Remember the United States Football League and the XLF, among several organizations that tried, and failed, to take on the National Football League? The United Football League, now in its second season, certainly does. But rather than taking its cue from the fallen, the UFL's ownership, as Commissioner Michael Huyghue relates, is seeking a path that not only could save the NFL millions of dollars but also lead the UFL to place of respect, acceptance and profit among fans, players and marketers.
By Barry Janoff, Executive Editor
(Posted October 16, 2010)
Postponing their starting date for a year, and then losing an estimated $30 million the first season of play only emphasized to the United Football League how treacherous the road to pro football success can be. However, the UFL believes it can surpass the short-lived existences of the USFL and XFL, which both failed to come close to the heights reached by the American Football League, which operated for nine seasons before merging with the NFL and morphing into the American Football Conference.
The UFL is taking a course that puts its product on national TV and in cities that want to support, but might never host, an NFL franchise. And with the potential shadow of an NFL lockout looming for 2011, the UFL's opportunities to reach pro football fans and marketing partners may improve. Teams are currently in Omaha, Las Vegas, Orlando, Hartford and Sacramento, with an expansion franchise planned for 2011 in Virginia. The league has said that among the cities on its expansion radar is Los Angeles, a major market in which the NFL has not resided since the Raiders returned to Oakland in 1994.
The UFL used its rookie season of 2009 and the first half of 2010 (which runs through Nov. 20, followed by a championship game at Omaha's Rosenblatt Stadium on Nov. 27, as determined by fan voting) to show that well-financed baby steps could lead to a profitable strut somewhere down the road. League ownership has relatively (though not unlimited) deep pockets: Bill Hambrecht, chairman and CEO of W.R. Hambrecht; Tim Armstrong, chairman and CEO of AOL; Paul Pelosi, founder of Financial Leasing Services (and husband of speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi); and Bill Mayer, senior parter at Park Avenue Equity Partners. Media partners are led by Versus, HDNet (under the auspices of Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks and a minority owner of the UFL) and the New England Sports Network.
National marketing partners include Riddell, Men's Warehouse, Progressive Insurance, Cutters and RotoHog. A deal with King Features Syndicate made iconic cartoon character Betty Boob the league's "official fantasy cheerleader," which comes with related marketing and merchandise.This year, the league signed BBDO, New York, to create the UFL's first national marketing campaign, which includes two spots, "Knee Caps" and "Closer."
The league said that each of the five 52-man rosters includes an average of 24 players with NFL experience. The average salary is $55,000, but a limited number of top-tier players make $200,000. This season, rosters include such former NFL stars as Jeff Garcia (QB with the Omaha Nighthawks), Daunte Culpepper (QB with the Sacramento Mountain Lions) and Ahmad Green (the Green Bay Packers' all-time leading rusher now with the Nighthawks). Head coaches include the Sacramento Lions' Dennis Green (former coach of the Minnesota Vikings and Arizona Cardinals and a fixture of the Coors Light "Coaches" commercials) and Jim Fassel with the Las Vegas Locomotives (former NFL Coach of the Year who helmed the New York Giants to Super Bowl XXXV in 2000). Joe Theismann the two-time NFL All-Pro QB, is now majority owner and president of the Florida Tuskers; and Doug Williams, MVP of Super Bowl XXII, is now GM of the expansion Virginia franchise.
However, where the league plans to make its mark is with coaches and players who have not yet had an impact in the NFL. This season, the league signed Maurice Clarett, a promising running back while at Ohio State in 2002 whose off-field problems eventually landed him in prison. While serving the end of his sentence at a community lockdown facility in Ohio, Clarett received permission from a judge to travel to Omaha to work out for the team, which signed him to a one-year contract. The deal came with a UFL mandate that the Nighthawks provide him with a 24/7 support system.
The signing was not without precedent. A year earlier, the UFL showed interest in signing Michael Vick at a time when his football future was still in doubt after having been suspended by the NFL and spending almost two years in jail for his role in a dog fighting operation. Vick instead signed a two-year deal with the Philadelphia Eagles valued at upward of $10 million. He saw limited playing time (appearing in 12 games for the Eagles in 2009, including one start, passing for 86 yards and rushing for 95) before re-establishing himself in the early weeks of the 2010 NFL season (until a rib injury temporarily sidelined him).
Although two of the league's original four franchises relocated for 2010 and the Nighthawks are an expansion team, the UFL believes it is putting down strong roots for an extended tenure on the pro football playing field. Commissioner Huyghue, an attorney whose 20+ years in pro football includes executive positions with the NFL front office, the Detroit Lions and Jacksonville Jaguars, spoke with NYSportsJournalism about the short- and long-term challenges facing the league.
NYSportsJournalism: How much of what the UFL wanted to accomplish have you done thus far?
Michael Huyghue: In our first season, it was 50% of what we wanted to do. We lost $30 million. But that was what we expected. Even with that, our ownership group was very satisfied with the first year. It was enough to give people a flavor for the product. People who went to the games, although it was not a ton of people [an average of 9,300 per game], they had a good time. So that means we could talk about the fun of the UFL once we did more advertising. The championship game was probably our best game of the season [14,801 at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas, televised by Versus]. It really left a flavor for the quality of the product.I feel that we ended on a very high note. All in all, we were very optimistic going into the second year.
NYSJ: Would you say that the situation so far with Maurice Clarett, who is 26 and still could play pro football for many years, is a good example of how the UFL can benefit players, fans and, perhaps, the NFL?
MH: Yes. And I think it proves that if Michael Vick had come into our league last year you would have seen the same type of progress and results it took two years to happen in the NFL, where now people are looking at him as again being one of the best quarterbacks in football. He was ill-served by not being able to take 70 snaps a game in our league last year and then let other teams see where he was as opposed to what he did with the [Philadelphia] Eagles. If Vick had played in the UFL last year and had taken 70 snaps a game, my contention is that the Eagles could have saved the $60 million they invested in Kevin Kolb. Because as soon as Kolb came in and played this season they were ready to return to Vick, meaning that they had made a huge financial commitment to their back-up quarterback. (Editor's note: Kolb has subsequently started and starred for the Eagles as Vick recovers from injury.)
"If Vick had played in the UFL last year and had taken 70 snaps a game, the Eagles could have saved the $60 million they invested in Kevin Kolb."
NYSJ: When you look at the current UFL rosters, it's hard to miss some of the players and coaches who are very well known to NFL fans: Culpepper, Garcia, Dennis Green, even Clarett. How much of an impact has that made in getting the UFL's name out to the public?
MH: What's been interesting is it's not just the star players, or just that they are stars. People like the stories of the players, whether or not they were all-pro in the NFL. Maurice Clarett is a great story for us. The coaches have great stories. And maybe it's humble pie for some of them because it's not the stage they are used to being on. But it's a stage [in their career] they are happy to be at. So if this is our avenue to Broadway, no one is going to hold their head held down. They feel good about it.
NYSJ: Some people see the UFL becoming a place, for better or worse, where former NFL stars play out their careers. But do you see it more as a place where future NFL stars can hone their skills?
MH: One of the advantages of the UFL is that it's not whether or not people are good enough to play [in the NFL], it's where they are in the stages of their career. After our first season, 40 of our players went up to NFL rosters, which I feel speaks to the quality of the athletes. Because [the reality] for an NFL player is that you may be an NFL player today, but possibly not tomorrow because it's a year-to-year evaluation. A guy can be the coach of the year in the NFL and two years later be fired. That's what happens. Players' careers don't ascend every year. They plateau at times and sometimes they dip. What the NFL is always trying to do is catch players within the cycle of when they are performing their best. There is more than a 30% attrition rate on [NFL] rosters each year. What our league does is help the guys who are shuffling in and out. It's a way to maintain our base so that they can cycle back in [to the NFL]. That benefits us and can be very cost-saving for the NFL.
NYSJ: What is the UFL's relationship with the NFL?
MH: The relationship is a constant process. We all come from the NFL. There is no question they have a strong interest. They are a component of this. The NFL is in the business of professional football across the country so they obviously keep track of what we are doing. We have kept cordial relationships with them. Having said that, the strength of our league really depends on us being different and an alternative.
"The NFL is in the business of professional football across the country so they obviously keep track of what we are doing."
NYSJ: The UFL has targeted several locations as possible expansion sites, but how realistic would it be to expand to Los Angeles?
MH: Staying out of NFL markets is important. That's what we have been looking to do. The NFL is not in Los Angeles, which provides a unique opportunity for us. It could give us a foothold in the second-largest TV market in the country [behind New York]. The economics of [putting a franchise there makes] it very difficult for the NFL to go back, but our blueprint [of expansion] is more realistic.
NYSJ: In the first season, did you meet the goals of signing and working with marketing and media partners as well as attracting fans and consumers, and then carry that into the second year?
MH: I think so. It was enough of a sampler for people, the same way that you sample any product you want people to come back to and buy. It was just enough of a taste that made you say, "I want another bite." We did a good job in getting sponsors, in getting a presentation of the game, those kinds of things that had a very professional feel. And, of course, on the field, the quality of the product was there.
NYSJ: How do you feel the league came across on TV?
MH: I think we did well from a TV perspective. The games were very well presented. I'm not knocking the NFL Network, but if that was the standard, I thought our games were on-par if not better than that. Our broadcasters did a good job. We were on Versus and HDNet — you don't get that just by blinking your eyes. Mark has been a strong supporter of the league and what we are trying to do. So we were fortunate that there was a vision by the management team, a concept and willingness by the network executives to put our product on national TV on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.
NYSJ: What do you see in national marketing, having signed BBDO as your lead agency?
MH: BBDO did an outstanding campaign. We are getting very good response to the [two] spots. We are getting a lot of hits on our Web site. We are building our social media platform, which we really just touched on in our first year. We are doing as much as the other sports on Twitter, Facebook, with our other media partners. We feel the campaign has all the qualities of differentiating us as a strong alternative, as being irreverent. In our first year with BBDO, that is something very strong that we can build on throughout the season and moving forward.
NYSJ: The UFL broke some new marketing ground last season by putting sponsor logos front-and-center on helmets, trying to be creative within stadiums and other ways to promote the league and its marketing partners. What might fans and marketers expect this season?
MH: We believe that different is better. We are getting fans involved in a lot of aspects of league management that you don't see in other sports. We asked fans to determine how our overtime games should be decided. We asked fans to determine the location of our championship game. We are looking for unique ways to promote the league and our marketing partners. It's good to have a league such as ours that can be innovative and can try different things to enhance the game. Being innovative is our motto.
NYSJ: What did you see as the UFL's biggest challenges ramping up to the first season in 2009?
MH: The first season, based on our budget and what we had time to do, was really an appetizer, in a sense, in proving one singular point: That there was an ability to play an alternative professional football league in the fall as opposed to the spring, when all of the other leagues had been organized. But the challenge also was to show that the quality of the product was really sustainable. That it would go beyond the expectation of people and be something that people would look forward to as part of their regular viewing habits in the fall.
NYSJ: Most, if not all, of the individual team operations the first season were handled out of the league office. How has that changed for 2010?
MH: The first season was not intended to create an initial in-market base in terms of employees or presence of the [respective] team. We had to sacrifice and curtail marketing and advertising [within individual] markets. I knew that attendance was going to suffer and I knew that defining the teams in the market wasn't going to reach [fans and local marketers] the way we wanted in a full, blown-out season, which is the way you normally would start a league.
NYSJ: Was that by choice or did financial and logistical situations determine the strategy?
MH: It was playing the cards we were dealt. We thought it was the best way to utilize a kickoff into a full season. I knew that the first season was only going to have limited perception with folks. And we obviously then wanted to roll out a full platform launch of cheerleaders and the other things that come with a full team in the second year. One of my biggest complaints when I was at the NFL was that we didn't do a good enough job of going after former players and putting them in front office positions. The UFL is doing that.
NYSJ: What are some of the challenges in 2010?
MH: Well, we are still in a depressed economy. But coming back for a second season was important because the vision to build and expand was strong. Even though we met a lot of our challenges the first year, we feel there are greater tasks because we have five teams and are committed to a sixth team in 2011. In addition to being in new markets, we really hadn't built team identities in any of our individual markets. So we were building each of the team's marketing staffs, the PR staffs and putting all of those logistics in place, as well as trying to shore up coaching staffs and talking to agents and getting players on the rosters. So it was a relaunch in many ways. It's been a very busy time. But we feel very good about it because a lot of good things are happening, getting cheerleading uniforms, seeing all of the elements that we want to come through, things coming into place. The networks came back, and we were given a Saturday prime time slot instead of a Thursday slot. We are painting more of a picture of what we can look like. All of the indicators are good.
NYSJ: The Nighthawks had 24,000 people at their first game (at Rosenblatt Stadium), which seems to bode well for the expansion team. Looking at 2010 and beyond, what are your short- and long-term goals?
MH: To continue to expand. There are a lot of markets such as Omaha that aren't going to get NFL teams but want more pro football. It's almost like our tag line is: Pro football for the rest of America. That's really where we stand. There are a lot of people in a lot of markets and cities who say, "We watch our college teams, we would love to have and support our own professional team." This gives us our feel of the NFL and we are thrilled to have it.
NYSJ: How big is the challenge to gain for respect from sports fans and marketers?
MH: It is big, but we are gaining [that respect]. People watch our teams, and they see [players including] Daunte Culpeper and Ahmad Green, and they watch the games on TV and see the credibility of coaches we have, and even if they don't know anything about [the UFL], most people reach a point where they see that we do have quality football. But we will have to continually work hard to prove that.
NYSJ: Are people accepting the fact that the UFL will be around for a while?
MH: History proves that people will always be a little skeptical. But I think the average person who has followed us from the beginning knows that there are a enough things about this league, and the feel of it, that gives you the sense it has a chance to be a long-term proposition. And I think that's the most you can hope for people to say in light of the economy and in light of [sports] history. I hope people take an optimistic look at our league. At this stage, that is a positive that we can hope for.