UFL: A major challenge to stay minor
Carl Peterson was the most successful executive in the late, great United States Football League, which during the mid-1980s tried to carve out a niche in the NFL-dominated pro football world. His Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars won the last two championships in the league's three-year existence; and later, he spent two decades as the top football man for the Kansas City Chiefs.
Recently, Peterson was asked to assess the viability of another would-be challenger to the NFL, the United Football League, which kicks off a six-week premiere season this coming October. After making a number of duly diligent calls -- including conversations with two of the new league's four head coaches -- Peterson offered an insightful and detailed analysis.
When asked if the league would succeed, Peterson paused, chuckled, then paused again.
"Extremely difficult," he said in his deep baritone. "This is a precipitous time because the economy is affecting all of professional sports, even the National Football League."
Yes, even the NFL is reportedly in the process of cutting 150 jobs, 14 percent of its workforce. So how can another new professional football league possibly survive, even if it has an initially modest business plan?
"If you look at the definition of visionary," said Michael Huyghue, the UFL's commissioner, "it's doing something when everybody else is sitting on their hands."
Huyghue knows something about start-ups. In 1995, he was the general manager of the NFL expansion team in Jacksonville. In their second season, the Jaguars were in the AFC Championship Game. Still, his friends in the NFL gave him a hard time when they learned he would be overseeing the new league.
"The presumption is, 'Don't you know this doesn't work? Look at the history books. You must be a glutton for punishment,'" Huyghue said. "They thought it was a pretty big reach.
"But once I explained things to people -- the underserved markets, the quality of athletes out there -- I found almost wholesale support to do it. The personnel people we have, GMs from the NFL, the head coaches these people couldn't all be drinking the Kool-Aid."
The history books say that six different outdoor leagues have come into existence during the NFL's long and steady climb to the top of professional sports. The first two attempts appreciably changed the composition of the NFL. Three teams from the All-America Football Conference were absorbed by the NFL in 1950; and 20 years later, the American Football League merged 10 of its teams with the NFL.
In the 39 intervening years, there have been three high-profile challenges to the NFL's growing dominance -- the World Football League, the USFL and the XFL -- plus two other quirkier experiments: the indoor Arena Football League, and the NFL-funded World League of American Football in all of its various incarnations.
Not one of those entities is in business today.
Smaller and smarter?
The underlying premise of the UFL's launch is to meet untapped demand.
League executives cite a 2007 ESPN/The Sports Network poll indicating that half of those who describe themselves as avid NFL fans have never attended a game. Scaling UFL tickets at an average price of $20, the reasoning goes, should make the new league's games an easy destination and turn the UFL into an attractive alternative in these difficult economic times.
Other leagues have challenged the NFL with varying degrees of success, but none has survived. Here is what the past could teach the UFL.All-America Football Conference (1946-49) -- The first league to take on the National Football League. After four seasons, three teams of the original eight (the Browns, Colts and 49ers) matriculate to the NFL. Baltimore and San Francisco win a combined four of 24 games, but Cleveland wins the NFL title in its first season. American Football League (1960-69) -- After the AFL's New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs win the third and fourth Super Bowls against the NFL, 10 AFL franchises join the established league in 1970. World Football League (1974-75) -- Twelve teams take part in the inaugural season, with 11 surviving for a second year. In the end, paying top dollar to sign marquee players such as Larry Csonka, Paul Warfield and Jim Kiick away from the NFL proves to be an unsound business plan. United States Football League (1983-85) -- The USFL, in an effort to compete with the NFL, eventually departs from its original plan of spring play and modest spending, highlighted by Donald Trump, owner of the New Jersey Generals, signing Heisman Trophy winners Herschel Walker and Doug Flutie. The league wins an antitrust lawsuit, but the jury's $1 award -- $3 with treble damages -- is not enough to save it. Arena Football League (1987-2008) -- A modest, shrunk-down, indoor version of the game, remains viable for more than two decades. Average attendance swells to nearly 13,000 in 2008, but operating costs cause the league to cancel the 2009 season. The minor league af2 still operates and the AFL says it plans to return in 2010. World League of American Football (1991-2007) -- Supported by the NFL, the spring league begins play in 1991 with 10 teams, three of them based in Europe. After two seasons, the league folds, but relaunches in 1995 as an all-European developmental venue. After morphing into NFL Europe and NFL Europa, the league closes its doors for good in 2007. XFL (2001) -- A product of the combined creative forces of wrestling czar Vince McMahon and NBC's Dick Ebersol, the XFL lasts only a single season. Crazy rules -- at the start of the game, two players raced for the ball to determine possession -- unfamiliar names and insufficient capital doom the league to failure.
"Ironically, we're thinking our message might get better heard," said Frank Vuono, the UFL's chief operating officer. "You can't be economically viable and compete with the NFL. We need to be smaller, smarter and more mobile.
"We have pretty humble expectations."
Of course, that's what executives of most of the earlier leagues said when they entered the business of professional football. Small, at least at the outset, is the cautious credo.
Four teams -- New York/Hartford, Orlando, Las Vegas/Los Angeles and San Francisco/Sacramento -- will play a six-week season in the UFL, concluding with a championship game on Thanksgiving weekend. Games will be played on Thursday and Friday nights to avoid conflicts with the NFL and, for the most part, college. Rosters will be stocked, with regional priority, from the pool of players released by NFL teams in training camp. San Francisco will have first rights to players cut from the AFC and NFC West rosters, while New York owns the AFC and NFC East, with Orlando getting AFC and NFC South players and Las Vegas the AFC and NFC North players.
There is a proposed salary cap of $12-20 million for each team's players and a $3 million cap for staff salaries, including the four head coaches: Dennis Green, Jim Fassel, Jim Haslett and Ted Cottrell. With the exception of Cottrell, all have been NFL head coaches but failed to land a current lead NFL job despite a recent spate of openings.
Going forward, the plan is to have a second-year draft and slowly expand the league to between 10 and 12 teams, as well as increase the length of the season. The UFL has positioned its franchises mostly in places without NFL competition. Three teams will play home games in two markets to see where the interest lies. League officials point to Los Angeles as a sprawling, underserved market; but the recent suspension of operations by the Los Angeles Avengers of the Arena Football League suggests the City of Angels might still be immune to the pleasures of pro football.
The UFL was founded by Wall Street investor Bill Hambrecht, once a minority partner in the USFL's Oakland franchise, and former Google executive Tim Armstrong. Paul Pelosi, husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, is also part of the roster of investors that paid a collective $30 million for the four franchises
"These aren't fly-by-night people," Huyghue said. "We have strong individual owners who understand this is not necessarily a stepping-stone to the NFL."
One of the wrinkles not available to leagues of the more distant past: UFL teams plan to go public, offering IPOs sometime next year.
"One of the things I love is the potential to have the public own shares in the team," Vuono said. "Somebody who owns even one share is going to have a vested interest."
Perhaps, but in this troubled climate, how many will invest?
The UFL has put together a solid management team that has roots in the NFL. But the most critical piece, according to Steve Erhardt, the former general manager of the USFL's Memphis Showboats, will be a consistent supply of ready cash.
"Is there enough money out there to mount a sufficient challenge?" asked Erhardt, now the executive director of the Auto Zone Liberty Bowl. "To be frank, that's what happened with the USFL. If we had the cash to weather that last battle, I think it would still be going or there would have been a merger.
"It's like fast food; Wendy's wasn't created overnight. Most small businesses fail because they under-capitalize. Does the UFL have the capital? It will take many millions to stay the course."
Fassel was The Associated Press 1997 NFL Coach of the Year. He took the New York Giants to the Super Bowl at the end of the 2000 season and he's worked with gifted quarterbacks John Elway and Phil Simms during his coaching career.
But here is one thing you won't readily find on his résumé: He threw the very last pass in the history of the World Football League in 1975. Fassel, a quarterback at Long Beach State, played briefly for the Hawaiians in 1974, then was recalled for one last game -- the last game -- in 1975.
Fassel's next assignment is to coach the Las Vegas/Los Angeles franchise in the UFL.
He's already grown weary of folks asking whether his new job will help or hurt his chances of returning to the NFL.
"I don't care," Fassel said from his New Jersey home. "It doesn't have to lead anywhere. I'm excited to be on the ground floor of a new venture."
What, he was asked, will prevent the UFL from following the WFL and all its brethren into obscurity?
"Financial discipline," Fassel answered quickly. "We may not be the NFL; but if we don't take on the NFL, it can be a workable business."
Another important factor is television. Currently, four networks are paying a total of more than $20 billion for the privilege of broadcasting NFL games through 2011. The UFL and Versus signed a deal that requires the cable network to broadcast a national game for each of six weeks; neither side would reveal the terms of the agreement.
"We saw the great management team and a sound plan for launch of the league," said Jeff Goldberg, a Versus vice president of programming. "It had a nice fit with our other programming and brand."
National Hockey League games on Versus average approximately a 0.3 rating -- representing roughly 350,000 homes (a single ratings point constitutes 1.145 million homes) -- but the network declined to specify a number that would be acceptable for its UFL broadcasts.
"We wouldn't have done the deal if we didn't think it had a viable shot," Goldberg said. "[Of] all the start-up football leagues that have come around, this one had a great management team. This one has a shot, a real good one."
One factor that could potentially help the young league survive is the NFL's current state of labor unrest. Last year, NFL owners voted unanimously to opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement with their players, which lapses in 2010. If no new agreement is reached, the 2010 NFL season would be played without a salary cap; and there is speculation that could lead to a lockout by the owners in 2011.
Some have suggested the UFL was created to take advantage of that scenario.
"There's way too much being made of that," Vuono said. "We didn't discuss it in our plans. If that's a byproduct, so be it. We're not wishing that on the NFL."
One of the prominent items on display in Peterson's expansive office when he worked for the Chiefs was the last championship trophy awarded by the USFL. As long as he served in the NFL, he said, it would remain there. Now that Peterson and Kansas City have parted ways, the trophy will soon have a new home: the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
On reflection, Peterson sees a viable role for the UFL.
"The developmental part has a great merit to it," Peterson said. "If the NFL recognizes an opportunity to develop young players, a partnership might make sense."
The NFL declined to discuss that possibility -- or, for that matter, anything else involving the UFL -- but, reportedly, there have been discussions between the two parties. With the Arena League and NFL Europe currently on hiatus, it makes a certain grassroots sense.
"There are natural synergies between our two leagues," Huyghue said. "Many of the football-minded people at the NFL have expressed interest in a formal relationship on a developmental level where a need clearly exists.
"At this point, we will simply see how the league develops before we define any formal relationship."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.