USFL might never play in Michigan, but Panthers’ nostalgia among keys to league’s survival

Detroit News

Sunday night’s conclusion of the Super Bowl, with all that confetti and those cheesy Disney World travel proclamations, marks the end of the fall and winter football seasons.

The countdown for more football will begin Monday — but the wait won’t last nearly as long as normal.

The United States Football League is set to reboot in April, marking the latest play at a spring football league, but one with perhaps more optimism for long-term survival because of a shrewd business model bankrolled by two major media networks, Fox and NBC. Eight teams will participate in the USFL’s inaugural season, with more than 400 players eligible for the first draft, set for later this month. Among those teams: the Michigan Panthers, who had a passionate following when they won the first USFL title, in 1983.

The teams, however, won’t play in their respective markets, but rather all the games will take place in Birmingham, Alabama, for at least for the first season — and perhaps beyond. It’s a financial decision aimed at giving the league the best shot at surviving beyond just Year 1, unlike recent spring-ball shots, such as the Alliance of American Football, which folded before the end of its inaugural season in 2019, and the XFL reboot, which shut down its first year back during the pandemic in 2020, though plans to return in 2023.

“We looked at a lot of different models of how we wanted to operate our league in the inaugural season,” Brian Woods, president of football operations for the USFL, said in a recent interview with The News. “The majority of major sports properties are going to start with teams all over the U.S. When we met behind closed doors, we decided the best format, the best structure that would position us best for our success in the long term, the idea was raised to have all these teams in one market initially. One, it would be efficient. Two, it could help in eliminating the need for costly travel, and the multiple venues.

“I think, really, in Year 1, it’s always about walking before we run. And the structure we’ve established, having the hub, I really feel like it positions this league for the best chance of success.”

Money is the backbone behind every business venture, and was the reason behind the ills of the AAF, which missed payroll in Week 1 of its inaugural season and eventually filed for bankruptcy, and the XFL, which in rebooting bid on some of the AAF’s assets before it filed for bankruptcy weeks into its reboot, too.

That’s why the USFL went with a different, hub business model, with all games being played at Birmingham’s Protective Stadium, home of UAB, and Legion Field, a former home of UAB and, occasionally, Auburn and Alabama. Ticket sales, obviously, won’t be the league’s main driver. They’re $10, with kids getting in free. Rather, the key will be the TV exposure. Fox Sports owns the league, and NBC is a significant partner.

All games will air on the two major platforms, with the league’s first game between the New Jersey Generals and Birmingham Stallions set to air live at 7:30 p.m. April 16 on both Fox and NBC — making that the first scheduled sporting event to air on competing networks since the first Super Bowl in 1967.

And, so, the Michigan Panthers might never actually set foot in Michigan. That doesn’t mean the Michigan fan base isn’t important to the USFL. When choosing teams and nicknames, the Panthers were an obvious selection for the USFL, because of their history. The rebooted USFL expects that nostalgia to be key.

“What we found after we made our initial announcement and as we continue to make announcements, there is a fan base out there. Fans are pulling out their old memorabilia, whether it be game programs or ticket stubs,” said Woods, noting the Michigan Panthers’ Twitter account has the most followers of the league’s eight teams, with 17,000-plus; team-specific merchandise will be available within the next few weeks.

“These teams were once in those markets. There’s certainly a connection.

“(It’s like) we’re starting on second base. This is a known brand.”

The Michigan Panthers of the 1980s, which played in the USFL for two seasons, were owned by A. Alfred Taubman, played out of the Pontiac Silverdome. Woods said the goal would be for the teams to relocate to their actual markets for a second season, in 2023, but that’s not set in stone. The hub could remain, but if it doesn’t, Woods said there have been preliminary discussions about specific venues in Metro Detroit. He wouldn’t specify. There’s no local ownership; all eight teams are owned by the league.

“We’re certainly flexible,” Woods said. “We want to get through that inaugural season.”

The inaugural 10-game regular season begins in mid-April and runs through mid-June, with the playoffs, including two semifinals and a championship game, to follow — knock on wood, given the last to spring attempts never got close to the starting the playoffs, let alone finishing them.

The inaugural draft is set for Feb. 22-23. The league has a database with more than 3,000 players’ names in it; the eligible draft pool will be cut to between 450 and 500.

Training camp is scheduled to start March 22.

The NFL requires players to be at least three years removed from high school, while the USFL requires they only be two years removed. Some could suggest that sets the USFL up to be a sort-of developmental option for the NFL, not unlike Woods’ most-notable football venture, The Spring League, which he founded in 2017.

But that’s not the plan with the USFL, Woods said. He wants the league and its talent to stand on its own. The talent obviously won’t match the NFL’s, but it doesn’t necessarily have to in order to draw eyeballs and sponsors, and, in turn, profits. Take Major League Soccer, for instance. It’s not close to be considered the best soccer in the world, but it more than holds its own in the United States.

“We are really being aggressive and trying to sign the best young talent that’s out there,” said Woods, whose players reportedly will draw salaries in the $40,000 range for being on the active roster, with win and championship bonuses available, as well as access to a free college tuition program.

“We’re not trying to compete with the NFL.”

The idea of competing with the NFL, of course, was the undoing of the USFL the first time around, when one of the team’s owners — future President Donald J. Trump — made a strong push to move the league from spring to the fall, to go up against the NFL. That idea was a dud, the USFL eventually sued the NFL over anti-trust regulations, and a jury awarded the USFL exactly $1 in damages. The old USFL lasted three years.

The rebooted USFL, which is not affiliated with previous ownership (but Woods still was able to secure all the team trademarks), knows the spring is its money maker — and the timing might just be perfect.

Football is the king sport in the United States, and rampant fans will watch any game, any time, particularly if they have money on the game. The explosion of legalized sports betting, including in Michigan, which had a total handle of $3.9 billion in 2021, could help the USFL.

An unexpected development — Major League Baseball’s ongoing lockout, which certainly will delay spring training, and likely could delay the season — opens up viewership opportunities, as well.

Then there’s credibility. Fox Sports has pledged hundreds of millions in initial investments, and one of its stars, Colin Cowherd, has rolled out big USFL announcements on his show. The faces of the league draw notice, too. Mike Pereira, Fox Sports’ NFL and college rules analyst, joined the league as head of officiating. And the roster of eight coaches features notable names, with a purposeful mix of college and NFL accomplishments, with Jeff Fisher as the inaugural head coach of the Panthers, Skip Holtz of the Birmingham Stallions, Mike Riley of the New Jersey Generals, Kirby Wilson of the Pittsburgh Maulers, Todd Haley of the Tampa Bay Bandits, Kevin Sumlin of the Houston Gamblers and Bart Andrus of the Philadelphia Stars.

“We were very strategic in terms of outreach,” Woods said. “We have a great balance with the coaches we have brought in for Year 1.

“Everything’s on track. We’ve really been in the planning phase and evaluating talent since the fall of last year. All the real nuts and bolts of the operation have been coming together very nicely.

“We’re very pleased with the way we stand right now.”

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984

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