When the USFL kicked off earlier this year, there was a lot of cynicism and downright disbelief. Empty stands caused by the hub city were mocked endlessly on social media, ESPN ignored its games, sports media questioned the quality of play and the Associated Press went so far as to declare the time for spring football had come and gone. But having completed its first season with ratings on par with established leagues such as MLB and NHL, a growing list of NFL signings, commitments to expand rosters and hub cities next year, and rumors of first-year profitability, the USFL did about as much as it could in its first year to prove critics wrong.
Much of this success is without question due to the cost-containing, slow-growth business plan the league is following. And while hub cities and Fox’s bare bones, ‘just enough’ approach might be frustrating for fans, we should remind ourselves that the last time a spring professional football league was looking forward to its second season was the original USFL of the 1980’s – nearly 40 years ago. In fact, it was the founder of the original USFL, David Dixon, who created the original blueprint for a pragmatic, sustainable business model for spring football – one that the new USFL is in many ways doubling down on. So as we savor this moment in spring football history, let us pause to remember one of the most unknown and yet influential figures in football history.
David Dixon – The Godfather of Spring Football
David Dixon was a New Orleans sports entrepreneur, instrumental in the creation of the NFL’s Saints as well as the construction of the Superdome. His vision for a spring professional football league which he named the USFL (after the “US Steel Company”) was never to take on the NFL, but rather to carve out a modest, yet profitable niche in the spring. His business strategy, dubbed the “Dixon Plan” called for the league to grow slowly, draft local talent and to follow a strict salary cap that would help keep the losses at a minimum until the local fan base and TV audiences grew to the point of profitability.
Everyone he showed it to agreed, Dixon’s “walk before you can run” plan was brilliant in concept and had a real chance of success, the only problem was, the league of the 1980’s never stuck to the plan.
The original USFL team owners, many of whom were successful entrepreneurs, brought outsized egos along with their hefty wallets, abandoned the spending cap almost immediately in order to sign Heisman trophy winners and NFL all pros to fill seats and win games. Seeking to recoup the losses caused by outsized payrolls, the league voted to expand before it was ready by raising millions in new franchise fees. By its third and final year, in a desperate move to force a merger with the NFL, team owners voted to move to the fall despite having no TV contract, but instead pinning their hopes on a $1.5 Billion Antitrust suit. Each of these moves were in direct contravention of Dixon’s Plan and the rest as they say, is history.
But for those who followed it, the “Dixon Plan” worked
Although the league as a whole largely abandoned its founder’s business plan, there were a few owners who stuck to it and found success. As Paul Reeths details in his excellent history of the USFL, owners such James Basset of the Tampa Bay Bandits (who had learned the mistakes of the failed World Football League) and Ron Blanding of the Denver Gold, kept their payrolls modest, avoided big names and big contracts in favor of regional stars, creatively marketed their teams to the local community and happily embraced their identity as a spring niche. Not only did those teams break even or make a profit, they saw their attendance match and even outdraw their cities’ NFL teams! Even the networks saw the potential (and the profits) in Dixon’s approach. Forgotten in the colorful history of the original USFL is the fact that ABC and ESPN offered the USFL a $175 Million, 4-year TV deal – more than triple their initial contract – if the league would stay in the spring rather than move to the fall. But by that point it was too late as payrolls (and losses) had ballooned to the point that a spring TV contract could no longer sustain it.
Dixon Plan 2.0: Crawling before you walk
They say that those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it and so it’s heartening to see that the new USFL appears to have learned many of these lessons. In many ways, Fox’s slow growth approach is the spiritual successor to the original Dixon Plan; one that arguably takes it a step further. By declaring its commitment to the spring and using hub cities in its initial years to control costs, the league is showing that it learned an important lesson from the 1980’s: Before you can walk, much less run, you must first learn to crawl. And that means more than just financial stability. Read any of the histories of the USFL, or sit down with Vince McMahon and you’ll discover that a startup league faces countless challenges and unplanned complications that go well beyond ratings and payroll; finding good coaches and experienced support staff, negotiating health insurance and contract benefits, player unionization, meeting health and safety protocols, fine tuning new rules, building a brand, and on and on. Starting in a single, controlled environment, helped Fox manage the inevitable externalities, while learning how to operate a professional football league. As CEO Eric Shanks said recently, with its first season under its belt, Fox can now turn its attention to what it knows best – selling ads (the lifeblood of all professional sports).
From the beginning, Fox’s stated goal was to simply to complete a full season and to prove its business plan was sound. That wasn’t about lowering expectations, that was coming from folks like Brian Woods and Daryl Johnston who, like James Bassett back in the ‘80’s, had first hand experience with failed upstart leagues and helped them see with wisdom in what David Dixon figured out back in 1983: Go slow, be patient, embrace your spring niche, and don’t let your ego distract you into something you cannot sustain. As fans look forward to season two, I’d like to think that somewhere, David Dixon is looking down on the USFL and smiling with pride as he watches this new version of his namesake learn to crawl before it walks.