USFL hopes to succeed where other spring leagues have failed
NBC Sports president Jon Miller knows the dangers of starting a spring football league. He was with NBC when the network teamed up with Vince McMahon and World Wrestling Entertainment when the XFL first launched in 2001 and saw other leagues crash and burn.
Miller is optimistic that a new version of the USFL might have some resistance.
“I hope the fifth time is a charm. I think the time is right, the partnership is right, and the model is built to succeed,” Miller said. “We are optimistic, hopeful and excited at the same time.”
The USFL kicks off Saturday night in Birmingham, Alabama when the New Jersey Generals take on the Birmingham Stallions.
Fox and NBC Sports will each air 22 games, including Saturday’s opener. It’s the first time since the 2007 regular season finale between the New England Patriots and the New York Giants that a game will be shown on multiple broadcast networks.
Fox Sports owns the USFL and is investing $150 million over three years. The only similarity between the 1983-85 USFL and this one is the names of the teams.
Fox Sports executive vice president Michael Mulvihill believes the XFL would have been successful if not for the coronavirus pandemic. The league suspended operations in April 2020 during the pandemic. He played five weeks before COVID-19 halted sports a month earlier.
In 2019, the Alliance of American Football closed after eight weeks after running out of money.
“I think the viewership figures for spring football are good enough to give us a high level of confidence that fan interest is there,” Mulvihill said. “It just becomes a question of whether we can develop a more efficient business model than the leagues that have tried and failed. Because we are structured the way we are, we have a good chance of achieving this.
There are two significant differences with the USFL before its launch. He waited until April to start the season. The XFL and AAF immediately started their seasons after the Super Bowl and eventually had to face the NCAA basketball tournament and the Masters.
The most important USFL competition for viewers will be the NBA and NHL playoffs through the end of May. The XFL averaged 1.5 million viewers on Fox and ABC in its final week of games, while AAF ratings for games on NFL Network were similar to those for NFL preseason games.
The other difference is that the season will take place in two cities. The regular season will take place in Birmingham, with the playoffs scheduled for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
“It’s beneficial for us to have a strong financial footing, and then the second year starts to adjust. Our goal is the second year. Nobody’s done this in a while,” said former Dallas Cowboys star and Fox NFL commentator Daryl Johnston, executive vice president of football operations for the USFL.
Johnston also held front office positions in the XFL and AAF. Brian Woods, the founder of the Spring League, is the president of football operations for the USFL, while Fox NFL and college football rules analyst Mike Pereira will serve as chief of refereeing.
The eight teams will play a 10-game schedule during the regular season, with the top two from the North and South divisions advancing to the playoffs. The championship game will be a division winners clash.
Among other things to look out for with the new league:
• Fox and NBC will use drones for the first time in coverage of football games. During last week’s scrums, the drone followed a player through the holeshot during a play to show its running path.
Two players from each team will also have cameras in their helmets. During scrimmage, helmet cameras captured a player blocking a punt and a defensive back intercepting a pass in the end zone.
Broadcasters will also have access to all audio feeds of coaches and 32 players from both teams wearing microphones.
“The technology is going to develop throughout the season because there are things that have never been tried before,” Fox Sports producer Chuck McDonald said. “The biggest learning curve will be figuring out what’s great.”
• The technology will not only extend to broadcasts. Instead, the USFL will not use chain gangs, relying on a chip inside the ball to spot the ball. On close plays for first downs, Hawkeye technology – used in tennis to tell if a ball is inbounds – will be used to see if a player has gained the necessary yards.
Besides the extra point and 2-point conversion after touchdowns, teams can attempt a 3-point conversion from the 10-yard line. This means that an 18-point deficit is still theoretically a two-possession game.
Teams will also have the option of running a fourth-and-12 play from the 33-yard line to get a first down and retain possession instead of attempting an onside kick.
Most defensive pass interference calls will be 15 yards. It would be a foul if a defender intentionally tackles a receiver beyond 15 yards.
• According to FanDuel Sportsbook, the Michigan Panthers and Tampa Bay Bandits are joint favorites at 4.5-1.
Former Titans and Rams coach Jeff Fisher leads the Panthers, while Todd Haley leads the Bandits.
Michigan also has two of the most recognizable names at quarterback. Former University of Michigan star Shea Patterson is in line to start, with Paxton Lynch serving as a backup. Lynch played for the Broncos and Seahawks.