Why the NFL Should Embrace the UFL

Shaun AhmadSenior Analyst IAugust 13, 2008

For those who have yet to hear the news, a new professional football league is in the works and set to kick off in August of 2009. Before you dismiss this as another attempt to drum up some competition for the mega-giant NFL by an overconfident investing group, consider the backgrounds of those creating the league. 


The United Football League (UFL) has been put together by Wall Street investor William Hambrecht and Senior Executive for Google, Tim Armstrong. Mark Cuban, current owner of the Dallas Mavericks, is also involved in the creation of the league and has already become owner of the Los Angeles franchise. Each of the aforementioned individuals has achieved high levels of success. 


The UFL plans to open with six franchises in the following cities: Hartford, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York, Orlando, and San Francisco. First thought that comes to mind while looking at the list of cities is that Vegas and L.A. will flourish.


Both have been thirsty for an NFL franchise for quite some time, so one would think that if this league turns out to be anything of substance, the UFL will thrive in those markets. 


The new league plans on televising its games on Friday nights. TNT and FSN have already indicated that they would be interested in televising the UFL. The only direct competition the league would face is high school football. Considering that I don't know a single person over the age of 20 who watches high school football on TV, I don't foresee UFL executives losing much sleep over it.


Given the cities the league plans to debut with, and the timeslot they are choosing for televising their games, they seem to be on the right path in bringing attention and publicity to their league.


However, without talent and actual football interest from the fans, it doesn’t matter what city or what channel the league is broadcasted on. What’s the UFL’s answer to this? They are willing to shell out the money to get the big names, a step that I applaud. 


Starting with coaching, the UFL plans to offer significant money ($1.5 million) to coaches, with a cap of $3 million for the entire staff. That’s certainly enough money to make many college coaches pay attention and get the ear of assistant head coaches in the NFL. 


As far as the players are concerned, the UFL will target late college draft picks, those unhappy with NFL contracts or playing time, and players who fell out of the league for various reasons (injuries, lack of need...ahem, dogfighting. More on that later). 


Each team will have a salary of $20 million. Peter King estimates that quarterbacks will make in the ballpark of $1 million to $4 million, depending on skill level. These figures are significant because for the first time, a league is offering to pay players a salary that directly competes with the NFL. Players who are on rosters right now as second and third stringers will be giving this league a hard look when it launches next summer.


The reasons are simple.


For one, you can get paid significantly more in the UFL than someone trying to make a roster in the NFL. 


Second, the exposure will be far greater than most ever get in the NFL, except for the preseason. Many of the players you see fighting for jobs in the third and fourth quarters of preseason games could become starters on a UFL team for more money, so why not make the jump? 


Third, it will be an excellent outlet for college players not drafted in the first three or four rounds to compete at a high level and hone their skills somewhere other than a practice field.


The UFL is already planning on making quite a splash in its first season by pursuing Michael Vick, who will be released from prison a month or so before the league begins.  Once this league lands a few more players who are well known to the public and the media, the momentum will gain very quickly and before you know it, good college players (fourth round and up) could be joining the UFL for cash and attention.


Fans pay regular-season ticket prices to see preseason games in which the first team is on the field for a series or a quarter. One would think those same fans would shell out half the money to go see the likes of Michael Vick, Troy Smith, Ricky Williams, and other big names in the UFL.


The NFL could benefit greatly from the emergence of the UFL.




Make things a two way street. Let’s use an example. 


The Washington Redskins drafted quarterback Colt Brennan in the seventh round of last year’s draft. He has played well in the preseason, but with only three games remaining, it is the last time fans will see him on the field, barring some sort of drastic injury to both Jason Campbell and Todd Collins.


Washington could send him to the UFL, while keeping his rights and having the understanding that he could be called up at any time (much like Major League Baseball's farm system). 


Under this system, the Washington Redskins benefit by having Brennan continue to gain experience by playing against fellow NFL players in the same situation as him, and the UFL benefits by having a well-known name in their league, which, in turn, brings in more money through publicity and fan interest.


As far as paying Brennan is concerned, the Redskins could compensate him when he is on their active roster, while the UFL will pick up the tab when he’s playing for one of their franchises. I'm sure the financial structure could be worked out by math gurus.


Instead of having the UFL become some sort of thorn in the side of the league, the way European basketball leagues are threatening to become (by luring LeBron and Kobe with potential $50 million offers), the NFL could take advantage of this opportunity and use it to develop its rookies, players returning from injury, or players on the depth chart that the team wants to keep but just does not have enough playing time for. 


Now, I’m not saying the UFL will come in and offer Tom Brady some extraordinary amount of money and lure him away. But the UFL could begin to take away mid-level (talent wise) players, similar to how the Atlanta Hawks recently lost a decent, young player (Josh Childress) to Europe. 


The NFL has been quick to crush any competition that has surfaced. This time, they should take a good look at the potential long-term benefits to their own league by having the UFL develop into a farm system.


It could greatly improve the level of play of backups and role players while giving them the opportunity to play more than just on the practice field, and benefit the UFL by allowing it to grow in cities desperate for a pro football team.


Everyone wins.


It will be interesting to see if the NFL seizes the opportunity to better itself or brushes this league under the rug like it has so many others in its quest to remain the only professional football league in America.

We'll know in about a year.