Posted by: Opey | August 20, 2007

A Bit of Competition Never Hurt Anyone, Even if it’s the NFL

This morning I went out looking for some good economic/business news to write (aka complain) about, but I actually stumbled on one of the better web articles I’ve read in a while. The article is written by Chris Isidore of CNNmoney.com and is entitled “Are you ready for more football?” The article isn’t all about more NFL programing or a launch of another TV network devoted simply to the league. Instead it aims to delve into the minefield of professional sports leagues competition. For those in their teens and twenties there has never been a sport where there has been a truly competitive second league. We have grown up knowing the MLB, NFL, NHL, and NBA exclusively. Now, there have been some minor upstarts on the fringes of each sport (XFL, AFL in football and ABA in basketball to name a few), but none of these leagues have proven to provide adequate competition for the giant leagues. For instance, in football, the XFL and AFL were doomed from the start. The XFL was dead on arrival, mostly because of who started the league: Vince McMahon. The XFL was too much like wrestling and not enough like football. There was too much emphasis put on cheerleaders and other “flare” type additions that the game simply got overlooked. The AFL is still going, but it is merely a matter of time before it too dies or becomes totally irrelevant. It would be a great idea, but it is not enough like the style of football most fans are accustomed to. That is the main reason why many people do not believe it will ever be a viable, long-term development league for the NFL. I think it is finally time where a second league may pop up, live longer than 5 years, and even have the ability to garner a large enough fan base to keep it alive for some years to come. That league, in my opinion, will be the United Football League (UFL). The UFL is the brainchild of billionaires Bill Hambrecht and Mark Cuban. There appears to be a confluence of events that are taking place that have left a large window open for the UFL to rise. Firstly, because of the relatively small size of the NFL, there are untapped markets out there right now that are prime targets for an upstart UFL franchise. Cities like Las Vegas, Portland, Los Angeles, and others seem to just cry out for some form of professional football. The next in the line of events that could provide an opening for the UFL is the death of NFL Europe. With NFLE’s death, there is now a void in the “developmental league” category for the NFL. Now, the UFL does not ultimately want to be simply a minor league system for the NFL, but the role would at least provide the UFL with some cover and temporary life while they attempt to grow their team’s fan bases. Yet another happening that helps out the UFL is the shift towards specialty NFL networks and programing. Over the past few years, the NFL has shown the desire to use it’s television network, NFL network, to feature more and more of it’s own programing, including more games every year. While that is not evil in and amongst itself, it does create problems because many cable companies have yet to reach agreements with the NFL to carry the network. All of this adds up to a void in some fans viewing habits. Where will the fan without the NFL network get their football? Why from the UFL of course. Even if the UFL doesn’t reach an agreement with any major network, they could still aim to have their games televised on some of the up and coming sports networks (Versus, FSN). The UFL goes even further in the fight for the fans viewing habits by planning to play their games on Friday nights. Now there are two problems with this, but they can be over come. One, Friday is generally the night when people turn of the tube and get out and enjoy the real world. This could potentially be solved by configuring the schedule such that games are on early enough to still allow for a night out. The other potential problem would be the interference with high school football, which is a major event in some states. Some movement and shifting of the schedule would need to be done to accommodate this, possibly by including some Thursday games until a fan base is in place. The major problem that has killed many a second professional sports league has been the short time horizon on planning and the lack of the necessary funding to keep the leagues alive and kicking. Both of these do not seem to be a major problem. With the large group of potential millionaire owners out there and if the UFL settles into the developmental league role for a short while, there is a good chance that this league could last longer than many of its predecessors.

Update (August 21): Brats & Beer has a good counterpoint article to my thoughts on the UFL.  Always good to get views from all sides.

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Responses

  1. An interesting idea, except that competition is pretty much anathema to the NFL business model. I don’t think that Goodell and the owners are looking for partners and they certainly don’t want any other football league here in the States to dilute the product. As for a development league, the NFL already has the NCAA.

    On the flip side, I doubt Cuban and Hambrecht would want to be hamstrung by a partnership with the league and they certainly don’t want to split the money with the NFL. The increased number of TV outlets does give them a better opportunity than the USFL had, but it’ll still be a tough slog to convince fans the UFL is anything more than a circus sideshow.

  2. […] thinking big, it sounds like a losing proposition to me. (For a different perspective, check out Opey’s Oratory.) The NFL is so entrenched that most fans won’t give this upstart league the time of day and […]

  3. Yeah, I agree that the NFL will probably never have any sort of actual business ties with the UFL, but I think that they would benefit from some informal ties. The UFL will never be a formal development league for the NFL, but I think there is a gap that needs to be filled for some players between college and the NFL and for many positions and types of players the AFL isn’t going to cut it.


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