Naylor: Why alternative football leagues keep failing in U.S.

Dave Naylor
7/22/2011 12:48:09 PM
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And so another alternative professional football league bites the dust, or so it seems.

The United Football League may not be dead, but the five-team loop has no money, has sent its players home and told them they are free to sign with any team in any league they like. 

Anyone surprised? Hardly.

In fact the most fascinating thing about the UFL is that anyone actually believed it could work, because not since the AFL successfully challenged the NFL back in the 1960s has any alternative professional football in America enjoyed any real success.

And it's not because of lack of effort.

There was the World Football League, the USFL, the WLAF, and XFL that all preceded the UFL. Several more leagues were discussed, partly financed and planned, including the A League, the All-America League and the Professional Spring Football League, the circuit that employed a young man named Jim Popp when it folded without playing a game back in 1991.

And of course there was the CFL's foray into the American market from 1993-95, an experience the league deems about as forgettable as a Lonnie Glieberman Mardi Gras promotion. 

It's not as if there haven't been some pretty smart and successful businessmen behind some of these efforts, including Donald Trump, Vince McMahon, the guy who started Federal Express and one of the executives from Google.

All of them tried, all of them failed, although none quite as brightly as the UFL which never seemed to have a hope.

The UFL lost more than $100 million in two seasons, played before hopelessly small crowds for most of its games, got no national media coverage, failed to attract a significant broadcast partner, and seemed only kept alive in recent months in the hope that the NFL labour stoppage would wipe out a season.

But even if that remote possibility had come true, the NFL wasn't going away. How in the world could the UFL's backers have believed it would prosper long-term in any scenario?

Which leaves us with two questions worth considering out of all of this: Why doesn't alternative professional football in America ever succeed? And why, when it's failed so many times, do people keep trying to make it work?

Let's start with the second question.

The reasons alternative professional football doesn't work are pretty easy to see.

Though Americans love football, they're not actually suffering from a lack of it, between the NFL and the massive college schedule that unfolds from early September through to mid-January.

It's probably no coincidence that the USFL during its brief period of popularity played in the spring, yet when the XFL tried that two decades later it didn't help one bit.

Perhaps that's because the USFL actually had a lot of top-tier talent, with Jim Kelly, Herschel Walker and Doug Flutie among its brand names. But these days the NFL is such a colossus, with such a dominant position and head-start over any competitor, no upstart league can ever compete with it for players and marquee value.

As to why people keep trying, that's a greater mystery, but here's a theory.

Although professional football is extremely popular in America, there are plenty of markets that don't have teams. 

However, not having an NFL team does not mean not having NFL football, thanks to the miracle of television that allows fans to become diehard worshippers of teams they will never see play in person.

But the real thing that drives the creation of new football leagues is the surplus of talented players who are willing to work at a relatively low cost. While the NFL has spent the better part of the past six months battling with its players about how to split up billions in revenues, there are all kinds of players beyond the NFL who are willing to play for very little.

So along with their choice of hundreds of college free agents who fail to make the NFL each spring, alternative leagues have also managed to attract a good number of former NFL players who just want to stay in the game.

Which is why player costs – except in the case of the USFL – are never a primary reason why alternative pro football leagues fail.

It's that there simply seems to be no market for football in America beyond the NFL or college game.

The result, as UFL commissioner Michael Huyghue said the other day, is a "revenue problem."

The UFL won't be the last, count on that.

But its colossal failure just reinforces the notion that the CFL, which has outlived every one of these upstarts, is well-served by keeping its game on this side of the border.

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