The United States Football League, that mid-1980s counterpart to NFL play, is returning.
The league will relaunch in the spring of 2022, with Fox Sports signing on as a broadcast partner and minority stakeholder in the company that owns the new sports entity.
Longtime sports fans may recall an era when the New Jersey Generals, Memphis Showboats and Houston Gamblers took to the field for three seasons between 1983 and 1985. Herschel Walker and Doug Flutie were among some of the USFL’s standouts and Donald Trump was a part owner of the New York team. The concept has taken on new momentum in an era when more media companies have been testing the prospect of running football games in the spring when the NFL is in its off-season.
“We look forward to providing players a new opportunity to compete in a professional football league and giving fans everywhere the best football viewing product possible during what is typically a period devoid of professional football,” said Brian Woods, co-founder of the new USFL, and a sports entrepreneur who has run spring developmental leagues.
There’s good reason for interest in more football. It’s the most-watched program on linear TV and commands the medium’s highest ad prices. TV networks, beholden to the NFL and the billions of dollars in rights fees it seeks, could stand to gain some leverage if they were able to turn to a rival league at a different time of the year to deliver a similar product.
The media companies are also testing out their own sports creations, in hopes original events might draw viewers without the need to pay outsize figures to league partners. WarnerMedia, for example, has found some success with “The Match,” a celebrity golf tournament that attracts professionals as well as athletes from other sports.
But launching a sustainable NFL counterpart hasn’t proven easy. In recent years, the Alliance of American Football gained early traction with broadcasts on CBS and elsewhere before collapsing under shaky finances. WWE leader Vince McMahon backed a new spring league called the XFL that was halted by the coronavirus pandemic and bankruptcy (actor Dwayne Johnson and a consortium of financiers have pledged to bring it back in 2022).
The new USFL intends to launch with eight teams, as opposed to the 12 that filled the original entity. The new league retains rights to some of its predecessor’s original team names. “The relaunch of the USFL is a landmark day for football fans and FOX Sports,” said Eric Shanks, CEO and executive producer of Fox Sports. “Football is in our DNA and the return of this innovative and iconic league is a fantastic addition to our robust slate of football programming.” Fox said more information on the USFL, including cities, teams, head coaches, and game schedules, would be announced at a later date.