The demise of the XFL, on the heels of the AAF folding up shop, has sparked a series of ‘hot takes’ on the viability – or lack-thereof – of spring football. American pro football can work during the months of February, March, April and May – in fact, it has in the past. The problem is that the infrastructure needed to support pro football is so costly to build that just about every upstart league has been forced to fold before it reaches profitability. But there is one group of prospective investors that is positioned to make spring football a success – the NFL’s current crop of team owners. On top of having the player personnel departments, coaching, medical and training staffs, video and equipment personnel, local media expertise and leverage, facilities, ticketing operations, league and team sponsorship sales forces and the officiating crews needed to operate a new league already in place, NFL owners simply need the business to break-even; the R&D aspect (which in theory should make the NFL game better) would more than warrant their participation.
Howie Long-Short: Those who argue that spring football can’t work will cite a series of failed attempts (see: USFL, WFL, AAF, XFL), but there is one example of an American pro football league that experienced sustained springtime success. Resurrected as the World League of American Football (WLAF) in 1995, the research & development focused operation existed in one form or another (see: the World League, NFL Europe and NFL Europa) for 13 seasons (through ’07, referred to hereafter as NFLE). NFLE wasn’t a profitable endeavor (the league lost between $19 million and $35 million each season), but as a source intimately familiar with the NFL Europe said “if the goal was to improve the game of professional football and to develop players (see: Kurt Warner, Brad Johnson, Jake Delhomme, LeRoy Glover), coaches (see: Hue Jackson), officials (see: Terry McAuley), broadcasters (see: Troy Aikman) and television talent (see: Rich Russo) it succeeded beyond all measure.”
NFLE was initially a JV between the NFL (owned 51%) and FOX (owned 49%), so the annual losses incurred were split between the two entities. It’s fair to wonder why the Rupert Murdoch owned broadcast network would elect to invest in a venture that was never designed to generate profits, but from their perspective helping to fund the spring league was a relatively inexpensive way for the upstart company to “curry favor” with the NFL (remember, FOX had just been awarded a broadcast package, for the 1st time, in ’94). One high-profile media rights consultant suggested with the league’s broadcast rights coming up for renewal again in ’22 and the TV networks still so reliant on NFL programming, that the owners could once again use the leverage they have in negotiations to “force distribution partners to invest in developing, producing and distributing a new brand. The associated costs would be a rounding error in relation to the actual rights fees.”
After 2002 or so, FOX was an established entity and no longer felt the need to help prop up NFLE. When the broadcast network dropped out, the NFLPA – which valued the spring league because it created jobs – stepped up to help cover a portion of the annual losses. But +/- $1 million per year (per club) was apparently too steep for two or three owners who eventually managed to convince new commissioner Roger Goodell that the NFL did not need to send players halfway around the globe to develop them.
Our NFLE source said “at the end of the day, it was the geography, not the money [that did the league in]” – seemingly leaving the door open for a spring football rebirth. If the NFL owners were to launch a new springtime league in ’21 or ’22, it’s fair to assume they’ll keep the teams stateside. A six-team league with two clubs in Florida, two in Arizona and two in Texas would make sense. All three are right to work states (which alleviates workers compensation concerns) and the warm weather would allow the league to put on festival-type events each weekend (think: NFL Experience x Power Party tailgate).
While an NFL-backed spring league wouldn’t be predicated on ticket sales revenue (television, merchandising and sponsorships would likely drive the business), a ducket that included 3 games (including a Saturday double-header), NFL player autograph signings, youth football clinics and concerts would seemingly provide fans enough value to sell out 25,000 seat venues. The league could start their season the week after the Super Bowl, have a ten-game round-robin slate – with a championship game (top 2 finishers advance) – and still finish before May OTAs begin.
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