Why It’s Hard To Create A Football League

Throughout history professional football leagues have come and gone, with the main exception of the National Football League standing tall. There have been attempts made to establish other professional football leagues, but because of a few costly mistakes that were made, these other leagues ultimately folded. In the case of the original United States Football League (USFL), which started operations in 1982 and folded in 1987, had developed a series of issues with mismanagement, such as expanding their league too fast, playing regular season games in the spring season, and most importantly, winning their antitrust lawsuit against the NFL which gave them $5.5 Million in attorney fees and $62,000 in court costs. Eventually accumulating $160 Million in debt, the USFL in 1990 would receive a single check for $3.76, a symbol of their “Pyrrhic Victory”.

Going back a decade to 1973, the World Football League was created, but soon folded in 1974. One of the main problems that plagued the WFL was the fact that team owners had disagreed on which playoff format to use. Numerous playoff ideas were tossed around and the owners struggled to settle on one idea. Another main problem was that the WFL constantly lost money, especially in the case of their franchise based in the state of Hawaii, The Hawaiians, which lost $3.2 Million in the 1974 season. The WFL also had difficulties holding a draft for college players wanting to join the league. They didn’t have enough money to seek out top college prospects, so they instead gave their teams rights to draft players out of existing teams in the NFL and the Canadian Football League. The WFL closed its doors before Week 13 could be played in the 1975 regular season.

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The XFL is probably the most infamous example of a failure in creating a professional football league. Founded in 1999, the Xtreme Football League folded in 2001 after just 1 season. Criticized for having too many gimmicky rules, having ties to Vince McMahon and World Wrestling Entertainment, and mainly for the underwhelming level of professional talent that took the field. A few examples of the gimmicky rules include the Opening Scramble where one player from each team would race side-by-side from the 30-yard line to be the first to pick up the football at the 50-yard line to gain possession of the ball. There were also no PATs (point after touchdown) kicks, but instead teams had to run a play on offense to score a 1-point conversion. As opposed to the NFL’s 40-second play clock, the XFL had a 35-second play clock in an attempt to speed up the game. The XFL was also known for allowing players to use their nicknames on the back of their jerseys.

From one extreme to another, the United Football League was founded in 2007, began operations in 2009 and folded in 2012 after 4 seasons. However, unlike other football leagues, the UFL was utilized as more of a minor league development league that would cater to the NFL, implementing rules such as “illegal defense” where only 4 to 6 defensive players were allowed to blitz the quarterback. This rule was in place to both protect the quarterback and put more emphasis on scoring points. The quarterback was also allowed to intentionally ground the ball in order to avoid a sack in the UFL, as long as he threw the ball back to the line of scrimmage. The problem with the UFL, however, was that many football fans saw the UFL as too plain, ordinary and vanilla.

So from the examples noted above, what exactly will it take to create a professional football league that will stick around for longer than a cup of coffee? In my opinion, I wouldn’t know where to begin, but there are a few things that I believe anyone would need to consider before taking on this task.

  1. Don’t directly compete with the NFL… – As history has taught us, directly competing with the colossal giant that is the NFL can only end up in disaster. For one thing, it wouldn’t be wise to schedule your league’s games on the same days as the NFL schedules their games. Secondly, if you are looking for markets to place your teams in, you have to try as hard as you can not to put teams in markets where the NFL is already present. Not an easy task, of course, since the NFL already has 32 teams.
  2. …but don’t cater to the NFL as a minor league, neither – The UFL has taught us that it just isn’t practical, nor meaningful, to have a football league that is a direct minor league pipeline to the NFL. Football is a different sport compared to baseball, where baseball can have multiple minor league systems because of the nature of its game. Football is a hard-hitting and violent sport, however, and players won’t be looking to stick around in a minor league system for a long time knowing that injuries are much more common in football.
  3. Money talks because you’ll need it – The only appropriate attempt that you can provide with a newly created football league would be if you have business people and entrepreneurs with deep pockets that have a genuine interest in football. Look at the economic values of NFL franchises and look at how much they go for. Let’s just say that you will need to convince business savvy people like Mark Cuban and Elon Musk to jump on board with a business plan that will make sense to them. Plus, it always goes without saying, don’t mismanage your money and don’t just freely lose money like the USFL or WFL.
  4. Experimenting with some gimmicks is okay, but don’t go overboard – Have the willingness to deviate from the traditional rules of NFL games and experiment with specific rule changes that you feel need to be implemented in your league’s games. Experiment within reason. Don’t go overboard with these experiments like the XFL. Your new football league has to stand out and not completely copy the NFL style of play, but it can’t come across as an outrageously foreign variant of football that consumers won’t be able to understand. When met with the question of whether to use the XFL’s Opening Scramble idea to determine which team gets the first possession of the game, just take the safe route and use the coin toss instead.