USFL 2.0 – Play to Strengths, Learn from Mistakes

Not to pile on but many Detroit pro football fans are looking beyond this season to better things ahead in 2022.  A top draft pick appears to be in the cards for the Lions next Spring but even more interestingly is the announcement this past week of the return of the storied USFL (United States Football League) in April.  Skeptical of its long-term success? Get in line. Yet, when examining the amended approach to starting things up after more than 35 years away, pro football outside of Fall may well be ready to bloom again.

I have to admit I’m a sucker for this stuff. I was mesmerized in 1974-75 with the advent of the World Football League, including its signing of superstars Larry Czonka and Jim Kiick away from the Miami Dolphins, only to see it flounder after just over a year. The Alliance of American Football didn’t fare much better in 2018-19 and there have been too many others to mention in between. For sports nuts, new options for viewing, including introductions of new and colorful team names, logos and uniform colors, can be as tough to look away from as toys are for children at Christmas. That wow factor will be returning with the USFL along with one other key factor: history. And that makes for a powerful running mate in nostalgia.

The league was much beloved from 1983-1985, including here in Detroit with the Michigan Panthers winning the league’s first ever Championship. As the upstart USFL marketed and promoted fun and doing things a little differently at that time (including exuberant endzone celebrations and the advent of instant replay), passionate fan followings were built in cities across the country. It wasn’t all wine and roses, of course, with some teams under-drawing and eventually moving and/or merging with others, yet, the early model seemed to work.

All that said, the new USFL is approaching this iteration with appropriate caution and a much revised approach to its business model. Part of the problem in the 1980s was owners who would not stay on the same page in terms of expenditures and long-term strategy. It was fun for us to watch the USFL snatch two back-to-back Heisman Trophy winners (Hershel Walker and Mike Rozier) and other top college talent (Jim Kelly and Steve Walsh), yet, salaries were soon skyrocketing, out of hand and affecting bottom lines. Team owners worked to lick fiscal wounds by selling new franchise rights to others – as the league swelled from 12 to an excessive 18 teams by year two. A move toward Fall football and competing head-to-head with the NFL would bring the final nail.

What do they say about insanity? This time around, the league will initially possess a single owner in Fox Sports and the broadcast network’s $150 million investment over three years. To keep expenses down there will also be one-city point of play in the short term. A league playing all games in just one city is not unheard of in short term situations but is not sustainable in the long term for building and maintaining fan interest and excitement, not to mention ticket sales.

The new USFL’s greatest strength, alluded to previously, will be its ability to market and promote teams that were beloved and have been missed for decades. A downscaled eight teams will start things off, including the Panthers and Generals and other recognizable squads from the previous era, all maintaining their heritage names and logos – and fan passion for and from the days of yore.

To succeed, the USFL 2.0 is attempting to learn from past mistakes, including controlling the narrative and bottom line. In the days ahead, it will be interesting to see how the league utilizes other best practices from the past along with new PR tools it did not have in the 1980s – most notably digital and social media. And, as additional investors are brought into the fray, one hopes incoming league decision makers will have read up on history and opt to take a road better traveled. Nearly 40 years may have passed, but the mantra: “United we stand, divided we fall” has never been more apropos, while, teamwork will be vital – in the locker room and in the boardroom.