Sport Change’s Ideal Leagues series continues with an exploration of a league that has strong ties to both the past and the future: the United States Football League.
For the uninitiated, the USFL was a professional football league that operated for a few years in the 1980s and found moderate success playing spring football in cities across the US. Then Donald Trump ruined everything by pushing for the league to play in the fall to hopelessly compete with the NFL. For a complete history, I highly, highly recommend the movie Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL? For a quicker history, here’s something from NFL.com. Suffice it to say, nary a whisper had been heard from the USFL for a quarter century….until…a new USFL bought the rights to the league’s name and has quietly been laying plans to re-launch the league starting in March 2014.
The new USFL has one year to put together a new league that will serve a few different functions, including but not limited to: providing insatiable football fans with a spring season league, providing bubble NFL players and has-beens with a venue for competing, and serving as a de facto developmental league for the NFL. It’s a recipe for success, and the new USFL seems to be approaching the task more thoughtfully than the UFL or Arena League.
Why it’s better than the UFL
The UFL was a cool experiment, and the league was very intriguing when it launched in 2009 and stayed afloat for a few years. The coaches were household names and the rosters were filled with enough NFL retreads to make it compelling. It was easy to get excited about Jeff Garcia leading the Omaha Nighthawks against Daunte Culpepper’s Sacramento Mountain Lions. The problem is that the UFL made the same mistake of the old USFL–playing in the fall. The UFL was lost in the shadow of of the NFL, and with few opportunities for players to bounce between the two leagues. The new USFL will have an open-door policy with the NFL, keeping in mind that support from the NFL is crucial to the league’s success.
Why it’s better than the Arena Football League
The AFL works great on paper. A spring football league that doesn’t require large outdoor stadiums to be built or maintained. Just roll astroturf onto the basketball court or put pads over the hockey boards and you’re good to go. A small field means more offense and higher scores. Great, right? Well, not really. The whole thing is coated with a sheen of gimmickry that feels pretty off-putting, the small field doesn’t seem like the ideal venue to hone future NFL stars, and there are safety concerns that come with a quickened pace of play. The new USFL has a good opportunity to mimic conditions of the NFL, while stressing player safety from the outset. I anticipate that player safety rules will be stricter than even the NFL.
Like most semi-pro leagues of this nature, the USFL rosters will likely be initially comprised of a ragtag mix of young and old football players trying to make their mark or eke out a paycheck. If the league reached a point where it was a true minor league system (like the NBA D-League) it would become a win-win for both parent and affiliate clubs to be located within the same market region. There has been some mention of territorial drafts, and that is an ideal scenario. Fans will flock to games if the team features both practice-squad and over-the-hill players from their favorite NFL team, as well as players from their favorite college teams who didn’t make an NFL roster. For example, a team in Baton Rouge, Louisiana might have JaMarcus Russell of LSU at quarterback and Deuce McAllister, formerly of the Saints, at running back.
At this point, I have only one real issue with the plan: the scheduling. Despite the fact that there is a gaping football void in the early spring, I think starting in March is way too early, and I think the season should start in May. Here are three reasons: 1.) Weather will be a major problem for northern locations. Minor League Baseball struggles with this, and they start in April. It’s one thing to enjoy a football game with fall flurries, but a foot of muddy slush is never fun. 2.) Many colleges are out of session by May, and stadiums would be made available in many potential USFL cities. An early summer agreement might be worked out with a university, but I doubt the spring would work as well–especially with sports like soccer and lacrosse gaining in popularity. 3.) The USFL should make a concerted effort to sign undrafted free agents in the wake of the NFL draft. Successful college quarterbacks would be especially notable, and it would be very exciting for fans to have their teams sign regional favorites and have them starting a week or two later. At this point, undrafteds will just jump in mid-season. I can understand how the league wants to play a good, long season, but I think 10 weeks in May/June/July would work well. Perhaps the championship could be around 4th of July weekend; leaving plenty of time for the USFL stars to make it to NFL training camps.
As of this writing, the USFL has embarked on a cross-country trip to build support and finalize the locations of the eight teams that will launch the 2014 season. Information on this is subject to change, but new revelations will be included in this ever-updating Ideal League. Wikipedia currently lists sixteen “Target Franchises,” but at least one of them has already been removed from contention. Sport Change will not speculate about the eight teams in question. Rather, speculation will give way to unbridled imagination and whimsy. Here’s a ridiculous pitch for the Ideal USFL.
THE IDEAL USFL
Let’s imagine that the USFL is a huge success right out of the gate, and the original eight teams are expanded to 12 in 2015 and 16 in 2016. Pairs of teams are added over the next few years until the ultimate goal is reached, let’s say in 2020: a 32-team “AAA” developmental league for the NFL, with a regional farm club for each franchise. It’s very difficult to see this actually happening, but this is what Sport Change fantasy world is all about.
Sport Change will look into each of the 32 Ideal USFL franchises, play matchmaker, assign monikers, and have a lot of fun. With a few variations, we’re including the 16 locations listed on Wikipedia; in addition to other “second tier” markets and dark horse college towns. Former USFL cities are favored, but any cities that currently host an NFL team have been avoided, such as Houston (Gamblers) and Jacksonville (Bulls). Here we go.
Akron, Ohio. It has been a bit of a surprise to see Akron on all the lists of target cities for the USFL, and the promotional tour was even kicked off in the Ohio city. Perhaps it would make more sense to put a team in Dayton, where the minor league baseball Dragons are a top draw, or maybe in Canton–birthplace of the NFL. Whatever: we’ll go along with Akron. The obvious parent club would be the nearby Cleveland Browns, so the hilarious moniker choice would be a shade of brown. The Sepias, Umbers, Taupes, and Tans all make compelling cases, but the Akron Ochres has a nice ring to it.
Alabama. This is a tricky one, as it seemed like a slam dunk for the Birmingham Stallions to be resurrected. Alas, no. There will be a team in Alabama, however, and I suppose it could be in Montgomery, Mobile, Huntsville, Tuscaloosa, or even Auburn. So for now we’ll just say ‘Alabama,’ and call them by a new moniker. Copperheads are venomous snakes native to Alabama, and the opportunity for a copper-colored helmet is too good to pass up. The Tennessee Oilers almost went that route before choosing Titans. The ideal NFL parent club would be the regional favorite–the Atlanta Falcons.
Albuquerque, New Mexico. Albuquerque is a surprisingly large city that currently hosts the New Mexico Lobos. The weather would certainly be nice in the spring, and the Arizona Cardinals would make for a logical parent club. For a nickname, there are a few good possibilities (Javelinas, Mustangs, etc.) but my vote goes to the Gila Monster, or the New Mexico Monsters. The helmets could have an orange and black speckled pattern. Awesome.
Austin, Texas. Austin keeps coming up in USFL reports, and I like the idea more than the (more likely) Dallas area, which we’ve excluded. Austin is well-renowned for music, so I’ll suggest the Austin Tunesmiths–or Smiths for short. I wonder how many Austin Smiths there are in the world? In lieu of a Dallas area team, we’ll give Austin to the Cowboys.
Baton Rouge, Louisiana. This is a location that was neither on the Wikipedia list nor my list of an additional 16 markets. Rather, Baton Rouge is popping up in recent reports about the USFL, and it seems like a done deal. This is great for the Saints (in our fantasy) in that they will have a nearby farm club. Under a better moniker surfaces, we’ll call them the Baton Rouge Red Sticks.
Columbus, Ohio. The largest city in Ohio seems like a slam dunk, particularly with OSU’s fan base already in place. With the other Ohio team (Akron) being an easy choice for Cleveland, Columbus would fall to the Cincinnati Bengals. Let’s be cheeky and give them a nickname that’s another subspecies of tiger–the Columbus Malayans.
Erie, Pennsylvania. Erie is a good sized city that has a healthy rep in the NBA’s D-League–the Erie BayHawks. That’s a terrible nickname, so we’ll give them something better. Continuing in the blue-collar tradition of their natural parent club, the Steelers, we’ll call them the Erie Fishermen.
Fort Wayne, Indiana. Fort Wayne seems to be an ideal city for a minor league franchise. Both Minor League Baseball’s Tin Caps and NBA D-League’s Mad Ants have successful and effective brands. Fort Wayne would be a great affiliate of the Colts, and continuing in that vein, we’ll call them the Foals.
Gainesville, Florida. This seems a bit random, but a team in Gainesville could play in the Florida Gators’ stadium and be a nearby affiliate of the Jaguars. Additionally, the franchise could serve as something like a placeholder for a USFL franchise in Jacksonville should the Jaguars move to L.A. For now the Gainesville Ocelots will be the farm club for the Jags.
Hartford, Connecticut. As another market that makes both the Wikipedia list and the Sport Change list, Hartford is a logical choice. The issue is with affiliation. From what I can gather, NFL allegiance is mixed in Connecticut; about 50/50, Patriots/Giants, with a little Jets love here and there. I’m tempted to give the team to the Jets and call them the Hartford Helicopters, but that would likely alienate Pats fans. Hartford goes to the Giants and we’ll pick another mascotable synonym for the word ‘large’ as the nickname–the Hartford Mammoths.
Hershey, Pennsylvania. My original list of 16 ideal locales had Erie on it, but we’ll just substitute another Pennsylvanian city that Wikipedia suggested–Hershey. For a nickname, we look to what makes Hershey famous and call them the Hershey Chocolatiers.
Iowa. We’ll say Des Moines, since it’s the largest city, but Ames (home of ISU) or Iowa City (Hawkeyes) could also work. Iowa is a often overlooked as a hotbed for sports enthusiasm, and the state deserves a team at this level. The Iowa Farmers become the farm club of their neighbor to the north, the Minnesota Vikings.
Lansing, Michigan. Grand Rapids is another strong candidate, but we’ll say Lansing and imagine the team sharing a stadium with the Spartans. Minor League Baseball’s Lansing Lugnuts are perennially popular, and a Lions affiliate could work here. Let’s not only get alliterative with the nickname–let’s introduce yet another big cat to the sports world. I give you the Lansing Leopards.
Las Vegas. The Locomotives are the most successful UFL team, and Vegas is certainly big enough to support a minor league (but certainly not major league!) football team. Locomotives is a good name, but we’ll go with Libertines as a tip of the hat to Nevada lawlessness. The Oakland Raiders become the parent club–at least for the time being. (I’ll explain later)
Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. The Lehigh Valley (Allentown, Bethlehem, Easton) of northeast Pennsylvania is a terrific option for the USFL. In minor league baseball, the Lehigh Valley IronPigs are the top draw among all ~150 MiLB teams–pulling in more people than Indianapolis, Columbus, San Antonio, etc. A major reason for the success of the IronPigs is that they’re the AAA affiliate of the Phillies. A football affiliate of the Eagles would presumably be successful as well. For a nickname, let’s pick a smaller bird of prey–Kestrels. (I considered Eaglets, but that’s too much of stretch.)
Los Angeles. As long as there’s no NFL team in L.A., this is quite obvious. The ideal scenario here would be to resurrect the Los Angeles Express, as much as I loathe sports team nicknames that are non-singularable/non-pluralable, like Jazz, Magic, etc. The Express could go back to playing at the Coliseum, and I presume that they would be a top draw. The Chargers are the logical parent club at this point.
Madison, Wisconsin. Though Milwaukee has more people and is listed on the Wikipedia site, USFL CEO Jaime Cuadra recently stated that he doesn’t want teams in MLB cities. I’m sure they’ll make an exception for Los Angeles, but Milwaukee could be bumped in favor of the college town of Madison. The Badgers’ stadium may even be available later in the spring, when most of the snow has melted. For a moniker, I think it would be wise to continue in the food/drink worker tradition of the Packers and Brewers. The Packers’ affiliate could be the Madison Cheesemakers, or Makers for short.
Memphis, Tennessee. This is another one that should be a slam dunk. The former USFL Showboats could be resurrected in a large city that could get behind a team. The Titans of nearby Nashville would be the logical parent club.
New Jersey. The Generals could certainly be defibrillated, and perhaps Newark would work well as a specific location; especially if Rutgers is open to stadium-sharing. Since we gave Hartford to the Giants, we’ll give the Generals to the Jets.
Oklahoma City. Yet another ‘legacy’ USFL team that’s a common sense choice to boot. Bring back the Outlaws, and we’ll assign them to the Chiefs. As the song goes, “everything’s up to date in Kansas City.”
Omaha, Nebraska. Another city that made all lists, but is often overlooked. A USFL team will someday be in Omaha, and for now, we’ll assign them to the Rams. For a cheeky moniker, let’s take a diminutive form of Rams–the Omaha Lambs.
Orlando, Florida. Another old USFL team, the Orlando Renegades, once called Disneyville home. We’ll resurrect the Rens and give them to the Dolphins. Orlando is a good city for minor league teams, not pro teams.
Pensacola, Florida. This gulf coast city is certainly a long-shot, but narrowly beat out nearby Mobile, Alabama to claim the region. The Bucs need an affiliate, and this will suffice for now. As for a name—why, the Pensacola Panhandlers, of course.
Portland, Oregon. The USFL once had the Portland Breakers, and it seems fine to bring them back now. The Seattle Seahawks lay claim to their neighbor to the south.
Portland, Maine. Yes, the other Portland. Portland, Maine has strong teams in Minor League Baseball and the NBA D-League, and is a perfect candidate for the Patriots’ affiliate. We’ll call the team the Lobstermen and look forward to the potential of a championship game played against the Portland Breakers.
Raleigh/Durham. Sport Change would’ve picked Louisville, Kentucky over R/D, but we’ll cede to Wikipedia on this one. R/D would make a terrific location for the Panthers’ farm club, and for the team nickname we’ll look to a North Carolinian Minor League Baseball team: the Winston-Salem Dash; named after the punctuation mark betwixt Winston and Salem. Naturally, this USFL team will be the Raleigh/Durham Slashes.
Rockford, Illinois. We’ll give Rockford the edge over Chicago’s suburbs in the battle to represent the Bears. The name has to be Cubs, of course, but we’ll try to differentiate by saying the Rockford Bearcubs.
Richmond, Virginia. The Capitol of the South is a logical location for a Ravens affiliate; after all, Edgar Allan Poe called both Baltimore and Richmond home at various times in his tortured life. For this nickname, we’ll take a hint from the St. Louis Cardinals/Memphis Redbirds and call the team the Richmond Blackbirds.
Sacramento, California. With the Kings bolting for Seattle, Sacramentonians need something to feel optimistic about. How about a 49ers farm club? If the Niners are the ones doing the digging and panning, we’ll call this team after the source of riches–the Sacramento Gold. A tip of the hat to the old USFL Denver Gold.
Salt Lake City, Utah. This certainly makes sense, and the team can feed it’s Rocky Mountain neighbor, the Denver Broncos, for the time being. A nickname is a challenge, but I’m drawn toward some type of native animal. I’ll pick Mountain Goats over Elk due to my general hatred of nicknames that don’t end in ‘S.’
Rochester, New York. This wasn’t on the Wikipedia list, and on the Sport Change sixteen I had Rochester/Syracuse listed as an affiliate of the Buffalo Bills. I was pleasantly surprised to see that in recent press releases, Rochester has actually been targeted by the USFL. We’ll call them the Rochester Billies (as a diminutive of Bills) and have a goat as a mascot. Hey, if the NFL can have 2 horses, 4 wild cats, and 5 birds, the USFL can have two goats. Rochester and Utah could someday face off in the ‘Goat Bowl.” I’d buy a ticket!
San Antonio, Texas. It must be time for the Gunslingers to return, whether or not the name is permitted by the standards of political correctness that have been erected since the original USFL folded. Texas is football-crazy, and the Houston Texans find a nice affiliate in nearby San Antone.
Virginia Beach, Virginia. This may seem like a long-shot, but Virginia Beach has this big Sportsplex built where the UFL’s Destroyers have a home. Additionally, the Tidewater Region (VB, Norfolk, Hampton, Newport News) is very densely populated. I’d liken it to the Lehigh Valley region that we mentioned earlier in terms of several mid-sized cities crammed together with a collective passion for sports. Since the UFL’s taken the serious route, we’ll call this team the Virginia Beachcombers.
That makes seven former USFL teams fully resurrected, with potential for similar brands to the Stallions, Gold, and Invaders. These ‘legacy’ teams, particularly the New Jersey Generals and LA Express, would form the core of the new USFL and make the league’s play much more compelling. The new USFL should actively pursue obtaining the rights to these brands and even keep the outdated branding materials to appeal to retro sports connoisseurs.
Here are some matchups from our 32 teams that would be fun to watch:
The Metro Bowl: Los Angeles Express vs. New Jersey Generals
The Wild West Bowl: San Antonio Gunslingers vs. Oklahoma City Outlaws
The Goat Bowl: Utah Mountain Goats vs. Rochester Billies
The Portlandia Bowl: Portland Breakers vs. Portland Lobstermen
The Food Bowl: Madison Cheesemakers vs. Hershey Chocolatiers
The Lawless Bowl: Las Vegas Libertines vs. Oklahoma City Outlaws
The Spotted Cat Bowl: Lansing Leopards vs. Gainesville Ocelots
The Reptile Bowl: Alabama Copperheads vs. New Mexico Monsters
The Baby Farm Animal Bowl: Fort Wayne Foals vs. Omaha Lambs
Now that we’ve trotted out all 32 teams, let’s look at aligning them into conferences and divisions. In this scenario, divisions for the USFL teams are aligned the exact same way as the parent clubs in the NFL. The beauty of this alignment is that it would, in theory, better prepare future NFLers for the travel demands of their particular team as well as build rivalries between intradivisional competitors before they even reach the NFL. Let’s see what this looks like.
East: New Jersey Generals, Orlando Renegades, Rochester Billies, Portland Lobstermen
North: Akron Ochres, Columbus Malayans, Erie Fishermen, Richmond Blackbirds
South: San Antonio Gunslingers, Memphis Showboats, Fort Wayne Foals, Gainesville Ocelots
West: Los Angeles Express, Oklahoma City Outlaws, Las Vegas Libertines, Utah Mountain Goats
East: Hartford Mammoths, Hershey Chocolatiers, Virginia Beachcombers, Austin Tunesmiths
North: Madison Cheesemakers, Lansing Leopards, Rockford Bearcubs, Iowa Farmers
South: Alabama Copperheads, Baton Rouge Red Sticks, Raleigh/Durham Slashes, Pensacola Panhandlers
West: Portland Breakers, Sacramento Gold, New Mexico Monsters, Omaha Lambs
The LA Factor
What if LA gets an NFL team? This will likely happen by 2020 at the latest, either via expansion or relocation. Since Sport Change is adamantly opposed to the NFL expanding beyond 32 teams, relocation is the answer. Right now, the city with an NFL team that least deserves it is Jacksonville. If the Jaguars move to LA, let’s assume they get a new brand. In that case, the Jacksonville Jaguars survive as a USFL franchise–an affiliate of the Tampa Bay Bucs. The Pensacola Panhandlers move to California and become the San Jose Invaders, an affiliate of the Raiders and a tip of the cap to the old USFL’s Oakland Invaders. Las Vegas then becomes the affiliate of the new LA franchise. If the Chargers move to LA, it’s simple. The newly christened San Diego Express become the affiliate of the Los Angeles Chargers. If the Rams move to L.A…..never mind, it’s too complicated.
Alright, that’s all I have to say about the new USFL right now. By the end of the month, we’ll likely know some of the locations of future USFL teams. That news may be exciting, but alas…disappointing. This bubble of fantasy will be burst, and cold, hard reality will set in. Such is life. Thanks for reading.