The USFL is reborn in 2022
Spring football caught the imagination of the NFL fanbase in the mid 1980s and after several abortive attempts to revive it, next year may see its return
One of my high school football coaches was Robbie Mahfouz. Fresh from the New Orleans Saints camp, he had seen fame as the starting quarterback for the Jacksonville Bulls. When the USFL came about in the spring of 1983, it caused an immediate storm. The New Jersey Generals’ owner Donald Trump showed some of that maverick streak by signing Heisman Trophy-winning running back Herschel Walker from Georgia.
The 12 large-market team league expanded to 18 teams in 1984 then contracted to 14 teams in 1985. In their short lifespan, they signed some of the biggest NFL stars to their ranks, including NFL Hall-of-Famers Jim Kelly, Reggie White, Steve Young and Gary Zimmerman who all started in the USFL. Heisman Trophy winner and future Grey Cup legend Doug Flutie signed with the USFL over the NFL in 1984.
Playing its first three seasons in the spring, the league was scheduled to begin competing head to head with the NFL in the fall of 1986. A disgruntled Donald Trump led a push for the USFL to bring and antitrust lawsuit against the NFL. Although they won their case, the court awarded them damages of a symbolic dollar. The classic Pyrrhic victory, the league had staked its future on winning the lawsuit, expecting a substantial settlement to finance the move to the fall ball. Accurately predicting the 1987 players’ strike, the league owners voted to suspend operations for one season in the hopes that they would gain access to the NFL’s star players. With more than $160 million debt, the USFL shuttered its doors, never to reopen. Until now.
I was a huge Jacksonville Bulls fan. I’ve never forgiven Trump for destroying the USFL. Glad to see it coming back. Would love to see someone bring back the Bulls! pic.twitter.com/RbJoAUHwQ8— Ivan Zimmerman (@iczimm) November 22, 2021
Just to be clear upfront, this new USFL incarnation is not, repeat is not, the same league that folded 37 years ago. That league was organized along standard franchise lines, in keeping with the model set out in the NFL. The new USFL will be modelled on the template set out by the equally popular, but even shorter-lived XFL, itself based on the wrestling model of a single operation, entirely owned by a single entity. The 2022 incarnation of the USFL is entirely owned by Fox Sports. Given their business deals with the NFL, it is likely that they will seek less to compete with as much as being a feeder league for the NFL. An entity to fill the gap left by the collapse of NFL Europe, although that league looks to be reforming as well.
The teams involved
- Birmingham Stallions
- Houston Gamblers
- Michigan Panthers
- New Jersey Generals
- New Orleans Breakers
- Philadelphia Stars
- Pittsburgh Maulers
- Tampa Bay Bandits
North Division: Michigan Panthers, New Jersey Generals, Philadelphia Stars, Pittsburgh Maulers
South Division: Birmingham Stallions, Houston Gamblers, New Orleans Breakers, Tampa Bay Bandits
Eventually playing in their home markets, games will initially be played at the University of Alabama Birmingham. Division rivals will be faced twice and inter-conference teams once, for a season totalling ten games.
The top two teams in each division face off in a semi-final followed by a championship game the following week.
The original USFL was extremely innovative, ushering in the drafting of underclassmen, pushing the NFL to pay higher salaries to its players and creating for the first time real free-agency. On the field, the innovations that the NFL adopted from the USFL include the two point conversion and the use of video replay to challenge calls. Let’s hope that the new incarnation will retain that innovation.
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