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AFL or USFL II: Electric Boogaloo

Posted By Christopher Rowe On Jan 22 2012 @ 8:38 pm In NFL | 9 Comments

Greatness has always been defined by the defeat of one’s most worthy adversaries. Throughout history and literature, there are countless examples of great foes who grappled tirelessly as both combatants had everything to lose and even more to gain. [1]Montague vs. Capulet, King Henry VIII vs. Catholic Church, Ali vs. Frazer, Galileo vs. Inquisition or any number of examples from the Napoleonic Wars, prove that great battles create heroes of legend, lore, history and fable. Whether you find yourself in awe of Axis vs. Allies, Rebellion vs. Galactic Empire or Yankees vs. Red Sox it takes two great superpowers to force the other to constantly improve or suffer anihillation. Jeopardy. Reward. Survival. Conquest.

 

[2]Showdown at 401(k) Corral. When one superpower fails, the victor eventually becomes complacent for lack of challengers. Not at the hand of a superior enemy in one grand final battle (be it with light sabres, broad swords or pistols at 30 paces) but most grand empires decay from within due to neglect, corruption and collapse under the weight of their own expansive girth. Roman Empire, British Empire or French Empire all would be felled from internal or expansion issues. Every kingdom encounters its version of Waterloo – its turning point or defining moment when it teeters on the precipice of its eventual doom. Sometimes this dissolution takes over 100 years or it can be destroyed in a single battle which displays an inherent weakness to be exploited.

[3]Dis-nike World? Modern day empires may not have much in common with their historical forefathers, but such examples as Disney, Apple or Nike will have their day, week or decade in the sun before eventually fading into history. One of the most successful business and entertainment ventures of the 20th Century which has exploded into the 21st Century is the National Football League.

 

[4] [5]The NFL may have begun as a collection of ragtag weekend warriors in leather helmets but grew into one of the most popular, most storied and must lucrative icons of business and entertainment in history. Ten teams in 1920’s American Professional Football Association morphed into the NFL by 1922. A decade later the league instituted a championship game, realizing they could garner more profits and higher attendance holding such an event. Twenty years later, the game that had begun with “washed up” former college players and barnstorming  mercenary bruisers instituted a marriage with television, one which would be heralded as the most successful nuptials in American history.

[6]AFL-CEO. Rival leagues such as the American Association would rise up and be defeated, failing to challenge or threaten the NFL’s success. At best, they might consolidate and add another team or two to the slowly growing NFL. By 1959, a new rival American Football League was born. The AFL was designed to be an avant-garde diametric corollary to the now established and conservative National Football League.

The next decade would see the more exciting, youthful brand of AFL scoring and celebration take advantage of new [7]revolutionary offenses and trick plays to encourage more electrifying entertainment. [8]The AFL realized the power of marketing, television and broadening the game’s potential by setting up shop in both established [9]NFL markets (New York and Los Angeles) and previously undiscovered NFL outposts (Dallas, Denver, Boston and Oakland). Style of play, uniforms and even mascots were more colorful, capturing the imagination of the younger (Baby Boomer) generation who grew up nurtured by Howdy Doody Show and Ovaltine TV commercials. The NFL was finally threatened.

[10]Napoleonic IPO. The AFL would defy the NFL’s claim on the collegiate amateur draft and began a bidding war for preeminent talent – often scouring the ranks of any organized league mining undiscovered less reputable sources to keep pace. Former NFL backups and previously untested talent flooded the AFL gridiron as the number of professional football jobs more than doubled from 1959-1965. Due to the bidding wars, rampant expansion and the deficiency of having to play in second class stadiums, the AFL looked to be a rocket, burning brightly and leaving a fantastic glowing residue as it finally would burst into oblivion.  

[11]The brilliance of the AFL and those more progressive minds of the NFL was that they realized they could either fight to the death or combine forces. That eventual Uber-league became the post 1970 merger of the AFL and NFL into the American and National Conference of the National Football League. In historical terms, this would have been the Roman and British Empire merging or the fruition of Napoleon’s French Empire. In modern terms, this would be Apple and IBM slugging it out until they shake hands and unite into one supercomputer supercompany.

[12]The significance of that 1970 merger would prove monumental in short time. What had been a three year experiment, the AFL-NFL Championship would be renamed the Super Bowl and repackaged into the greatest single marketing tool since the first television commercial. Television and NFL revenue would skyrocket as the combined power of the NFL/AFL found its way onto prime time network schedules, giving birth to specialized cable sports networks, original NFL-dedicated programming and the casual football fan.

[13]Manifest Destiny. Further expansion to 28 and later 30 teams would cause interest to grow in both senses of the phrase. Seattle, Tampa, Miami and New Orleans sported NFL franchises and even cities unable to notch their own NFL expansion bid found ways to attract relocated teams (Arizona Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, St. Louis Rams, Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans). The NFL would expand again into new markets as well as markets previously vacated by departed teams. Houston, Cleveland, Baltimore and St. Louis would be offered second chances, while Los Angeles would be circumvented for nouveau population sites such as Charlotte, Jacksonville and Nashville. The NFL also kept an eye on future sites for population and media revenue shifts including Toronto, San Antonio, Vancouver and Mexico. While this had a combined effect on the fanbase demographics, it was entirely positive for NFL revenue stream.

[14]XLV. As it stands today the NFL is 32 teams strong. Thanks to a salary cap, revenue sharing, collective bargaining, free agency and a plethora of shrewd business tactics, anyone and anything remotely associated with the NFL finds themselves making money hand over fist. Games are held internationally in London, Japan, Mexico City and throughout Europe. The Super Bowl has set records for global TV ratings and revenue 45 years running. Even the less successful franchises manage to find profit to varying degrees.

[15]Alphabet City. The “modern” NFL is now more than 40 years old but for all its profits and progress, what it lacks is competition. The NFL has seen upstart entities such as the Arena Football League, XFL, World League of American Football (later NFL Europe) and the United States Football League. While the USFL was the most formidable competitor since the AFL merger, it was felled by poor business strategy and a failed legal exercise. This “spring football league” was very successful following the AFL template almost to the letter.

[16]The USFL pursued a balance of existing NFL venues (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia) and hungry alternatives (Memphis, San Antonio, Orlando plus Baltimore which lost their beloved NFL Colts to Indianapolis). For two seasons (1983 & 1984) the spring USFL schedule took over alternative stadiums or NFL venues not encumbered with Major League Baseball competition. The league made use of media outlets including a sweetheart deal with ESPN and the old model of overbidding for whatever [17]talent it could muster. Attracting such talent often required paying large sums of money or out-maneuvering the NFL behemoth – which resulted in players such as Steve Young, Jim Kelley, Reggie White and Herschel Walker becoming instant USFL superstars.

 

[18]Bleeding Red, White and GREEN. By 1985, the greedy, impatient USFL failed in its effort to take on the NFL head-to-head. Their over-expansion combined with a fall schedule and their insistence upon a lawsuit resulted in a cataclysmic collision between courtroom savvy and gridiron fortitude. In a classic case of myopia, the USFL won the [19]battle but lost the war, being awarded $3 in damages from their court case and in the process forced themselves out of business. Once again, the might and right of the NFL would prove victorious – and it would be proven again fending off the WLAF, XFL and the NFL’s own civil wars (labor strikes, free agency, replacement players, salary caps, revenue sharing, etc.).

What makes the NFL so very strong and … well… unchallengeable?

[20]Lone Superpower. Twelve years into the 21st century, the NFL stands as the lone remaining superpower, having conquered all foes, circumnavigating the proverbial TV dial and saturating all forms of multimedia with their timeless and inexhaustibly viable product. Not even a prolonged labor dispute lasting most of the 2011 offseason could shake the [21]mighty National Football League to its knees, as it simply waited until there was a resolution and went about its business as though nothing had happened. The NFL has everything it could ever want in terms of money, power, appeal and demand for its product. Everything that is… save an adversary. Despite its efforts to vilify showboating, greedy, selfish, Twitter-mongering, flamboyant billionaire players, the NFL would be buttressed if they found themselves a worthy challenger.

[22]Like Alexander the Great, they weep because they have no more worlds to conquer. The Canadian Football League plays to a limited market with different rules and is at best a minor annoyance, like a little brother begging to be allowed to play. The Arena Football League has undergone its own struggles but seems to have found its own niche demographic, playing indoors and never in direct competition with the NFL season.

How great would it be to revive the ghosts of the old AFL and USFL?

[23]United in Name Only. Almost completely unnoticed, the United Football League began play in 2009 with four teams and a laughable TV deal. This four team entity has made no effort to compete with the NFL, hoping the NFL doesn’t notice their paltry franchises playing in non-NFL cities (Las Vegas, Virginia, Sacramento and Omaha). They have already failed with the New York [24]Sentinels, Hartford Colonials and Florida Tuskers due mostly to a profound lack of interest, retread coaches and recycled players. While the UFL rules are entirely derivative of the NFL, they differ slightly in ways that only the most acute observers would notice. That is… if the UFL actually HAD observers. Three seasons have produced disappointing results and it would be a shock if the league made it to a grand total of five seasons, though that would eclipse the relatively “successful” USFL (1983-1985).

Is there room on the sports scene for another monster league?

[25]Global Market Saturation. The global sports market is saturated with hundreds of proprietary endeavors such as Australian Rules Football, Rugby, English Premier League (soccer/futbol) or the aforementioned Canadian Football League. Major League Baseball, National Hockey League, National Basketball Association and the NFL have co-existed for years, each defining their own season, their own media coverage, arenas and their own [26]fanbase. In recent years cable and digital TV explosion has afforded those four major sports their own cable TV network. This 24/7 devotion is in addition to local, regional and international cable sports networks such as ESPN, Comcast SportsNet, Rogers and MSG network. Arena Football was never able to garner the TV deals to make it more than casual weekly filler [27]between basketball and hockey games while NCAA basketball and NCAA football have never enjoyed greater widespread appeal. NCAA Football originally spawned interest in a professional league and despite the BCS overtaking the legendary college bowl system, the NFL has enjoyed a symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship with its NCAA brethren.

Why not another professional, market-driven, financially feasible football undertaking partnered with the right media empire (say ESPN or possibly even the NFL Network itself)?

[28]If you built it…will they come? It is not simple but the concept is anything but new. Find strategically-engineered venues (such as Los Angeles, Toronto, Hawaii, Las Vegas, San Antonio, Vancouver and other NFL test markets) that would welcome American-style football without having to barnstorm the existing NFL. Why schlep the St. Louis Rams or Tampa Bay Buccaneers to London simply because their owners have a stake in EPL “football” teams? This would be a for-profit, secondary football league which could grow into its own realm. It begins with not-ready-for-primetime players (former college talent plus NFL third stringers and global talent) honing their skills while promoting the game with a postseason World Bowl championship at different global venues (Tokyo, London, Milan, Moscow, Berlin, Sydney). This would certainly be more interesting TV than say the NFL Pro Bowl, which currently serves as a network TV placeholder between Conference Championship weekend and Super Bowl Sunday.

[29]WLAF. Think of some combination of the USFL with the United Football League and what once was NFL Europe (1991-2007), taking the better elements of all but learning from the many mistakes. What began as the World League of American Football (WLAF) was supposed to bring the NFL brand across the pond to the European “soccer and rugby market.” That spring league [30]originally comprised of Canadian and European franchises with plans to expand to Mexico, Milan and possibly put NFL football into any global market which could support a team. It also allowed for test marketing rule changes such as the two-point conversion, four-point FG and kickoff and punt return modifications. Like the USFL, NFL Europa in all of its forms (WLAF, NFL Europe) did produce a number of NFL players such as Kurt Warner, Brad Johnson, David Akers, Byron Chamberlain, George Koonce, Kerry Joseph, Jon Kitna, Michael Sinclair and Adam Vinatieri.

[31]Spare Change for a Euro? Ambition is not just a good thing but an essential element of any business model! The 2009-launched United Football League has failed to display a promising stratagem, struggling through more relative instability in three seasons than the USFL or WLAF. The latter had been predicated [32]upon the concept that there might eventually be separate divisions for each continent placing teams in Asia, South America, Africa or throughout Europe. While this model may have been logistically impossible, NFL Europe was brought under direct NFL oversight. NFL teams could lend their travel squad or marginal players to gain valuable experience in the spring then return for the regularly scheduled NFL season. The World League model itself though gave birth to the NFL’s concept of the International Bowl played in Tokyo, Mexico City or recently in London.

Potentially this burgeoning league would provide offseason football to the existing fans while cultivating the American football brand beyond the annual Super Bowl global audience. While it may provide a stage for the likes of Terrell Owens, Tiki Barber and Canadian League or NFL castoffs, it would provide a much-needed intermediary bridging the NCAA game to the professional ranks.

Arena League, IFL and UFL have proven that they are generally unable or unwilling to make such a commitment toward grooming future NFL players. Wouldn’t Terrell Pryor or Brady Quinn or Mark Ingram have been better served participating in a limited 8-10 game post-draft spring season rather than holding a clipboard at NFL Training Camp? How great would it have been for the 2011 draft class to have spent their spring and summer learning real NFL skills rather than waiting out an interminable NFL lockout?

[33]AFL 101. Take the UFL and use those coaches, players and venues as the building blocks for a more ambitious, more purposeful undertaking. Formulate a league of say… eight teams (one quarter of NFL’s 32 teams) allowing for an influx of talent from non-drafted college graduates, Canadian League refugees and ancillary journeymen from Arena League, IFL or former NFL hopefuls. This would afford NFL teams a proving ground more approximating talent in action than say the NFL Scouting Combine while it would also serve to prevent NFL teams from having to overspend on draft picks which become busts.

[34]Apollo League. As it stands now, the best hope for a challenger are the Arena or Canadian Leagues. Since neither of those leagues play by NFL rules it would be difficult to establish any kind of integration. The UFL, XFL, IFL and WLAF gave [35]us examples of what not to do while the USFL came very close to directly competing with the NFL. Having this kind of ancillary league would provide a training ground for rookies, backups and future NFL stars, participating in a World Bowl-type of championship event. This could garner some interest during hiatus week and expand the football audience in a way that has been successful with the AFL and USFL.

[36]Snow Bowl. The NFL spends 5 months building up from preseason exhibition chum right on through January’s Conference Championships only to have this Pro Bowl dead spot the week before the Super Bowl. Get ready next week to watch a bunch of NFL fifth-string “all-stars” substitute for the best players. Naming players as the best at their position is an honor garnering bonuses in player contracts. Compelling these billionaires to show up and participate is about as useful as a staff orthodontist at a nursing home. Those NFL superstars will either be preparing for the Super Bowl or they have no interest in playing a meaningless game in Hawaii. Maybe they should rename the Pro Bowl “Waterloo” and start working on the next good thing.

 

RELATED ARTICLE: NFL Musical Coaches or Symphony of Success http://www.prosportsblogging.com/2012/01/08/nfl-musical-coaches-or-symphony-of-success/ [37]

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[37] http://www.prosportsblogging.com/2012/01/08/nfl-musical-coaches-or-symphony-of-success/: http://www.prosportsblogging.com/2012/01/08/nfl-musical-coaches-or-symphony-of-success/

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