Building a professional football league from scratch into a sustainable product takes luck, guts, and entrepreneurship. With one season in the books, the United Football League (UFL) hopes to continue developing their on-field product and branding.
As preparations ramp up for the second season of the UFL, commissioner Michael Huyghue says building each team's local infrastructure and marketing activities has been a priority. During last year's "preview season," "there were no dollars budgeted for advertising," stated Huyghue, a veteran sports executive who previously served in management with the National Football League's Jacksonville Jaguars and as a player agent.
"This season, each franchise has its own marketing/public relations departments, not to mention cheerleaders, and they are actively involved in community activities, either through partnerships, sponsorships, social media, or donations," Huyghue pointed out. "Our teams are an extension of their communities, and we want to connect with our fans through a variety of on-field and off-the field endeavors."
While improved community relations can equate to more fannies in the seats, Huyghue says the on-field play will serve as a "launching point" for increased fan awareness, advertising opportunities, and television ratings. The league has agreements with HDNet, Versus, and NESN to carry games this year.
The UFL begins its second year with five teams (defending champion Las Vegas, Florida, Sacramento (which relocated from San Francisco) and Hartford (the former New York Sentinels), up one from last year's short-season with the addition of expansion Omaha. Dubbed the Omaha Nighthawks, Huyghue proudly points to "in excess of ten thousand season tickets already being sold," and hopes to replicate that franchise's formula with future new clubs.
Already, the league has announced the addition of a Virginia team, owned by businessman Jim Speros and featuring former Washington and Tampa Bay quarterback Doug Williams as General Manager. Commissioner Huyghue adds that the franchise "is up and running, selling tickets, and preparing for 2011" while also adding to the league's coffers with its expansion fees.
On the field, players are taking notice as well. The UFL features a mixture of former NFL veterans like Daunte Culpepper, Ahman Green, and Josh McCown, as well as promising young players looking for an opportunity to develop their skills.
Omaha General Manager Rick Mueller, himself a veteran of the NFL, says playing in the UFL is quite a similar experience. "We travel first class, our practices are run like an NFL team's, the play on the field is close to NFL caliber. Our players know they'll have a chance to get on tape, develop their skills, and migrate to the NFL if that's the direction they want to go."
However, Mueller, who served as a league-wide personnel director in the inaugural season before shifting to team management this season, adds that a handful of players have turned down NFL opportunities to stay in the UFL, a sure sign of legitimacy for the infant league.
Both Mueller and Commissioner Huyghue agree that the quality of play was a pleasant surprise, with Mueller pointing out that skill position players such as quarterback Brooks Bollinger, running back Dee Dee Dorsey, and wide receiver Taye Biddle all enjoyed productive seasons. Mueller, like any good talent evaluator, emphasized the need for the offensive lines around the UFL to show improvement, something he expects with roster continuity and increased practice time.
So, roughly a month before the 2010 kickoff, where does the United Football League go?
Huyghue's five-year plan envisions an international league with up to 14 franchises (one possibly in Los Angeles, where the commissioner says the league is conducting its due diligence), connected with the NFL in some type of relationship, and appealing to its targeted fan demographics of 15 to 35 year olds with a mix of high quality football, community involvement, and interactive technology.
Having surpassed the longevity of many other upstart leagues and with the strong financial backing of local investors, the UFL's run for acceptance as more than just another developmental league promises to be an interesting journey.