Upstart United Football League Prepares to Press Play

Jeff CurtsContributor IJuly 6, 2009

TORONTO - NOVEMBER 25:  Anthony Malbrough #3 of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers knocks away a pass in the endzone  from D.J. Flick #3 of the Saskatchewan Rough Riders during the third quarter in the 95th Grey Cup on November 25, 2007 at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  The Rough Riders won 23-19.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Hoping to learn from its predecessors' mistakes while carving out a niche amongst football starved fans, the fledgling United Football League (UFL) continues to make progress toward its October debut. 

Led by former National Football League (NFL) executive Michael Huyghue, the UFL has been a whirlwind of activity lately, ranging from conducting its first player draft to exploring possible European expansion.

Already, the league has broken ground on a training camp/practice facility in Casa Grande, Ariz., filled out the coaching staffs of former NFL head coaches Dennis Green (San Francisco), Jim Fassel (Las Vegas), Jim Haslett (Orlando) and former defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell (New York), negotiated a television deal with Versus, and broached the subject of Michael Vick being invited to play. 

"We are optimistic, on target and continuing to move forward with our plan" stated Commissioner Michael Huyghue in response to a question I posed via Twitter. 

The UFL's premiere season consists of a scaled-down launch with four teams (San Francisco, Las Vegas, Orlando, and New York) playing a limited schedule, culminating with a championship game in Las Vegas over the November Thanksgiving holiday weekend. 

The downturn in the economy may have forced the UFL's hand to start slowly, but could be a blessing in the long run, allowing the league to build a solid foundation and develop a fan base. 

The plan is for the UFL's four inaugural teams to play in seven different cities, including Los Angeles, Sacramento, and Hartford, Conn., thereby "testing" potential expansion markets for a full-scale launch in the fall of 2010. 

Seeking to avoid the mistakes of forerunners like the United States Football League (USFL) and the World League of American Football (WLAF), the UFL will play in the fall, primarily on Thursday and Friday evenings, indirectly competing with college football and the NFL. 

Whether the busy fall sports calendar has room for another entry is another question.  The UFL promotes itself as "fulfilling the unmet needs of football fans in major markets currently underserved by professional football". 

Those fans will likely initially see a collection of former NFL castoffs (the likes of a JP Losman or Peter Warrick), late NFL cuts, and former stars seeking a second change (see Michael Vick).

The veteran head coaches and their staffs will undoubtedly be challenged in assembling their rosters into a "reasonable facsimile" of professional football talent. 

Curiously, "invitation only" tryout camps recently staged in both Orlando and Las Vegas drew a handful of recognizable names, including former Bears starting quarterback Rex Grossman (who signed in June with the NFL Texans). 

Given a chance to mature, the hope is that the league can develop their own stars who may need further refinement and playing opportunity outside of the NFL spotlight.

Besides fielding a competitive and entertaining product, the UFL faces other challlenges, such as attracting fans and media attention while generating sponsorship dollars in a shaky economy. 

To its credit, the league is attempting to be fan-friendly, making itself accessible via various social media outlets, and commissioner Huyghue regularly provides updates via Twitter. 

The UFL also solicits fan feedback on a variety of logistical issues. In addition, it helps that the league's investors include heavyweights Bill Hambrecht, Chairman and CEO of WR Hambrecht + Co.; Tim Armstrong, President of Advertising and Commerce, North America & Vice President, Google, Inc; Paul Pelosi, President of FLS, Inc. (and husband of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi) and a consortium of others. 

UFL leadership is planning on future expansion, with six to eight teams scheduled for 2010, and possible inroads into Europe following.

As training camps draw nearer for NFL teams, football fans interested in the sport should also keep a watchful eye on the UFL's activity. It promises to be an eventful storyline.