it that understand how to televise it to the audience. So far, that hasn’t happened. The AFF league was run by people that didn’t have a clue, and the XFL was run by a guy who made billions running a fake wrestling league. He didn’t fail. He was just a victim of this unfortunate virus. The USFL was a great league. I don’t remember if that was a spring league. But I think it can work, and I think there is a bigger appetite for it now than there was before. I’m not even talking about the virus. I’m talking about all the people that play Fantasy Football, and all the draftniks. There’s a huge audience, but the league owners need to learn how to reach those people. Someone like Mike Mayock would be awesome being involved in the telecasts, and promoting all the talent. He understands TV. He understands what NFL personnel people are looking for. And he understands prospects. They key to the whole thing is having the right guy in the booth.

  4. Spring Football can exist, but these leagues aren’t taking the right steps. The UFL had it partially right by targeting football starved markets with teams. Both the AAFL and XFL messed up by putting teams in markets that already have an NFL Franchise.

    The other problem is talent. You have talent and formerly marquee players out there that weren’t approached or signed. Like it or not, he XFL would have had higher ratings and attendance with Johnny Football, Colin Kaepernick, Tim Tebow ect as QB’s in the league. Likewise giving a guy like Josh Gordon a deal to come in draws interest, let’s fans know you are going to put out a competitive product.

    Likewise on the coaching. Bring in a few solid former NFL coaches instead of lower level failure type of guys. It would pique peoples interest far more if your coaches are guys like Jim Caldwell, Marvin Lewis, Ken Whisenhunt, Eric Mangini ect.

    Also, they need better names, logos and uniforms. XFL actually did pretty well with this one, but some improvement was still needed. Uniforms wise do like the Oregon Ducks, have numerous uniform alternates for each team.

    Lastly, marketing. Gotta get merchandise out there and get people excited and buying it. Most of these Leagues don’t have that. They sell a tiny amount of merch on the League website and that’s it. Get your merch in the stores like the Arena League did, Target and Wal Mart and Amazon.

  5. Hopefully, once the virus has a vaccine that is in use, Mr. McMan will try one more time. Perhaps in 2022.

  6. charliecharger you are wrong . Name one minor league of a pro sport succeeded as a stand alone successful televised league . Doesn’t matter if it’s football or not you can’t make money off of a minor league . Like I said the NFL is too strong to be challenged so any other league would be considered second rate . Not sure where this huge audience you refer to that would watch since they have failed to show up through the multiple failures of football leagues throughout the years . The USFL had some success because then they tried to compete with the NFL but the money wasn’t there for long term survival . Here’s a little background on the demise of the USFL from Wikipedia below .
    In 1985, the USFL voted to move from a spring to a fall schedule in 1986 to compete directly with the NFL. This was done at the urging of New Jersey Generals majority owner Donald Trump and a handful of other owners as a way to force a merger between the leagues. As part of this strategy, the USFL filed an antitrust lawsuit against the National Football League in 1986, and a jury ruled that the NFL had violated anti-monopoly laws. However, in a victory in name only, the USFL was awarded a judgment of just $1, which under antitrust laws, was tripled to $3.[2] This court decision effectively ended the USFL’s existence. The league never played its planned 1986 season, and by the time it folded, it had lost over US$163 million (over $381 million in 2019 dollars).

  7. The biggest mistake people make when talking about Spring Football is assuming that it’s meant to compete with the NFL, it’s not.

    The XFL was averaging roughly 18,000 in attendance, how did the NBA/NHL compare?

    The XFL was routinely beating the NHL and NBA in television ratings combined when they went head to head.

    The mistake people make is assuming that it’s a failure because they’re not mirroring the NFL with 70k tickets sold and 25 million people tuning in. It was never intended to compete with the NFL.

  8. The only way an alternate league would work is too have a different twist to the game but keep the root of the game. Arena football lasted bc it had a twist of a close-quarters field and was almost all passing and up tempo. No attempt to change or revolutionize the game, just something that was a little different and drew just enough interest.

    A spring league would have to have the same concept. It would have to be something like a 200 lb and under league that would be fast and violent because two, say 180 pound guys, hitting each other isn’t gonna cause the momentum to cause a concussion in the same force a 275 pound linebacker hitting a 255 lb tight end both with 4.4 speed would. Also no one in that league would run a 4.4, therefore not generating the huge momentum coupled with the mass of NFL players, that causes rampant concussions; if guys in that league ran 4.4 they’d be in the NFL anyway. That would be a fast and tough fought league.

    Or, go with 8 man football. That plays very fast also with more exciting chunk plays mixed with 3 yards and a cloud of dust.

    But whatever is tried next, it has to be 32 teams, in the same or nearly the same market or you have no connective appeal. Also, the uniforms have to be traditional and old school bc you have to be able to visually stomach the product or your eyes will turn off to it. In other words quit the fixation with neon green or color rushes. No one normal likes watching grown men play in what looks like children’s pajamas. It’s visually unappealing in addition to looking immature and just plain stupid and yes that does in fact matter.

  9. charliecharger
    As I suspected from many of ur posts you sound like a younger person. And now based on the fact that you “don’t remember if the USFL was a spring league” and yet offer opinions on your memory of its quality. Kind of funny.

    Here is a concise reminder/history lesson….
    It was a spring/summer league
    The proposition to challenge the NFL and play in the fall is what doomed it.
    They sued the NFL for antitrust and won 1 dollar.

  10. Like someone said above me the USFL WAS succesful until 2 owners got GREDDY. Mainly Trump and the LA owner. If it was left alone and stayed in the spring I’m convinced it would STILL be active today.

  11. The XFL was well on its way. The coronavirus pandemic has affected businesses in this country in many ways. I would ask those who dance on its grave with “I told you so! I told you it’d never work!” (as a sidenote, why do there seem to be SO many supposed football fans who take pleasure in watching football leagues fail?) how many businesses in general failed or will fail because of this crisis. I think we’d say that the answer is “many”. So why do we suddenly have a problem with saying that for the XFL? It’s business whose primary means of revenue collection and expansion are related to drawing crowds. It’s okay to say a bar shut down because coronavirus cleared out its floor, but it’s not okay to say that a football league failed because coronavirus cleared out its crowd-and its players?

    There are two things said in the comments above that are very true-one is that people think that spring football is supposed to draw crowds like the NFL. That is not the case. Look at any league when it starts-the players are making scraps for money, the crowds are miniscule in comparison to what the NFL draws today, and the toughness is more important than the talent on the field. The league doesn’t make much, but it doesn’t cost much. It grows after time is spent. The product gets better, and the sustainable teams stay in until it equalizes. We just “celebrated” the NFL’s 100th season. The XFL was around for one (two technically I suppose, but of course that’s unconnected). Of course it will look pitiful. And of course the initial period will outweigh the rest when it comes to ratings. You have to build a core fanbase before the more casual fans will attend, just like when the NFL was featuring small crowds cheering for the Potsmouth Spartans and the Brooklyn Dodgers. Many teams folded, and over time the fandom grew as the league became more stable. It takes time.

    Someone also said that the talent level was a problem. That’s true. Well, maybe not the talent level, but the name recognition. When your biggest stars are Landry Jones and Cardale Jones, you’re basically drawing fans of two schools with letter difference in their initials. Everyone else sees these two as busts and has no reason to root for or expect them to suddenly play well. And, as predicted, neither one played any differently than he did in the NFL. However, the XFL was most promising when the unforeseen stars developed, the guys who just barely missed making the roster in the NFL, like Cam Phillips and P.J. Walker. The AAFL had this too, with several players going on to sign with the NFL. I would imagine that bigger names would draw more viewers to discover the actual talent hidden on XFL rosters. Of course, no high end prospect will eschew the NFL over the XFL, but as more drafts pass and more undrafted collegiate stars joined XFL rosters, more college fans would tune in to see fan favorites that they thought might have had a chance with the NFL.

    And after the XFL demonstrated viability, the stars could have been paid more, which would have helped draw them in. The thing is, you would need at least a few “anchor stars” that you know would never leave for the NFL, because they were banned or already had their shot, but have enough name recognition to draw in viewers. Guys like Tim Tebow, Trent Richardson, Johnny Manziel, Justin Blackmon, and Greg Hardy could have fit the bill for different reasons, but the fact is all of these would have drawn viewers to root for or many times against them with NO chance of them leaving for the NFL. The mistake is using these players as the FACES of the league. They are not meant to do that. They are only there to get the curious to tune in so that they can see the P.J. Walkers of the world develop into actual stars, before they inevitably leave for the NFL. And all of the former NFL players will help keep the talent level at least somewhat stable. They may not be the best players in the league, but they’re recognizeable enough to keep the league semi-legitimate. Someone also mentioned better coaches-yes, that’s a good point, but consider that many of those XFL coaches were collegiate coaches. That helped them draw in players that they had connections to in college. Most of the XFL players had stronger ties to college coaches that they played years for than they would to an NFL assistant they only knew from training camp, even though the point that the NFL assistant might be better for today’s game is also valid.

    Someone else said that uniforms and team names are big factor. They are. Football mascots and team names are different than those of other sports-soccer style “St. Louis United” or, say, “San Diego, F.C.” does not appeal to football fans, and neither does basketball style general nonspecific names like “Rhythm” or “Spark” (I know these are fictional, they’re supposed to be made up in the style of those sports). They like traditional names, animals or historical figures or what not. Some of the XFL names were generic and they should have been tied more to the actual locations (like the NFL names are), but it was the right direction. The uniforms were not all great, but mostly looked professional. Those are perfected over time, as revenue stabilizes and a fanbase builds. But I think the XFL was on the right track. Overall, I think it had a chance at success. It just needed time to stabilize and have chance at making the right calls and attracting more talent-and bigger names. Once it got to the stage where it could pay star players more, it would have made it.

  12. alonestartexan says:
    April 12, 2020 at 2:59 pm
    The biggest mistake people make when talking about Spring Football is assuming that it’s meant to compete with the NFL, it’s not.

    The XFL was averaging roughly 18,000 in attendance, how did the NBA/NHL compare?

    The XFL was routinely beating the NHL and NBA in television ratings combined when they went head to head.

    The mistake people make is assuming that it’s a failure because they’re not mirroring the NFL with 70k tickets sold and 25 million people tuning in. It was never intended to compete with the NFL.
    Television money is the only path to long term viability . That’s why spring football won’t succeed , it would take too much money to survive long enough to be in a position for enough TV money to make the league profitable . Below is an excerpt from an SI article explaining why your comparison of XFL ratings compared to the NBA and NHL isn’t really a true indication of success and points out the problem of limited games for football in potentially securing a profitable TV contract compared to the NHL , MLB and NBA .
    The value of that deal will ultimately be determined by the size of the league’s audience and the strength of its demographics, but one can’t just assume because the XFL’s ratings compare favorably to some NBA, NHL or MLB games that a billion dollar rights deal is on the horizon. “Those leagues are not the right comp. because they offer so much more inventory. They provide a different value proposition for the networks than the XFL does” (think: several games 7 days/week for 6-9 months vs. 4 games/week on Saturday/Sunday for 10 weeks).

  13. jonathankrobinson424
    Not sure I agree.
    The USFL went under because they WAY overpaid for top college talent in order to compete with the NFL. They simply did not have the revenue to support it.

    They won the antitrust lawsuit because the court ruled the NFL did engage in antitrust behavior.

    However they were awarded only one dollar because the court ruled that their financial failure was due to their own financial Mis-management.

    Their error was not “greed”. It was ambition.

    Every sports team owner is in business to make money. Period.

    Unless the UDFL stopped paying the likes of Jim Kelly huge competetive salaries (and risk them going to the NFL) they would have folded too.

  14. Mike, this is a very good question. I say no. The AAF was built on a financial house of cards and collapsed just as easily. The XFL allegedly was on firmer financial footing and it suffered the same fate. From the the USFL (I went to those games in the 80’s, too) to the XFL, these efforts are emblematic of the old saw: Fine Theory, Ugly Fact.

  15. It’s not a question of when they play but of the business model. Any successful startup league is going to need to start small with a model where they can sustain themselves fully off of attendance for an extended period of time. (Which is how MLB, the NFL, NBA, etc. all started back in the day.) It needs to mirror how Minor League Baseball operates where putting people in the seats is key and it’s viewed as affordable family entertainment. But both the AAF and XFL had completely unrealistic expectations of themselves and clearly were relying on needing to be making millions basically from Day 1.

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