Since every team has opened camp, every position battle will be heavily scrutinized by coaches, media, fans and unquestionably, the players themselves. Yet, there is another concerned party this season that will be keeping an eye on developments in these camps; the United Football League. It’s a league that while the outsiders may scoff at – consider the history of failed competition to the National Football League’s throne – some insiders aren’t as quick to dismiss it as there could be some potential in the new league.
When discussing the collapse of the Arena Football League, Dan Shanoff of ESPN's Page 2 fame made a solid observation (could imagine that he could go in further detail if there was time) on the potential failure of the UFL.
Related: My problem with the set-up of the UFL is that they are following the XFL's path to irrelevancy through mediocrity. Who wants to watch players who can't make the NFL cut?
My idea for the UFL is simple: If they really want to be pro football's (read: the NFL's) "development league," then allow underclassmen ineligible for the NFL Draft into the league.
Give them better preparation for a pro career than college will give them and the NFL, UFL and fans are all best-served. College football will be fine with the 97 percent of players that remain.
I appreciate that the UFL is starting small, with contained costs and locations in underserved NFL markets. But the product differentiation isn't there. That's where the AFL was the best.Shanoff raises a larger point about the viability of another football league. Certainly, the UFL can’t expect to challenge the NFL in acquiring elite-level talents in the manner that the original AFL, the American Football League – which eventually merged with the National to form the modern NFL – was able to in the 1950s and 60s. Not only are the finances exponentially larger than they were nearly fifty years ago, but the appetite for football has changed.
We have long accepted that the famed 1958 NFL Championship Game between the New York Giants and Baltimore Colts started a changing of the guard as football began to trump baseball as the American passion and pastime. However, this change still took a few Super Bowls to put the NFL in the sporting public’s consciousness permanently. College football has enjoyed a longer run of popularity, though it hasn’t been until the past twenty+ years that save for a few locales, both forms of the game have enjoyed a comfortable and even cooperative existence.
World Football League to the USFL to the XFL (which was doomed from the start) to the NFL’s own developmental league (WLAF – NFL Europa), each league found challenges that were too much to overcome in order to survive. Whether there were issues of securing stadium deals, broadcasting rights or financing beyond Year One, these leagues had a hard time convincing skeptical football fans that they were worthwhile because business operations were in such flux.
In his post, Shanoff credits the Arena League for considering a different model for its relative success by starting small from the onset, but pins its failure on getting too big for its foundation. He sees that the UFL should look to the same model, but in turn pick up where NFL Europa left off as a developmental league.
The European league was shuttered because the Americans wanted to shift international efforts to playing regular season NFL contests beyond North America. Though the league developed some players and officials while building a niche presence in a soccer-mad continent, owners and NFL officials felt that did not see the return on their investment (which amounted to about one million dollars per team).
The idea of the UFL as a developmental, or feeder, league is intriguing because it would be a road not taken by a competing upstart league in recent memory. This is a league that is highly dependent on personnel with collegiate and NFL experience. All four coaches – Jim Haslett, Dennis Green, Jim Fassel and Ted Cotrell – were former head coaches and/or coordinators in the NFL over the past two decades, with Haslett, himself being a former Defensive Rookie of the Year for the Buffalo Bills in 1979. As players are released from NFL teams, it’s certain that these coaches will monitor the movements of those rosters to bring in a few more players to the league. Many, if not all currently in the UFL were in the Sunday spotlight as recently as last December; something that could not be said about Vince McMahon’s football league, which featured guys who had been away from competitive football for some time.
There may be a few differences between the two pro leagues, but the UFL has been fairly candid with, or at least accepting of the loose affiliations there are with the NFL. Other leagues tried to disassociate themselves from the popular league, going so far in the XFL’s case as to encourage all that the NFL discourages; player celebrations, brash personalities and cameras wherever they could fit them. Whether this concept becomes successful is far from being determined, but from initial glances, the UFL has a more realistic understanding of how to start building itself into a player than its predecessors.