Tuesday, October 20, 2009

What Can The USFL Teach Us?

In Las Vegas last week, I had a chance to watch an extended trailer of the ESPN 30-for-doc "Small Potatoes: What Killed the USFL?" -- premiering tonight.

I was 12 at the height of the USFL -- we covered the 30/30 fascination with a specific window of mid-80s storylines -- and I have some of the same nostalgia for it that many over 35 might.

But beyond that, regular readers know that I find alternative and/or start-up sports leagues to be fascinating -- the USFL is a great case study.

*Spring season
*NFL-quality talent

*Costs, costs, costs
*Donald Trump

The spring season was key -- play where they ain't. The USFL correctly anticipated that NFL fans suffered withdrawal in the spring, waiting for the next season.

Since then, of course, the NFL has turned itself into a 12-month-a-year sport; the Super Bowl in February merely kicks off a busy "offseason" between February and mid-July: Combine, Draft, Mini-camp, Fantasy prep, Training Camp.

I got a chance to talk with "Small Potatoes" director Mike Tollin -- who was the Steve Sabol of the USFL during the league's existence. He noted that the league's failures were foretold as soon as they moved away from the spring and tried to compete head-to-head in the fall with the NFL.

I asked Tollin what -- if any -- lessons that start-up leagues could apply from the USFL. He had three:

(1) Cost containment.
(2) Consensus.
(3) Staying true to the vision.

It's a pretty good blueprint. Consider how expensive it was for the USFL to import Herschel Walker -- also, consider that the USFL managed to convince what was then the greatest player in college football history to forego the NFL for this start-up league. Imagine if LeBron skipped the NBA for a start-up U.S. pro-hoops league.

Ultimately, start-up sports leagues are like any start-up: You can't afford to compete with cash.

Consensus is interesting -- it speaks to the need for some level of league-mandated control. Oh, sure, you need the rich businessmen to buy teams for their own vanity -- but you need to convince them to let the league manage things. (Or, in the case of the UFL, the league owns the teams.)

Staying true to the vision seems most important: The USFL was founded as a spring league, a complement to the NFL; Donald Trump wanted to turn it into the next NFL, a competitor to the NFL. The XFL felt like the same thing -- cynical from the start.

Alternatively, look at the success of Arena League, which lasted for 20+ seasons as a complete complement to the NFL -- including rules that were different enough that they maintained that complementary position in the market. They didn't move outdoors because they wanted to get bigger -- they moved into tiny, minor-league markets... ironically, the "arena2" franchises were more successful than the Arena League franchises.

There is a current model for the start-up sports league: The NBA 's D-League. Yes, it helps that it was created by the NBA itself, but consider how it applies Tollin's key principles:

The D-League is run on a lean budget. It has extremely capable centralized control (even though it has local ownership), particularly league president Dan Reed. And it has stuck to its very clear vision: Be the "R&D lab" of the NBA -- whether that is players, coaches, strategies or game experience for fans. The league is a complete success.

(Where does the D-League fall short? Precisely in the place where they artificially constrain that vision: The D-League should be encouraging prep players to come straight to the D-League, rather than spending a year in college... or abroad. The best place to get trained for the NBA should be the NBA's own development system. At least in theory. I understand the many reasons why the league doesn't want to mess with its established NCAA development pipeline -- I'm just saying that the D-League would be even more successful if it developed the great preps, not just the nearly-ready college players.)

And so when the start-up United Football League (UFL) talks about wanting to be the development league for pro football (read: the NFL) -- which is a terrific competitive position, mind you -- everything about that vision should be on the table.

Most notably: The UFL should be willing to accept the players that the NFL won't allow to enter its draft -- college players with one or two years of experience.

Let those players sit in the UFL for a year or two before entering the NFL Draft. Give them pro coaching, get them ready for pro systems and expectations. Pay them to do it -- but also give them access to endorsement money unavailable to them in college.

In short: Prepare them for a career in the NFL explicitly, rather than relying on the implicit NFL training of college football.

It would make the NFL better. It would make the UFL a LOT better. And it would even improve college football, because the players who remain would be committed to playing college football, not playing to get ready for the NFL. There's room for both.

But the UFL is apparently either too dumb or too scared to take this obvious strategy. And because of that they will fail, despite favorable cost controls and centralized leadership.

Because the UFL is missing the key ingredient that the USFL had -- which you'll see in the film tonight: Talent. Really good talent. NFL talent, and not just marginal NFL talent -- which the UFL is apparently banking on.

Talent might not be a sufficient factor on its own -- but it is entirely necessary. The disruptive change isn't when you play or where you play -- it's who is doing the playing.

And, right now, there is a gaping opportunity between college football and the NFL's unwillingness to let qualified NFL-level talent play in its league.

The USFL wasn't just a rollicking (and important) moment in sports history -- it is simultaneously a template and cautionary tale for how start-up sports leagues might succeed... or fail.

-- D.S.

(Oh, I have a little personal investment in the story, too: My wife clerked for the Federal judge who presided over the USFL-NFL case, which famously awarded the USFL $1, trebled to slightly more than $3 -- perhaps the most famous result in sports-law history.)

1 comment:

Frank the Tank said...

I've always been conflicted on the preps-to-pros debate. On the one hand, it's clear that a LeBron James-level talent doesn't need college experience and is clearly good enough to play in the pros immediately. If we judge sports to be the closest thing that we have a meritocracy, then any player that is good enough to play ought to be able to play.

The issue that the NBA faced prior to instituting its current age minimum, though, was that too many high school kids thought that they were LeBron James-level talents but really needed at least a couple of years of further development, which led to an influx of high first round draft pick busts. Basketball is a sport that depends upon high draft picks to play immediately, but too many high school players started getting drafted on pure potential. At the same time, while LeBron was a very rare case of a high school player that was already famous prior to being drafted, the vast majority of high school players are unknown to the average sports fan. In contrast, college players are very often known quantities to the general public - they've been shown on ESPN and CBS constantly for several years.

Therein lies the main business reason as to why the NBA and NFL are actually more stringent on age requirements than ever: college sports not only remove the cost of developing players out of high school, but they also are incredible promotional tools for the players and personalities that will eventually land in the pros. This drives interest in the NBA and NFL drafts as well as anointing rookies as future stars (especially in the star-driven system of the NBA). A minor league can develop technical on-the-field skills for a player, but it does almost nothing to develop hype and press off-the-field.

There aren't any Columbus Clippers minor baseball games on national television (I don't even know if there's a single game on local television). However, if you're an Ohio State football or basketball fan, you can watch every single Buckeye game anywhere in the country with just a basic DirecTV package. The NBA and NFL get the benefit of that national TV exposure for future players and, even more importantly, the rabid fandom for those college teams that can't be manufactured no matter how much start-up money you have or whether your business plan looks brilliant on paper. No amount of money or promotion is going to get you to care more about an NBDL or minor league football team than the Florida Gators. In fact, a lot of people are more rabid fans of their college teams than any of the major pro sports teams. So why would the NBA or NFL even try to compete that? Those leagues are better off letting future stars obtain more national exposure in college so that they can enter the pros with as much as hype and press coverage as possible.

The sports business is ultimately the entertainment business. A starting running back or point guard is going to be a lot more well known to the general public by playing at Ohio State than with the football or basketball version of the Columbus Clippers, so it's very much in the best interests of the NFL and NBA to let the colleges develop STAR POWER off-the-field (not just technical skills on-the-field). That's the key element that a lot of people forget about when looking as sports as part of the entertainment business.