How to Make Spring Football Viable

So I caught my first USFL game, the new iteration, last night between the Tampa Bay Bandits and the Pittsburgh Maulers. The game was a dreary and boring affair, a 17-3 Bandits win, but the dreariness is not the fault of the USFL (for the most part).

I have long and loud been a proponent of spring football. Football is America's favorite sport, it is my favorite sport, and there is no reason we should only have it five and a half months a year.

Thanks to be popularity of baseball and hockey in other parts of the world, and basketball and soccer in practically all parts of the world, if we dig deep enough we can watch those sports year-round. But even football fans who embrace the CFL (as I do) still have to go months without the game. As a hedonist, I do not approve.

So, I'm hoping for the USFL to succeed, or if they don't, that the XFL succeeds, which reboots next year. Surely one of them will fail. That after so many tries at offseason football, all of which have been unsuccessful despite major network backing, two are suddenly viable for the long term seems vanishingly unlikely. Of course, I hope I am wrong.

That said, there's a decent chance that, at least for one year, we will have both the XFL and the USFL (next year). If so, cherish that year, fellow football gluttons.

I won't pretend I understand why all the previous iterations of major spring football have failed, nor will I pretend to understand why, after so many failures, businessmen and networks keep trying, over and over again.

Clearly, they are sold on the idea that there is a very profitable formula out there to be discovered, and that mistakes were made by all the previous leagues that can be learned from and remedied. I hope they're right.

I do have some ideas of my own about what works, what doesn't, and what the USFL (and the XFL, and others) might want to do — and want to avoid.

Perhaps the most relevant experiment, in terms of its viability, is the USFL playing all the games in one city (Birmingham, Alabama) to practically eliminate travel expenses. This is an idea I'm mostly neutral on, and I am eager to see whether having a one site model "works" in the long run. I think it's a good idea that they nevertheless branded the different teams with home cities and different identities.

However, hardly anyone was in the stands for this game, and between that and the fact that everyone's mic'ed up made the game feel very, very much like a glorified practice.

It's imperative for the USFL to create excitement if they are going to succeed. So they need to do whatever they can to get that stadium packed. Protective Stadium, where last night's game was held, seats 47,000. Take $200k and pay 40,000 fans $5 dollars to show up. Explain to them that they are like extras in a movie, so they should pick a team and cheer their heads off.

They wouldn't need to be secretive about this, at all. If you get 40,000 fans, pseudo-fans though they may be, cheering and carrying on, it will create an infectious gameday atmosphere that will naturally engender excitement and interest in the television audience.

Beyond the one-site model, I think more resources, money, and study needs to take place to figure out where to place teams so they have a shot at being successful.

The where-do-we-put-franchises question has been answered in different ways, by different leagues. Some look to put teams in the biggest markets with little other consideration. Some try to put them in the largest markets without an NFL team. There is often a great emphasis placed on the South, where football fans are rabid and come out in droves for their college teams.

This probably played a part in Birmingham being selected for the home base of the USFL. And their hometown-branded team, the Birmingham Stallions, did pretty well on opening night, with over 17k attending despite rain, and over 40k tickets sold.

(I'll pause here to note that attendance and ratings beyond the first week of these new leagues have been a major problem, and one I'm not terribly sure how to fix.)

What if we looked still deeper for locations for teams?

I know of a successful football team that plays its games in the nation's 69th-largest media market. That market includes a relatively modest population of 455,560. That team is called the Green Bay Packers.

There's over 100 markets with a population of at least 300,000 people. Has anyone ever thought about putting teams in places like South Texas? Toledo? Western Massachusetts? Mississippi? Tucson? This feels very, very worth a shot. Put teams there, have them play in modest but sellout-able 20,000-seat stadia, and blitz the market with hype — billboards, Internet ads, everything.

Finally, I would say that while the new leagues tend to be fertile ground for experimentation, it can be taken too far. Whether the USFL (for example) succeeds or fails won't come down to people's appetite for helmet cams. Remember, upstart leagues, that you are trying to do this based on the idea that football is popular enough that it can be played in spring too, profitably. That suggest there's a not-broken, don't-be-fixin' ethos that should be at least considered.

At any rate, let's at least watch the games, it's the best thing we can do if we want these leagues to last.

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