Are spring football leagues possible or a figment of the obsession of a few?

Ron Borges

The history of folks who have tried to prove pro football can be profitably played before the leaves have fallen has been a sad one. This was proven once again this year in a span of just eight weeks, which is how long the Alliance of American Football needed to go broke. This leads to a simple question: is there a market in America for football before football season?

The fiscal evidence indicates not. Yet looming on the horizon is the resurrection of the XFL, which already went broke once but has risen from those financial ashes to try and lose more money next year for WWE founder Vince McMahon. You’ve got to give spring football advocates credit for trying…primarily because they never have had enough cash to sustain their dream for long.

Of all the spring football efforts, the USFL lasted the longest. It survived three years as a spring league in the mid-1980s. Then Donald Trump entered the picture and like all his other businesses soon went broke when he insisted the USFL move to the fall and compete with the NFL.

The USFL signed some big-name players, including future Hall of Famers Jim Kelly and Reggie White, and one could argue they might have survived in the spring if they’d stayed in the spring. But The Donald decided to make the USFL Great Again and over the falls it went.

The World League soon surfaced, a spring league based primarily in foreign cities. This was both an effort to create a developmental league for young players in need of a bit more seasoning and to fuel international fervor for the American game. Unlike the USFL or the leagues that would follow it, the World League was funded by and directed by the NFL itself.

There were some big draws in Barcelona and several cities in Germany but the sport never caught on in London or in the minds of the owners, who kept asking why they were funding a developmental league when they had a very successful developmental league called college football that didn’t cost them a dime.

Owners being owners, they sacrificed the further developing of potential stars in need of post-graduate work in the game for saving money. The World League soon after fell apart.

Hucksters, hustlers and football fanatics are everywhere however so neither of those failings prevented McMahon from creating the XFL in 2001, a wild WWE-creation that tried to mix spring football with wrestling salesmanship and bravado. In one year we had the rise to legendary status of a guy named Rod Smith, who marketed himself as “He Hate Me.’’ That was the name on the back of his jersey and he became a cult hero for it.

So too did the abandonment of the coin toss at the start of the game in favor of a free-for-all scramble to recover a fumbled football to determine who went on offense first. Frankly, that was my favorite innovation but not even that bit of twisted WWE violence could save the league, which bled red ink. McMahon folded the XFL after one season, calling it “a colossal failure.’’

Thus chastised, spring football went away for nearly two decades before a young entrepreneur named Charlie Ebersol, son of sports television programming legend Dick Ebersol who long ran NBC Sports, joined up with Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian to try it again in December. Rushed to get onto the field before the new XFL relaunched in 2020, the Alliance kicked off too soon and quickly kicked the bucket.

Underfunded from the outset, the Alliance was set to miss payroll the same week of its first games and had a TV deal with CBS that cost it money because the league had to pay the network’s production costs and buy air time . Soon it was out of both breath…and money. Its 10-game schedule survived only eight weeks and now is in bankruptcy court with lawsuits flying.

The guy who was supposed to save the Alliance was a hedge fund guy named Tom Dundon. He promised to inject $70 million into the failing spring league, took over the board and like most hedge fund operators soon folded the thing and pulled out. Now he’s suing to get his investment back claiming the league misrepresented its problems. Why did he think they needed another $70 million two months into its inaugural (and final) season? Because things were going swimmingly?

Regardless, Dundon says he’d been assured they only needed another $55 million to make it to the end of the year while actually needing over $100 million. Whatever the truth of that, two things are sure: you can’t get $70 million from people who don’t have 70 cents and as of yet no one has figured out a way to make spring football attractive for long.

It says in the Bible that there is a time for all seasons. What there is not, it seems, is a season for all football.

McMahon now intends to again buck that fact. He has taken several years to rebuild the XFL and has decided to create eight teams, seven in NFL cities and an eighth in St. Louis, the place the NFL has twice abandoned for lack of support. He also will have a ninth team in Dallas which will serve as a taxi squad, practicing but playing no games.

The other teams can call up a player from this ninth “team’’ if one is needed, sort of like the NFL’s practice squads. Only problem is most fans have tended to look at such entire leagues as practice squads and ignored them where it counts – with their wallets.

Other than cost overruns, the other problem with spring football is talent. Or lack of it. Surely there are more Kurt Warners hidden out there, working at a convenience store stocking shelves after quickly being cut by an NFL team without having been given a full chance to develop. That is the eternal hope of these leagues and it makes sense. As they say, “hope springs eternal.’’

What thus far has not sprung is the idea of spending time watching football in the spring. There have been pockets of success below the Mason-Dixon Line but in general Americans seem to have spoken on this. So why is McMahon ready to try again?

Because football is an athletic narcotic. Everyone dreams of playing it, coaching it or owning teams that do. Some huckster somewhere believe he is a little smarter, a little richer and a little luckier. He knows in his heart there is an untapped reservoir out there of people who can’t get enough football. The proof, they think, is everywhere.

Fans spend four days of their lives each year watching a boring TV show called “the draft.’’ Some even spend time staring at combine workouts on their TVs. I fear this says more about their home life than it does the future of spring football.

The largest problem for spring football is one the NFL faces as well. There is only so much talent out there and most of it is already signed to contracts. The Alliance tried to get the NFL Players Association to agree to let its younger players also play for the Alliance to develop themselves. In theory it sounded great. In reality, at least in the union leadership’s opinion, it sounded like more risk for fewer rewards and a very good chance that your NFL hopes might die on a field somewhere in Birmingham or San Antonio. Without medical insurance when the latest spring league folded.

At one point, Polian told union head DeMaurice Smith the NFLPA could designate the players themselves and he assured him they wouldn’t get hurt. To this Smith had a simple reply: “How can you guarantee that?’’

He could not and the demise of the Alliance had begun before the opening kickoff. Yet here comes the XFL, in big league cities with big-name coaches like Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, June Jones, ex-Bears head coach Marc Trestman, Jim Zorn and Kevin Gilbride. The hope is big-name coaches will legitimize the product.

The only flaw in that thinking is nobody pays to watch coaches ask Xs to block Os. Hank Haney is one of golf’s greatest teachers. No one pays to watch him instruct a player on his backswing. Fans pay to watch a student like Tiger Woods play golf.

In the end, this seems to be an experiment that keeps failing to get off the launching pad because nobody wants to pay to watch minor league football when they can watch the Alabama spring game for free.

Perhaps somebody out there will find a way to make spring football pay but it seems to me that its continued failure is a result of the fact you can get too much of a good thing. After all, even candy loses its taste if you try to swallow too much of it.


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