For decades, fans of the gridiron have driven out to tailgate lots before going inside the stadium to watch a 60-minute war in the trenches. From the opening kickoff of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game every August, on college football Saturdays (or November Tuesdays in the Mid-American Conference) through the NFL regular season and playoffs and the Super Bowl, fans watch and enjoy football.
However, once February hits and the ball stops going through the uprights, that’s that for the outdoor game.
USFL Begins Play in 1983
At least, that was the case for a long time. 40 years ago, the original incarnation of the USFL began play. Throughout the league’s life, several of its teams set up shop in the same home cities (as well as stadiums) as NFL clubs.
USFL 1.0 ran for three seasons between 1983 and 1985 with ABC Sports and ESPN splitting national television rights. A fourth season was planned for 1986, which would have seen the league shift from a spring calendar to a fall calendar. Had the fourth season gone ahead, ESPN would have aired its games in a Sunday evening timeslot.
Original USFL Folds, Creating Void in Spring Football
Two years before the planned fall schedule for 1986-87, USFL owners approved the move to the fourth quarter of the calendar year, with future US President Donald Trump (who owned the New Jersey Generals) being among the advocates of the plan. We promise that this is the only mention of him in this article.
Several USFL teams that played in the 1985 spring season either ceased operations or were forced to consolidate with other franchises. The 1986-87 fall season of the USFL would never come to pass, with the league finding itself at odds with the NFL over antitrust concerns.
Although the USFL would emerge victorious in its lawsuit against the NFL, it would come with a small total: A single dollar, which was increased to $3 after the fact. The original version of the league never played another down.
Enter the World League of American Football
In 1991, the NFL would stage its own spring league, the World League of American Football, (which would eventually become NFL Europe), with teams based in North American and European markets. Much like the USFL in the 1980s, ABC Sports would handle broadcast television rights, airing games live in the Eastern and Central time zones on Sunday afternoons and on tape delay in the Pacific and Mountain time zones.
ABC’s No. 2 college football announce crew of Brent Musburger and Dick Vermeil would travel the world in the spring of 1991 to lead the coverage of World League games. Mark Jones, in his first season at ABC/ ESPN, served as the sideline reporter for the telecasts.
USA Network would air games on cable and alternate the World Bowl with ABC Sports in 1991 and 1992. The World League came close to ceasing operations after its freshman season, as no clubs turned a profit and both networks saw low numbers in the Nielsen ratings for the ballgames.
World League Scales Back to Europe After Pause
Upon the 1992 World League season’s conclusion, the league would go on hiatus until 1995. By this point, the league was staging games exclusively in European markets.
No spring league would set up shop exclusively in America until the turn of the century. This league came at the close of sports entertainment’s Monday Night Wars.
Original XFL Crashes and Burns
In February of 2000, WWE Chairman Vince McMahon announced plans to create a new spring football league, which would become the first of three incarnations of the XFL. Scheduled for a Feb. 3, 2001 launch, the original XFL, a joint venture between NBC and the sports entertainment promotion, would field teams in eight US cities playing games in outdoor stadiums with natural grass surfaces.
The league’s opening weekend secured a 10.3 Nielsen rating, but ratings would take a nosedive as the season progressed, eventually becoming the lowest-rated show in network television history. Low ratings notwithstanding, XFL 1.0 made it through its only season before folding in May of 2001.
Gimmicks Doomed XFL
Aside from the low numbers that XFL 1.0 received, it had another thing going against it: Wrestling-style gimmicks. There are countless articles and YouTube videos outlining the gimmicks used by the XFL, none worse than a much-hyped segment where NBC was advertised to show footage of the cheerleaders’ locker room.
Spoiler Alert: This was a comedy bit featuring the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield in one of his last on-screen appearances before his 2004 death. Needless to say, NBC was none too happy about this.
USFL 2.0 Proves Spring Football Isn’t Dead
In 2021, two years removed from the Alliance of American Football suspending operations upon Carolina Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon pulling his funds and one year removed from the rebooted XFL’s debut season getting cut short by the pandemic, FOX Sports announced that the USFL would be getting a reboot of its own in April of 2022.
After the announcement that the USFL would be getting a second life, FOX pledged $150 million to the network-owned league. To keep operational costs within reason last year, all regular-season games were played in the Birmingham, AL metro area.
Playoff games and the championship were held in Canton, OH at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium. Birmingham and Canton will serve as two of the league’s four hub cities this year, with Detroit and Memphis as the other two.
With the entirety of the regular season being held at a singular hub city last season, the players lived and roomed together, which may have affected the games themselves. A majority of the games were close, with the most lopsided contest of the season being a 34-3 win by the New Orleans Breakers in week two last year against the now-defunct Tampa Bay Bandits.
For years, the concept of spring football was a target for jokes and derision by the public, with the original version of the XFL getting the worst of the jokes back when it was in existence in 2001. Conan O’Brien worked overtime at poking fun at the league, culminating in a mock “preview” segment airing the night before the Million-Dollar Game.
As someone who has consumed content from several alternative football leagues, either through live telecasts of games or archived telecasts uploaded to YouTube, spring ball can be successful if the right formula is applied.
After years of waiting and hoping, it finally happened. The USFL’s new season begins on April 15. Here’s hoping this is the second of many seasons of action.
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