USFL will restart next March; not as a competitor to NFL but as an ally

Jim Kelly of the Houston Gamblers prepares to roll out during a USFL game. (Getty)
The first time the United States Football League was established in 1983, it gave a quick scare to the NFL. The USFL owners signed players like Reggie White, Steve Young, Jim Kelly and Herschel Walker, players the NFL actually wanted, by giving them big-time contracts.

After a couple seasons, the USFL sued the NFL for anti-trust laws, and though the new league won, it was awarded just $1 dollar in damages. Soon after, the USFL folded. And thus, the NFL withstood another challenge to its monopoly, as the USFL joined two versions of the American Football League and the All-American Football Conference in leagues that were unable to top the NFL (though the second reincarnation of the AFL forced a merger in the late 1960s).

Now, the USFL is making a comeback, but unlike last time, it’s not going to serve as a direct competitor to the NFL. This time, those in charge of running it want to make it more of a developmental league that will begin next March. In that way, the USFL will compete somewhat with the UFL -- which perpetually seems on the verge of shutting down anyway.

“We will not try to compete with the NFL at all,” CEO Jaime Cuadra told the AP.

“We will play in markets where there are no NFL teams or major league baseball teams. It’s a league for guys who are on the bubble for making NFL teams, and we will have complete open access for the NFL. We want to build a model that is sustainable.”

Cuadra has at least one big name backing him. That’s Fred Biletnikoff, who will consult on football operations for the league and who could add some credibility to the USFL brand (he also knows what it’s like to compete against the NFL. His first employes was the AFL’s Oakland Raiders).

The league would begin next March and run through June. Each team would play a 14-game schedule, and after the season, USFL players could join an NFL team at training camp. Though there would be virtually no rest in between seasons for players who were good enough to earn a spot at an NFL training camp, it would make a good opportunity for those who want to continue living the dream of playing pro football. Plus, you’d have to think they’d be in better shape than those NFLers who are just wandering in from the offseason.

According to the AP, the cities that are being considered for USFL franchises are: Portland, Ore.; Salt Lake City; San Antonio or Austin, Texas; Columbus or Akron, Ohio; Oklahoma City; Omaha, Neb.; Raleigh/Durham, N.C.; Birmingham, Ala.; and Memphis, Tenn.

“These are cities with underutilized facilities at that time of year,” Cuadra said.

The idea behind placing teams in those cities is to try to cash in on communities who have strong college football leanings. That could mean a player from the University of Texas who’s on the NFL bubble could find work at the USFL team in Austin. The same goes for Ohio State players in Columbus or the University of Tennessee and Vanderbilt players in Memphis.
But the next big question mark for the USFL is landing a TV deal. That’s one reason the AFL of the 1960s became so successful and forced the NFL to offer a merger. It’s because NBC offered a $36 million contract with the AFL, and after signing that, the NFL owners knew they were in trouble. The XFL on NBC a few decades later obviously didn’t work, while the UFL has struggled to find a stable TV package.

“We have nothing lined up yet, and we are doing our research and investigating the landscape of sports television today, which is ever-changing,” Cuadra said.

The USFL’s goal, though, is to find a permanent home in that ever-changing landscape. Otherwise, it’ll join all the other non-NFL leagues that have come and gone without making a lasting impact.

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