Building the League of the Future - Suggestions for the USFL

Building the League of the Future – Suggestions for the USFL

With the year 2022 in the books, now is a great time to think about a new year and a new future as a whole for the USFL.

FOX Sports pulled off an incredible feat of leading spring football into year two and has given fans hope for more success for years to come. The USFL made many incredible things happen in 2022 and will continue to push the sports, broadcasting, and technological boundaries.

Here’s a detailed look at what future improvements could be made to the United States Football League.

What we know the USFL is currently working on:

First, let’s take a look at three massive initiatives that the USFL is working on.

Currently the USFL is working on securing one or more hubs for the 2023 season for the league’s four Northern Conference teams. The Detroit and Philadelphia metro areas have been rumored to be candidates for 2023. The Southern Conference added a second hub in Memphis, Tennessee.

The New York Post (same ownership of the USFL) reported last spring that the league has engaged investment bankers Allen and Co. to secure minority investors to fund further expansion with capital between the range of $150 million and $200 million.

Prior to the 2022 season, USFL executive Daryl Johnston told Front Office Sports that the league is working on developing a football that glows when it reaches the goal line. The league worked with ShotTracker on several initiatives last year including the glowing ball, which ended up not being used during the season. I’m still hopeful that the USFL implements a glowing football in the future.

With those items out of the way, here are some in-depth looks at how the USFL can make changes to improve the experience for all stakeholders involved.

Create a season long fantasy football game with Sleeper or through developing a USFL Fantasy App

One of the glaring aspects missing in the 2022 USFL season was a season long fantasy football game that is so popular among fans of the NFL and other major team sports in the United States. The USFL did have daily fantasy sports during the 2022 season through DraftKings, despite some criticism from DFS players who wanted better intel from the USFL regarding players and injuries.

FOX Bet and PointsBet are the preferred gambling partners of the USFL. In fact, former USFL business head Ed Hartman joined PointsBet after the season as the company’s Chief Strategy Officer. Both FOX Bet and PointsBet are not in the business of the traditional season long fantasy football game, and FOX Sports and NBC Sports do not have fantasy platforms for season long leagues as ESPN, Yahoo, and NFL.com have dominated these market share.

Unfortunately ESPN is an XFL partner and the NFL is probably not going to get involved with creating a USFL fantasy football league. Yahoo only has NBA, NFL, MLB, and NHL fantasy leagues on their platform so it would be a stretch for Yahoo to dive into the USFL at this time.

A partnership with DraftKings on a traditional season-long PPR fantasy league where fans draft their season-long team in late March, would be a massive boost for fan engagement in the league. For DraftKings, the partnership would help convert regular fantasy fans into DFS players. Unfortunately right now DraftKings does not offer traditional season-long leagues.

One thing that DraftKIngs does offer is a season long Best Ball format. Adding this would be a major victory for the USFL. To get DraftKings to buy into more USFL games, DraftKings will probably need to see that the interest in USFL games is there.

That leaves Sleeper, a $60 million funded startup with over 4 million users who have flocked from the ESPN and Yahoo’s to the new app. By partnering with the USFL on spring football, Sleeper would be able to introduce their product to NFL fans who have played on to established fantasy football providers.

If the USFL isn’t able to get a partner to host a season long fantasy football league, it should consider building a fantasy app of their own. This is the route that fellow non-Big Four league Major League Soccer has gone with hosting MLS fantasy through their platform, including a game that has $2,000 in weekly prizes including jerseys given to weekly top scoring fans.

Getting a major platform to host season long fantasy football for the USFL would be a hard sell, but would be a huge win for the USFL. It took the WNBA nearly 30 years to get a season long fantasy sports game on ESPN. It’s a major shame that NBC and FOX aren’t in the business of hosting fantasy leagues these days. For now, AltFantasySports and other entrepreneurial USFL fans will find a solution for season-long fantasy football themselves.

Dig Into Nostalgia With A Special Throwback Uniform Week

The USFL’s 2022 uniforms were great and featured a sleek, modern look. Now that the league has seemingly settled their trademark issues with the creators of the original USFL, the league could look into using their legally defended trademarks to bring back original USFL uniforms or helmets for one game that 80’s fans will love.

NFL teams use throwback uniforms to promote their games over social media and as an additional surge of merchandise and jersey sales. The USFL would seemingly receive a big boost from selling throwback jerseys and merchandise and the games would be popular on TV and over social media.

The 2023 Memphis Showboats have a different color scheme than the original team, but their throwback uniforms would be a great way to attract fans back to the Liberty Bowl and fans across the country to watch games on NBC and FOX. Additionally the league could bring back the original mascots, cheerleaders, and branding to the stadium for one week for 1980’s fans to relive their glory days,

The league could even begin selling throwback merchandise for legacy USFL franchises that have not been revived. It would be a great way for the USFL to recognize players and coaches from the 1980’s and build on the brand equity that the original 1980s league has.

To me, this is a no-brainer.

Utilize FOX and NBC Human Capital for the USFL

One disappointment I had during the 2022 season was that FOX did not fully utilize their resources to cover the USFL. One nice change that has happened with FOX Sports recently is that they have added several NFL reporters to bolster their online coverage of the NFL and FOX could leverage these reporters for the USFL.

FOX used NFC West reporter Eric Williams for some USFL coverage in 2022 and Williams seems interested in covering the league and is an experienced NFL reporter. In addition to Williams, FOX has Greg Auman (NFC South); David Helman (NFC East), and Carmen Vitali (NFC North).

One of the really cool things that the Alliance of American Football did was hire reporters for each team to provide in-depth coverage during training camp and during the season for each team. This is probably overkill for a pre-revenue league, but FOX easily could have one reporter at each of their hubs in 2023.

I’d propose FOX Sports hiring a single USFL national insider would be a great move for the league. During the USFL season they’d be the Ian Rapoport or Adam Schefter of the USFL and could help with NFL and college football reporting in the fall. Emory Hunt of CBS Sports would be a great candidate. ESPN’s Kevin Seifert has taken on a similar role with ESPN’s XFL news coverage.

Having reporters give updates on players and training camp battles would be a huge benefit for the gambling and fantasy football community as well as die hard fans in general. Finally, NBC Sports could leverage their NBC Sports Edge team to provide coverage of USFL DFS.

Switch Up NBC’s B Broadcaster Team

I thoroughly enjoyed FOX’s top broadcast crew of Curt Menefee and Joel Klatt and the second tier group of Kevin Kulgler and Mark Sanchez was also entertaining. NBC’s top unit of Jac Collinsworth and Jason Garrett was equally strong. Jason Garrett emerged as one of the best new football media personalities following his USFL stint last spring.

NBC’s B-team of Paul Burmeister, Michael Robinson, and Cam Jordan was less impressive. Robinson and Jordan lacked the unique experiences that Jason Garrett could speak on, lacked the star power and humor of Mark Sanchez, and lacked the football IQ and prolificness of Joel Klatt.

I remain a fan of using the USFL to train green broadcasters like Garrett who are transitioning from playing or coaching. As a fan I really appreciated hearing analysis from the likes of Joel Klatt who really got to know the coaches and players, while it seemed like Cam Jordan and Michael Robinson did not.

I’ve always liked Kurt Warner’s perspective and the former NFL Europe quarterback is currently not signed with a network. Former Thursday Night Football analyst Mike Mayock is also currently unsigned. Bruce Arians was a great broadcaster in his previous retirement stint and now could attract good money from a TV network like FOX or NBC. Soon to be retired DB Devin McCourty could be another interesting option.

Would seasoned former Arena Football color commentator and current NBC college football commentator Anthony Herron be an upgrade? What about Chris SImms? I’d personally be more intrigued by adding a fresh perspective into the booth.

There’s plenty of options out there who would be interesting including Darius Butler, Malcolm Jenkins, Chuck Pagano, Mike Zimmer, Jay Gruden, Philip RIvers, even Todd Haley and Jeff Fisher would be interesting as they coach in the league but have backgrounds with media jobs.

With NBC recently securing rights to Big Ten college football, you’d expect NBC to make some additional hires to fill out their college football coverage.

I have two other offbeat suggestions; Tom Brady and a Collinsworth-Collinsworth booth. Brady’s massive FOX broadcasting deal will begin when he retires and you’d have to imagine that FOX may want to have Brady also play a role with their Michigan football coverage at some point. The USFL would be a great training ground for Brady to get ready for the fall. Jac Collinsworth at play by play and Cris Collinsworth at color commentary would certainly be interesting and would be the type of event that media execs love.

Additional broadcast features like a product similar to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats technology would be a great benefit. Fans would be able to see how fast players ran after big plays and other advanced stats. NBC should feature their SNF Kicks technology that tracks how long a field goal would have been good from.

Create OTT Platform, USFL+, to Stream All Games

One suggestion guaranteed to fall on deaf ears from the USFL’s Fox Sports financial backers is the creation of an OTT platform to purchase access to stream all USFL games across FOX Sports and NBC. For one, FOX and NBC likely see the USFL’s 2023 season as a way to grow their current mediums like cable platforms and Peacock.

FOX likely sees the USFL’s digital rights as a way to generate a massive amount of money from a future tech platform like Apple or Amazon. MLS recently sold their digital rights to Apple for over $250 million per season.

From a consumers’ perspective, in order to watch all of your teams’ games, you’d need a cable or YouTube TV subscription to watch games on USA, FOX, FS1, and FS2 as well as a subscription to Peacock Premium to watch all games on Peacock. Currently that combination costs $70 per month.

The NFL just debuted NFL+, a $5 monthly service that would allow users to watch all national NFL games. As all USFL games are on national TV, a similar package could make sense at some point for the USFL. Apple’s MLS season pass is set at $15 per month and a monthly USFL OTT platform would seemingly be priced similarly.

One major roadblock in such deal would be FOX’s multi-year media partnership with NBC which likely covers digital rights over the term of the deal. I suspect FOX and NBC are both pretty happy about how the USFL is distributed across their platforms.

Grow Local Attendance in Birmingham and Memphis

With more teams in home markets you’d expect that attendance would increase and Birmingham’s 2022 Championship victory certainly should excite local fans.

In 2019, the Memphis Express’ home opener attracted just 11,980 fans to show up and watch the team take on the Arizona Hotshots. Figuring out how to market games ahead of time as well as securing season ticket sales will be a major question the league has to face and I don’t have any answers. Having games played in appealing time slots will help attendance and also viewership numbers.

You’d have to assume that game attendance would increase proportionally to a degree with the amount spent on promoting games. Having local and national media coverage also helps but I’d assume one of the most important things would be having boots on the ground to sell and market the game with plenty of time in advance.

Sign Large Official Sponsorships For Apparel, Beer, Pizza, and Sports Drinks

Through the league’s relationship with the NFL on FOX, the USFL was able to secure some solid sponsors in their opening season. Gatorade was a partner during the 2022 season, but the sports drink’s partnership didn’t go much further than having Gatorade product placements during USFL broadcasts.

The XFL landed Under Armour as their apparel sponsor while the Alliance of American Football had Starter as their sponsor. Anheuser-Bush was the official sponsor of the St. Louis Battlehawks in 2020 and the NFL has major pizza and beer sponsorships that spring leagues would love to tap into.

Partner with Pro Football Focus

NBC play-by-play announcer Jac Collinsworth and his family own the football analytics company Pro Football Focus, and NBC features PFF stats and player grades in their Sunday Night Football broadcasts.

PFF added Alliance of American Football statistics, snap counts, and player grades to their premium subscription plan for the 2019 AAF season and having the same service for the USFL would be huge for fans. NBC could also feature PFF grades in their broadcasts.

Add Short-Term IR and Expand Rosters

The USFL did not have a short-term injured reserve option like the NFL has during their inaugural season. It seemed like some injured players were simply released while others were placed on season ending injured reserve or simply inactive week after week. This severely limits roster flexibility but certainly cuts down on costs.

Improve The Kicking Game

This is another solution in which I can only share hypotheses.

Did USFL kickers struggle last year because they didn’t have enough practice time with their holders? A solution to that would be having fall OTA’s and extending training camp.

Did kickers struggle due to issues with the USFL’s footballs? I doubt this.

DId USFL kickers struggle because some teams’ kickers weren’t the strongest quality? This seems likely. Right now USFL teams just have one kicker on their roster and don’t have a kicking competition in the three week training camp.

The USFL could hold voluntary specialist camps with a kicking coach throughout the offseason with teams’ punters, kickers, and long snappers, similar to the quarterback training that the XFL had with coach Jordan Palmer.

Ultimately the biggest question is whether or not the issue is big enough to spend time and money on.

Create A Pregame Studio Show and Add Postgame Bonus Coverage

It’s hard to imagine FOX or NBC Sports creating a 30-minute pregame or postgame show for their games. Especially considering the league’s involvement with United by Football, which debuts before games.

What about a simple studio show on FS2 or Peacock before or after games?

Improve United By Football’s Access To Storylines

I think United by Football would be greatly improved if the first episode featured Hard Knocks like storylines featuring players trying to make teams and and inside commentary from the teams’ general manager and head coach on roster decisions. I also think it would be a good idea to feature some segments on USFL broadcasts featuring interviews with each teams’ general manager.

I’d be a proponent of expanding the episodes from 30 minutes to a 60 minute slot in order to develop better storylines and spend more time on each team.

Improve Merchandise Offered by USFL’s Online Store

The USFL has great ticket prices for great quality football, but their merchandise that they sell online is expensive and could have better quality and options. The USFL does not sell individual player jerseys of star players and simple things like mini-helmets and pennants are not for sale.

Host Activation Events in All Eight Cities and Set Up Official Fan Clubs

WIth the USFL hosting all games in Birmingham last year, the league did not have any in person events in markets that do not yet play games at their home. It would be interesting if the USFL dipped their toes into markets where they are not yet playing to build fan engagement.

Implement the Tap Penalties Tested by The Spring League in 2019

In 2019 Brian Woods’ The Spring League partnered with the XFL to help test and develop the XFL’s rules. One rule that caught my attention was a “tap” penalty, which allowed an official to tap a player to send them to the sideline for one play without penalizing the team by throwing a penalty flag.

Solve Coach to Quarterback Headset Issues

Several times during the 2022 season there were headset communication issues between the quarterback and head coach. I certainly have no idea why this happened and offer no solutions other than mimicking what the NFL does, which seems to work seamlessly.

The USFL uses CoachComm headsets while the NFL uses Bose for their headsets.

According to MultiVoice,com, coaching headset issues are becoming more prevalent due to exploding smartphone usage. It’s possible that issues were due to the wireless networking limitations of the stadiums in Birmingham and Canton.

Continue To Increase Access to Gambling on USFL Games

The USFL currently is set up for legal gambling in four states that allow sports betting as of December 2022: Mississippi, Indiana, Nebraska, and Arkansas. Getting access in those states would be a major win for the USFL.

FanDuel did not have DFS for the USFL in 2022, however their rival DraftKings did have USFL DFS. Getting FanDuel on board would be another major win, as both DraftKings and FanDuel had DFS for the 2020 XFL.

Perhaps partnering with VISN or Barstool Sports would help promote more action on USFL games. In 2020 the XFL had a content partnership with VISN while Barstool Sports could provide entertaining gambling content related to USFL play.

Create a USFL App That Lets Diehard Fans Get Exclusive Perks and Access

Fans love perks and they love bragging about how much of a fan they are of their favorite teams. The USFL does some work with Blockchain Labs in this area but with the collapse of crypto and NFTs, I’ll be curious if the USFL looks at other avenues at engaging fans digitally.

Promote The USFL Podcast’s Summerstock and Springstock Events

The Ref and Zach’s Springstock and Summerstock podcast meet-up at the USFL kickoff game and USFL championship games is a great way for hardcore fans to connect IRL. For the USFL, having fervent fans is a valuable market to sell to advertisers, and they could help promote the events through social media or through the game broadcasts.

Lengthen Training Camp Period or Add OTA’s

The USFL opened training camp on March 21 last season and their first game was April 16, essentially giving teams three weeks to figure out what they have, who they’ll cut,  and install offense, defense, and special teams packages. The 2020 XFL and the Alliance of American Football held full month-long training camps.

The NFL begins their training camp in mid-July and then plays three preseason games before kicking off in early September. So the NFL’s offseason program is nearly twice as long as the USFL’s offseason program and the NFL also has three preseason games to simulate the regular season.

In the NFL, teams also have 10-day voluntary Offseason Training Activities in May/June where players spend a lot of time in the classroom installing their scheme. Skip Holtz revealed that the USFL was considering adding OTA’s in November for year two. This didn’t happen, but would be great to have in the future,

Adding another week of USFL training camps would be a great start and having OTAs in late 2023 or early 2024 would also be a huge addition for the USFL to help improve their on-field football product.

Reduce Halftime To Ten Minutes

Unlike NFL Sundays, there were not multiple USFL games going on at the same time in 2022, limiting the need for a halftime highlights show. The XFL announced their halftime would be reduced to ten minutes and it makes sense for the USFL’s halftime to also be reduced in length,

The obvious detriment of this plan would be that this would take away one third of the halftime ad sales that the USFL has. In future years if the USFL increased their halftime ad spots cost by 33%, they could shrink halftime to ten minutes.

The XFL also looked at another way of speeding up the game by having a dedicated on-field official whose only responsibility is spotting the ball after each play. The USFL has invested in technology that spots ball location and likely would not put much energy into a ref whose only responsibility is spotting the ball.

Keep the Clock Running After Incomplete Passes Outside of the Two Minute Warning in the Second and Fourth Quarters

In the middle of the 2022 season the USFL enacted a rule change to keep the clock running following incomplete passes in the first and third quarter in order to keep games under three hours. The XFL has gone a step further and will keep the clock running following incomplete passes in all quarters outside of the two minute warning,

Dip Into The Transfer Portal

The USFL could aggressively target players in the transfer portal, grabbing future NFL stars before they head to the established pro league. This likely would require the USFL to invest in college scouting personnel as the league’s general managers have focused on players who have already graduated, are graduating, or have played in other pro leagues.

In no way were any of my suggestions meant to demean or diminish anything FOX Sports, USFL, or NBC Sports did in 2022. In fact, the highlight of my year was watching my Philadelphia Stars make a run to the USFL Championship. FOX Sports, the USFL, and NBC Sports have a lot of people a lot smarter than me but I enjoy brainstorming and thinking of ways the league can grow.

 

And with that, my wish list for 2023 and beyond is complete. What ideas did you love and which ones did you think were dumb? Let us know down in the comments below or join the conversation on Discord.

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