Is The UFL "The Mirror Of Erised" For Frustrated Pro Football Fans?

Tobi WritesAnalyst ISeptember 13, 2009

In the Harry Potter books, the Mirror of Erised is a mirror that reflects the desires of the viewer. I think there is a myth or noun that means an item in which everyone sees something different that they cherish, but I could not recall it. While sourcing children's books (even a very well-written series) is not the most successful way to begin a sports article, the Mirror of Erised does fit the underlying concept rather well.

I am befuddled by the confidence I see from the public in the UFL's offerings.

I have noticed two elements that echo through almost every editorial written about the UFL and the followup posts by football fans. First, saying the UFL is "doing things right" specifically implies past competitors have not. Second, every fan sees a different primary example of how things are being done right that they sieze upon as "the" reason the UFL has a good shot to make it.

This happens every time a league springs up and those fans reasons are rarely factors one way or another. 

All competitors to the NFL do a number of things very well.  If they aren't in business, they had a combination of unfortunate luck and took a few major missteps.

I was only three when the World Football League came around, but I have read a lot about them. I was old enough to be a huge fan of the USFL when they came around, having collected most articles written about them and read many letters to the editor about those leagues. I was around for the XFL and tracked that pretty closely, too.

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

The only difference I see between the words of fans of those leagues and fans of this one is the voulume.  We live in an immediate feedback world.  Information can be had near-instantly with a Google search. This is the era of sudden expertism. Back in the day, letters to the editor praising those leagues would often be intercepted by an unsympathetic officehand who would deem the letter not worth printing as the league was not likely to survive and, as such, not newsworthy. Today, feedback is instant and unfiltered—rarely does an editor pick through it.

I look at the UFL and have very few feelings of the certain sucess other fans seem to see. I see plenty of creative brilliant ideas that should work to a point, but none that make me optimistic of the league's chances of survival.

I will attempt to present a layman's history of the UFL so far, unmarred by retroactive spin or company doubletalk.

The league was founded by a couple of high-roller friends, W.R. Hambrecht Founder Bill Hambrecht and Google President of Advertising & Commerce TIM ARMSTRONG. Each pledged $2 Million in seed money for the league.  They announced the league by revealing that Mark Cuban would be their first team owner. They hired Michael Huyghue, former General manager of the WLAF Birmingham Fire, to be the league's comissioner.  So far so good.

The league selected 20+ markets that they determined might support UFL teams.  Within a year all mentions of a site list had diminished to about 8 potential markets.

They initially mentioned playing in the summer of 2008 claiming they had the funds on hand to field up to 8 teams that year, but the start date was pushed back to fall 2009 to attract more investors, despite overtures from cities like Birmingham where the Mayor-elect proposed building a 55,000 seat domed stadium to house a UFL team.

Cuban did a lot to bring the league to the public's attention through a mention in his blog. (Cuban was widely rumored to be the owner of the Las Vegas franchise while the other rumored owner was NY's Wilpon group). The sales pitch to Cuban was apparently based around the original concept:  a small league with deep-pocketed owners who would have team payrolls in the $12-20 million range who would eat losses long enough to eventually either force a meger with the NFL or become an NFL-caliber league.  The league would be able to lure in NFL talents with those large caps to give the league TV appeal.

For an investment of $50-100 million over a multi-year period, an owner could conceivably have a franchise worth several hundred million in 5 to 10 years.  The league predicted franchises will break even in 3-5 years.

Michael Vick was publically pursued by the league in what ultimately turned into a hideously botched courtship that may turn out to be as damaging to the UFL as Joe Namath snubbing the WFL in their second season was for that league (a UFL article for another day).

But on the financial end, there was no new hard news for months.  No new owners were announced. I think a reasonable take would be the league could not find any owners willing to buy in on such a high-cost gamble as an expensive, unproven, start-up league.

Rumors of a second USFL being formed floated around.  Mark Cuban's public interest in the league appeared to cool. He was no longer mentioned as an owner. The league looked in real danger of not having enough owners to play in 2009 either.

Failure to play their announced scheduled first season is the kiss of death for a startup league.  It is almost always fatal.  Doing it twice would have killed the UFL.

Then in February, Paul Pelosi (yes that last name IS vaguely familiar) stepped up with a group of investors and bought 4 franchises.  This appeared to provided the funding to allow for a four team inagural season.  It appears that the Pelosi group worked a deal to buy four teams for a combined $30 Million --- what was supposed to be the amount each owner was supposed to invest for each franchise.

(One can only guess what the terms of the buy-in were.)

In exchange for the buy-in, the concept of the league appeared to change dramatically. The league would not die without a game played like so many prior leagues.  A new strategy was announced that would allow the UFL to ride out the recession. The quite brilliant "Premeire Season" (in quotes as if other leagues didn't have premeire seasons) strategy was announced.

Instead of a minimum of $12 million in player salaries per team, the entire four-team league would have a combined $16M payroll --- reasonably explained as a pro-rated salary cap for a truncated season  (...but it does beg the question if the minimum team salary will be $12 Million or merely some other pro-rated amount if a 2010 season is acheived).

With only four teams instead of the planned six-plus, the season would be abbreviated and teams would be semi-nomadic, calling multiple cities home (a pretty brilliant idea that will be the subject of another upcoming Bleacher Report article).

Since then, more details have emerged (for example the New York franchise is now owned by Bill Mayer of Park Avenue Equity).  It appears the Premiere Season is to wet the fans' and potential owners' appetites.

The league will have 4 teams for the Premiere Season.  Presently only two list owners' names.

As Cuban fades to be more of a supporting cast member (his startup TV network HDNET will be a broadcaster of some games), more and more talk arises of the UFL seeking to become the new WLAF—a minor league that develops post-collegiate players for NFL careers. The idea of competing with the NFL has been downplayed immensely as Huyghue has worked to court the NFL (kind of a "Please forget anything we said about competing...  Pretty please?").

While Huyghue is a former agent and well-respected among NFL circles, I kind of doubt the NFL is going to do much to aid in the continued existance of a league that still probably secretly desires hanging around long enough to compete with the big boys.

Additionally, the continued existance of the UFL could potentially destabilize the Canadian Football League.  Keeping the CFL alive is a big part of what keeps the NFL out of court. ("See? We  aren't a monopoly! Look at the CFL's version of pro football THRIVING up there.") 

The NFL loaned the CFL the money to survive a few years back in a move many claim was justified for this reason. It made sense for the NFL to keep a "competitor" in business.  The two leagues are effectively loosely in cahoots.  I'd call them a Duopoly, but the CFL is merely already a version of the junior partnership the UFL aims to acheive with the NFL---but one with the plausible deniabilty of existing in a foreign country.

Finally, a tight association between the UFL and the NFL would only makes the NFL seem like more of a monopoly. The NFL would then not only control the best media markets and their stadiums, but also would effectively control the second-tier markets and their stadiums.

I really think the NFL would love to see the UFL collapse tomorrow --- if not sooner ---under an untenable premise and management missteps. Anything that cannot be blamed on the NFL.  The survival of the UFL as envisioned only opens up potential legal trouble for the NFL. 

Obviously, the UFL has had a number of identities since it was announced. Now we are left with a league that is essentially striving to fill the role of the defunct/dormant Arena Football League as a semi-pro developmental league. Where is the buzz in that? Who wants to watch that on TV in large markets, like say Seattle, Philadelphia, or Dallas? Or, for that matter, who wants to watch it in small markets like Oklahoma City, Tulsa, or Boise?

With respect to Huyghue—who is about as personable of a commisioner as one could meet—is that even worth a fan watching on TV?

As a fan of anything that competes with the NFL, I am really uncertain whether the UFL is a league I personally should be following (well, as a fan and not as just a historian recording an historic footnote). 

If they do achieve their current dream and become Triple-A football with a tight relationship with the NFL, what are they really at that point? It seems like they are just another hurdle for any league that wants to bring real pro football to "second-tier" cities like Sacramento or Orlando. What fan wants that?

More than with other leagues, I feel like a bit of a pawn in some high roller business transaction designed to make the filthy rich even richer that only tangentially involves football.  Two of the core reasons for my appreciation for competitive pro leagues is that they want to bring real pro football to fans in cities who are argueably unfairly overlooked by the NFL and that the owners are going to poke the NFL owners in the eye, something a lowly fan like you or I cannot effectively do. 

I can't hurt filthy rich NFL owners back for making me pay for a new stadium, but I can support a league that causes an NFL owner stress by just turning on my TV or buying a ticket.

This league really does not appear likely to provide me either satisfaction.  The league does not appear to want to compete with the NFL for talent, so how much of a pro league can it be if we aren't likely to see a Joe Cribbs leave behind a starting NFL job to play in a forgotten "second tier" UFL city.  What the UFL is now saying they want to do would effectively systemize the labelling of these cities as second class to NFL cities. 

The League wants to work nicely with the NFL with the NFL's blessing.  No sleep lost by NFL owners there.  And if the UFL succeeds and builds a large network of teams in second cities that discourages new leagues, the NFL may never lose any sleep over a competitor again.

But those are just questions with which I struggle as a fan of potential monopoly busting leagues.

I think the UFL leadership is filled with brilliant folks, but with its dystopic history, I can understand why every sports fan with an opinion on the UFL sees what they want to see.

slash iconYour sports. Delivered.

Enjoy our content? Join our newsletter to get the latest in sports news delivered straight to your inbox!