This week my mother was annoyed by the NFL Draft pre-empting Wheel of Fortune. Not to cut the NFL short, but as a television program with entertainment potential, the wonderous wheel—America’s Game—has it all over a stage of rotating twenty-year-old men in suits being chosen for gladiatorial combat. Past day one, some of these guys are iffy as far as making the teams they are drafted by. Yet there is an undeniable interest in hearing a parade of them thank Jeebus, their families, their college coaches, their new fans and then walk off into some room to become an instant millionaire. Some of them will go onto genuine gridiron greatness and others to about four years of brutality followed by a lifetime of physical disability.
The NFL has one good thing going. It’s too good, which is why numerous parties take turns at trying to take a slice of its action. The brand spanking new USFL is the latest to try. Before going into how they are faring a short briefing is in order about what the NFL is in competition with and what inherent barriers there are to getting into its business.
Most of us are familiar with the NFL’s Football product. Football evolved out of the same base set of rules as soccer and rugby, reaching its current form after the intervention of Teddy Roosevelt. As originally envisioned, it was something like a group boxing match and a track meet. Eventually they threw in a game of catch. It has a ridiculous number of rules—on a par with cricket—some of which make limited sense (the ground cannot cause a fumble). It is also steeped in jargon. You can understand none of this and still enjoy the game. (1)
It's a proven winner. Fifty years ago, a cable TV station put the image of a football on its channel for an hour and it outdrew most of the competition. Given its attraction as a consumer product, there is a lot of football about. How much? The NFL has 32 teams with a legitimate ability to expand a bit further. They are not, however, the biggest distributor of football as a product. It is primarily and most efficiently promoted by American colleges. The American college system fields 664 teams and out-earns and out-draws the NFL by exponents. (2) About half of these college teams feed into the TV football ecosystem to some degree. Maybe 40 of them would be more valuable than NFL teams if they were independent ventures and perhaps half of them would be viable as stand-alone businesses. In short, the colleges are the big monkey in the football field.
Prior to the 1950s, the NFL was a sideshow venture. Started in the 1920s and arising from the athletic club movement (which brought us baseball), the pros were slipshod affairs, existing primarily to allow the better college players to pick up some extra cash on Sundays. The NFL itself only secured its position as the primary purveyor of pro football after a series of mergers, first with the All-American Football Conference and later with the American Football League. It was a Darwinist affair for most of its early history, with a staggering 49 NFL teams having folded shop. It’s been fairly healthy since the mid-1960s.
The NFL, AFL and AAFC all proved that there was room for a little more football, provided that they did something different than the colleges. By different, I mean they played on Sunday as opposed to Saturday. They filled the TV gap left by the colleges on Sunday. This has been the key to the most profitable sporting venture in the history of the universe. (3)
NFL team expansion in modern times has been sluggish and goofy. By comparison, the top tier of college football has its teams divided up in proportion to population centers. It has every TV market covered with its top 133 teams. The NFL’s real expansion is an encroachment in times played—first Monday, then Thursday, then additional games on Sunday, then on Saturdays after the college season has ended. The NFL’s entire business plan has amounted to playing when the colleges don’t. This has given the NFL the ability to market its mere 32 big city clubs (with two teams each in Los Angeles and New York City) as national or super-regional entities.
As business plans go, it’s indefensible. In a more rational universe, the owners of the 133 teams would claw the time back or extend their seasons. The colleges only achieved their dominating positions by making it impossible for the original athletic club teams to compete at scale. Little mom and pop athletic clubs, usually adjuncts of ethnic non-profit social organizations, had to rent their staging areas. Originally the colleges were willing to allow these teams use of their track and field facilities (or polo ground)… until they smelled that there was money in it. And thus the National College Athletic Association was born, building stadiums to scale and swamping the mom and pops into oblivion.
While colleges are no more in the business of entertaining the public than the Knights of Columbus are, money is money and successful fundraising phenomena is precious. I’m not qualified to debate the ethics of this nor decry the non-profit model. It isn’t restricted to the colleges. The NFL’s Green Bay Packers are effectively a non-profit. As anyone who has lived near a giant hospital will tell you, non-profit does not mean without profit or prospects for expansion.
The colleges have passed rules, largely to police themselves, which inadvertently has allowed the NFL to thrive. Only they have the muscle to nudge the NFL from its roost. Until a moment of collective college football clarity happens, others with less in the way of endowment have incentive to dethrone the pro kings.
Every two years or so someone takes a swipe. Two ventures, the XFL and the current incarnation of the USFL, are stalking horses for the television networks themselves. TV gives the NFL all of its money. Many in network land are wondering why. The game’s money comes from television and television is what television networks do. Why can’t a TV network employ football players directly? This is the outline of the XFL and USFL experiments. (4)
Prior experiments had a different methodology. The Continental Professional Football League was one of several attempts to make a national minor league system, a paying alternative to college football. It built out from secondary and suburban markets, hoping to profit, as minor leagues do, by seasoning players destined for the pros. It floundered after changing its focus mid-stream and then not settling on any sort of mutual strategy. Muddling up the plan mid-res also did in the World Football League and the original United States Football League. The Canadian Football League’s abortive expansion into the US was similar to Continental’s as far as choice of markets was concerned but turned out to be under-funded. Underfunding is the shorthand post-mortem for the original XFL, the later incarnation of the United Football League and the Alliance of American Football. An unwillingness to stick out early losses doomed the NFL’s own prodigies the Arena Football League and the World League of American Football/NFL Europe.
One might contend that running a football league is an iffy prospect, even if you know what you are doing and have the money to do it. Without going point by point, I don’t believe that there actually has been a credible effort to take on the NFL as yet. There are considerable barriers to going after the NFL which need to be addressed correctly. Briefly, these are:
*Big City Domination. The NFL has the best football venues in the top 27 markets in which they operate. In most cases, the NFL team does not own the stadium nor enjoy any exclusive rights to preempt others from playing in it. That said, this is a bit of a trap. What the NFL does have nailed down are all of the Sunday dates and best time slots for these venues. In most places, the NFL team is the sole or marquee tenant of the stadium. Playing in the same places and paying the same rental rates as NFL teams is demonstrably a bad tactic for startup leagues. Why rent a 60,000-seat stadium when you are only likely to sell 30,000 tickets? Nearly every big city market has alternative venues, many at just the size a smaller venture requires. An unwillingness to start small and get bigger has doomed the majority of the NFL’s prospective competitors. Secondly, most of the population is outside of the influence of the top 27 markets. It seems to make more sense to set up in a smaller market—or barnstorm several cities.
*Good will. This is the currency of all sports teams and it is hard to mint. Many sports teams have generational followings. People follow the teams they grew up following and pass on the affliction to their children. Some NFL teams are ancient. It’s not an insurmountable problem since there are also people who are attracted by novelty or like the idea of getting in on the ground floor of something new. A new league would be at something of a disadvantage, especially teams locating in NFL mega metros.
*The NFL already has all the best players. This is true if you compete with the NFL on its current terms. Both the NFL and the top 40 college teams differentiate themselves through player size. You largely need to be a giant to play in the NFL. Many perfectly wonderful players are not considered for the NFL or the other 40 college teams primary because of gross body weight. Competing with the NFL for jumbo players may be a dead end. Instead, if you imposed a 220 cap on player weight, you open up to an entirely new talent pool. (5)
The new USFL is backed by the Fox Television Network and has charted a somewhat unique course. While it is only on week two its near term demise can clearly be seen. They’ve tried to address a few of the issues above.
USFL Fox knows it’s a TV animal. They are not bothering with renting venues in big cities. Instead, all of its teams are playing at two stadiums in the same city. They have chosen the sports dead zone that exists between the end of March Madness and the time when baseball starts to get into full swing to stage their spectacles. As with the original USFL and a few other start-up leagues, they are playing a Spring schedule to avoid direct competition with the NFL and college football. These somewhat reasonable steps have been undercut by their choice of Birmingham Alabama as the host city. They love football in Bama and you probably couldn’t find a better weather city for this time of year. That said, Birmingham is not huge and cannot produce an audience for four special stadium events a week, even if they are free. You can only cycle the sports fan population so many times. We are now on week two and the stadiums are empty. Fox is piping in crowd noise on their broadcasts, with comedic effect. Fox might have been better served staging the games in a television studio or a very small indoor football-capable stadium. (6)
Fox has addressed the Good Will issue by reviving teams from the original USFL, specifically the Birmingham Stallions, Houston Gamblers, New Orleans Breakers, Tampa Bay Bandits, Michigan Panthers, New Jersey Generals, Philadelphia Stars and Pittsburgh Maulers. Given the limited lifespan of the original league and the fact that none of these franchises have played since 1986 one questions the value of the trademarks. They may have been better served playing up the mascot names as opposed to the fictional city affiliation. Supposedly Fox is in this for the long haul—with the caveat that they at some point will be seeking about 200 million from outside investors. Let me repeat that: Fox, one of the largest media conglomerates on Earth is thinking of launching some sort of kickstarter campaign, perhaps using ownership in teams as its currency. Pretty dubious. If things continue to go the way they have this week, we may see yet another revision of this plan.
From what I have been able to tell, play quality is at a level below most college conferences. The guys are big college huge, most of them having some sort of NFL pedigree, they’re just not any good and haven’t been together long enough. My feeling is that the NFL does indeed have all of the jumbo player talent locked up. It’s a pity.
The USFL can still right the ship. It means perhaps going out and discovering players or adopting a style which favors speed as opposed to brute force. In short, it involves innovating when it comes to the playing of football. I’m not sure a television network is up for that.
(1(1) One of the attractions of football is the explosive action, which requires no explanation of rules to enjoy. It is not universally loved. My sister’s description of the sport is “they run into each other for two yards and then they slap butts.”
(2) The American football ecosystem is slightly broader than this. There are 110 or so Community Colleges with football programs. This number has shrunk and is expected to continue to shrink due to the liability and expenses of maintaining such programs. About a half dozen regional Indoor Football leagues are in operation throughout the country, however it appears that this version of the game is going the way of indoor soccer. Since its heyday 20 years ago, few of the leagues have been able to continue to function. The small venue operators for whom the game was devised have traditionally not been willing to foot the expense of running the teams themselves and few teams have proven solvent enough to consistently pay rent. Indoor Football went into a tailspin with the Great Recession and has not bounced back. The athletic club teams which were central to the foundation of the sport in the late 1800s still continue today in the form of Semi-Pro Football. Many of these teams are player-funded recreational affairs with about twenty regional leagues in operation. Other Semi-Pro teams are adjunct to social programs or are involved in variants of the sport. Despite the number of organized entities involved, football is a very thinly participated in sport, with opportunities for involvement winnowing to nothingness for most males past their first year in high school. This is true to some degree with all team sports.
(3) This is an accident of history. The three distinct levels of football—high school, college, and the pros—abided by a gentlemen’s agreement to carve up the weekends. Friday nights is for high schools. Saturdays are for the colleges. Sundays were defaulted to the pros not out of gratitude but rather because the pros and colleges were sharing personnel. Traditions once established often outlive their usefulness. Being the only pro league left standing, the NFL inherited Sundays as its birthright. Except for tradition and its sway on network programming, there is little reason that the colleges can’t take Sunday away. If colleges were rational actors, they would have done so by now. I would be at pains to dismiss the success of the NFL as being entirely accidental, however it is better to be lucky than good. If the NFL has any real advantage, it is due to being the most rational actor in a field dominated by irrational actors.
(4) Silly technical innovations and occasional rule changes are also thrown in. The XFL attempted to infuse its brand of football mayhem with a little wrestling theatrics, with spudriffic results. Not only was their product largely not being watched, it was being mocked by all who mentioned it. The powers that be at XFL attempted their experiment again recently, only to have Covid wipe the opportunity away. USFL has so far stuck to presenting football in empty stadiums with the exception of a roto-droid camera stunt attempted during the premier game.
(5) If you go through the dedications listed at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton Ohio you will see one descriptive word used more than any other: undersized. I’m not sure if these players were so successful because of this or in spite of it. My thinking is that size itself is overrated as a qualification at all levels of football. If you restrict size, gross weight, you will probably cut down on injuries and overall health issues. Very, very few people are naturally heavier than 220.
(6) The crowd noise is so loud that the announcers are straining to talk over it. It is also looped, on a repeat playback, so that the same sounds can be detected over and over again. Fox tries to keep its shots tight on the action, however there is no disguising the utterly empty stadiums. There are several indoor venues Fox might have had better luck with. Both Dome of America in St Louis and the Alamo Dome in San Antonio have ample population bases and could cycle in casual crowds. Heading downscale are Alerus Center, UNI Dome, Tacoma Dome, Kibbie Dome,and the stadium at East Tennessee State University, amongst others. Las Vegas also hold many opportunities.