The USFL is Returning! But Should You Care?
By Ha Kung Wong
Guess what? The USFL is coming back in 2022!I’m sure many of you are wondering why that matters or perhaps even “what the heck is the USFL”? For those who don’t know, the USFL is the United States Football League, which was originally founded back in 1982 prior to shutting down in 1986. I’m sure many are also wary of other professional football leagues popping up in the US after watching both the AAF and XFL fail spectacularly in recent years. But I’m here to tell you that this may be different, at least if it’s similar to the USFL we saw on the field in its original incarnation.
Why is that? Well, primarily because it was a solid product with NFL-caliber players, coaches and accessibility. But don’t just take my word on it, take 2-time Super Bowl champ and 4-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Gary Clark’s word on it from our podcast interview:
“In my era of football, the USFL was the best thing that ever happened to an NFL player. It completely changed our salaries and completely change the game because the USFL was taking all the top college players out of college.… When that league folded, all the people who came over from the USFL, those were the guys that were going to Pro Bowls and those were the guys who were standing out…. It was entertaining, the USFL was probably the closest thing we had to true professional [competition with the NFL] … I’m not saying they would beat the Super Bowl champion every year, but [some of the USFL teams] would have beat some NFL teams.”
And that’s just it. If you’re going to have the alternative professional football league as a developmental league only, then it’ll be treated like any other developmental league. As an example, for you baseball fans out there, when was the last time you watched a minor league baseball game? Maybe a more pertinent question is “have you EVER watched a minor league baseball game?” Listen, I’m not saying there aren’t some of us NFL fans who would watch purely developmental leagues. Heck, I’m not ashamed to say that I watched AAF and XFL games every weekend when they were operating, and I really enjoyed it. But for the typical fan, that’s a huge ask to give up weekends to watch players and coaches you might not be interested it, particularly for teams that you have little to no history with.
What the USFL had was big-time players and big-time coaches. Many times, as Gary said on our podcast, some of the top players out of college opted for the USFL because they had better opportunities to play at positions they wanted or even got more money. As an example, Gary mentioned that he joined the USFL after being drafted 6th overall to be a receiver, not just a return specialist. He understood that he had a better chance of showing the world that he’s a great receiver in the USFL, and I think any Washington Redskins fan (and heck, any football fan) would admit that he did exactly that. And the world got to watch numerous other top players do the same thing in the USFL on a weekly basis, off season from the NFL. Perhaps you’ve heard of some them, such as Steve Young, Jim Kelly, Reggie White, Gary Zimmerman, Hershel Walker and Mike Rozier? And it didn’t stop with the players, some of the best coaches in NFL history were also involved, like George Allen and Marv Levy.
Because of the caliber of players and coaches, the USFL actually survived for three seasons, and one team, the Denver Gold, actually turned a profit in their first season in 1983. In today’s NFL, turning a profit sounds like a low bar, but in starting a new professional sports league, turning a profit in the first season is a no small feat. Plus, by intentionally targeting the top media cities in the US, the USFL managed deals with ABC and ESPN to consistently air weekly games throughout their three seasons, including their own version of Monday Night football. That meant more access for fans and more exposure for its players and coaches, in turn drawing more players and coaches to the league. In its first season, the USFL drew a respectable Nielsen rating of 6.1 and approximately 25,000 live fans per game. Not too shabby for a first year. Ultimately, mismanagement, an ill-advised move to Fall scheduling in an attempt to force a merger with the NFL, plus a an ill-fated antitrust case brought by the USFL against the NFL, in which the USFL won, but ended up with only $3.76 in damages (a fascinating case if you’re a law geek), was the USFL’s undoing. But that had nothing to do with the talent that was in the league.
Now, I’m not trying to sell you on the USFL being the next best thing since sliced bread, I’m just saying that it was once one of the “best things that ever happened to an NFL player” and it could be again for many reasons. As noted, it could be a legit alternative to going to the NFL with similar levels of competition and compensation. It could be a more flexible option for players wanting to play at specific positions, like Gary Clark. Or it could simply be a better steppingstone for college players to acclimate themselves to professional football. As Gary mentioned on our podcast, “[o]nce you transfer from college to professional sports, it’s just a different animal. Everyone has been the best player on their team [before being in the NFL].” Gary is 1000% on point (as he always is). Professional football is a tough gig to get, and everyone on the field and on the sidelines was once the best of the best. So having more alternatives than just the 32 teams in the NFL is a good thing for college players, not because it’s less competitive, but because there are now more spots available TO BE competitive. And fans win because they now have more competitive football to watch. And at the end of the day, is that what we all want?
Just sayin’, how about we all keep a close eye on the USFL, cross our fingers and hope they get a shot? I know I will. And so will Gary Clark.