Monday, July 20, 2009

A League In Search Of Self: The UFL's Inaugural Season

A Google search of the term 'UFL' churns up the website for the University of Florida as its top result. Second is the website for the new four-team professional football league, the UFL- 'Where the Future Stars Come to Play'.

We've seen this before: another football league is trying to take a bite out of the NFL's market. The XFL was a joke. Vince McMahon's attempt at professional football was short-lived due to a lack of fan support and market exposure and some pretty unconventional-some may say ridiculous-rules. The USFL lasted three seasons in the 80's, but plans a return in the spring of 2010. While the USFL seems to be in direct competition with the NFL, despite playing their games in the spring, the UFL, who will play in the fall, seems content to serve as a launching pad for future NFL players and NFL players who failed to make an NFL roster in the summer. If they accept the NFL's immovable position as the preeminent football league, they just may stick around for more than a few seasons after all.

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The United Football League is set to kick off in October with the championship game slated for Thanksgiving weekend. The league has been given exposure recently with Michael Vick's release from federal custody. Analysts are predicting that Vick could play in the UFL's inaugural season before joining an NFL team late in the year, or for the 2010 season. The Vick name would garner the league some much needed attention as the sports media would religiously monitor his development and achievements in the league.

A quick glance at the current rosters turn up very few names that even the most passionate and informed NFL fans will recognize.

Each of the four teams (New York, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Orlando) currently has a quarterback on their roster that at one time served as an NFL starter. Ken Dorsey (NY), J.P. Losman (LV), Brooks Bollinger (ORL) and Tim Rattay (SF) are presumed to lead their teams onto the field in October. If Vick decides to give the UFL a go, the Orlando team would own his rights. The league has set up a system based on a team's geographic location in relation to the NFL's eight divisions. Orlando owns the rights to players who last played in the NFC or AFC South.

Other recognizable players currently on UFL rosters include SS Adam Archuleta (LV), FB Cecil Sapp (NY), RB LaBrandon Toefield (NY), RB Chris Perry (ORL), G Zach Piller (ORL), DT Larry Triplet (ORL), SS Mike Doss (ORL), WR B.J. Sams (SF) and FB Obafemi Ayanbadejo (SF). Marcus Fitzgerald, the younger brother of Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, will make his professional debut when he suits up for the San Francisco squad in October. Brian Johnson, the quarterback for the 2008 undefeated Utah Utes, will compete with Dorsey for the starting job in New York.

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Without Vick the UFL offers very little name recognition to attract curious football fans. The closest thing they have to that now is Losman, whose tenure in Buffalo was far short of spectacular. What the league does have is a solid plan and structure for the future.

The league will impose a salary cap of $12-$20 million per team and hopes to pay about 10 players on each squad more than $1 million a season. Part of the reason the USFL folded in the 80's was a lack of regulated spending. In the inaugural season, a six-game shortened season, a smaller cap will be established. Games are to be played Thursdays and Fridays, in competition with high school games in some areas, and with a select number of college games. The UFL is already investing in training facilities for its teams; one out west in Arizona, and another possibly on the site of the former Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Florida.

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The league has said it will target markets where the NFL does not have a stronghold or even a presence; San Francisco and New York are the curious exceptions. The Las Vegas team will likely play one game in Los Angeles in hopes of building a fan base in the city when a Los Angeles team is added for the 2010 season. A second team in Hartford, Connecticut is scheduled to join the league in 2010 as well.

The four head coaches will be familiar to NFL fans. Jim Fassel will head the Las Vegas team, Jim Haslett the Orlando team and Dennis Green the San Francisco team. Ted Cottrell, a former defensive coordinator for the Buffalo Bills, New York Jets, Minnesota Vikings and San Diego Chargers, will coach the New York team.

The UFL has all the right ideas to succeed in the shadow of the NFL. They do not compete with the NFL on Sundays or with college football on Saturday. They seem content to sign and play the NFL's leftovers, although they are likely hoping for some sort of strike or holdout in 2011 when the NFL /player's union contract comes to an end. They've even accepted "a soft launch", as Commissioner Michael Huyghue put it, playing with a four team, six-game regular season format for the inaugural season.

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On second thought, how many Minor League baseball games have you tuned into this year? When was the last time you grabbed a cool beverage and spent the night watching an NBA D-League game? And when was the last time you were on pins and needles awaiting the kickoff of that big Arena Football League matchup? Showcasing scrubs may be best left to the medical dramas and parodies of such. But if any one secondary outdoor, 100-yard field, 11 on 11 football league is to at least 'survive', in the most basic interpretation of the word, the UFL has a chance. A joint venture with the NFL as a developmental league the way NFL Europe served in the capacity may be the best thing for a league such as the UFL. Playing and developing young players at home, rather than across an ocean, may attract more fans and may even garner a little added fanfare for some of the players. It works for baseball, it might work for football.

Written By Danny Hobrock