The USFL, Long After Notorious 1980s Meltdown, Will Attempt 2022 Comeback With Fox Sports

AP Photo/Paul Spinelli

The United States Football League, which challenged the NFL’s dominance in the 1980s before collapsing after just three seasons, will attempt a comeback in the spring of 2022.

Fox Sports has signed on as official broadcast partner for the USFL and also owns a minority equity stake in the company that is resuscitating the league. In March, Fox was among the longtime media partners of the NFL signing a long-term renewal to continue carrying Sunday afternoon games. It is surrendering Thursday night rights to Amazon after this fall’s run of games.

“The relaunch of the USFL is a landmark day for football fans and Fox Sports,” Fox Sports CEO and executive producer Eric Shanks said. “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.”

Version 2.0 of the USFL will feature many of the team nicknames and cities from the 1980s. At least eight teams are planned (the first go-round had 12), with a spring schedule. Organizers said they will disclose more details down the road. The original USFL, though it didn’t last long, was home to eventual NFL stars like Steve Young, Herschel Walker, Jim Kelly and Reggie White. Teams included the Houston Gamblers, Washington Federals, Oakland Invaders and Chicago Blitz.

The USFL’s return will coincide with that of the XFL, another revived league backed by WWE boss Vince McMahon whose second act was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic. Dwayne Johnson, Dany Garcia and RedBird Capital Partners acquired the XFL out of bankruptcy for $15 million and plan to hold a full season in 2022 after skipping 2021 to regroup. Brian Woods, co-founder of the new USFL, is also founder and CEO of The Spring League, another alternative pro football outfit whose games are carried by Fox.

As the fate of other largely forgotten challengers like the World Football League has shown, competing with the NFL presents an extremely stiff challenge. When the USFL gave it a shot, the NFL wasn’t yet the powerhouse it is today, accounting for 80 of the top 100 TV programs, vast advertising revenue and more than $100 billion in rights fees. The Alliance of American Football, which also targeted the spring, failed after just eight weeks of play in 2019.

The demise of the USFL in 1986 was punctuated by the outcome of an antitrust lawsuit filed by one of its team owners, Donald Trump, against the NFL.

Before it went under, the USFL shifted to a fall schedule, putting it in direct competition with the NFL. Trump, who owned the New Jersey Generals, asserted the legal claim that the NFL was a monopoly because of its broadcast TV deals. (Cable at that point was at an early stage and the commercial internet did not exist.) His goal was to force a merger with the NFL, similar to the way the old AFL and NFL had merged in the 1960s after a period of acrimony. A jury sided with Trump, but awarded him just $1 in damages. The merger never happened.

The humiliation of the jury’s rebuff, and a later refusal by teams including the Buffalo Bills to even entertain an acquisition offer by Trump, fueled the former president’s animus toward the NFL. Of the many battles he waged during his presidency, few were more strident than his calling any NFL player who kneels during the national anthem a “son of a bitch” who should be removed from the field. He railed against the league for years, at one point multiple times a day, after quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee as a protest against police brutality and many players and team personnel followed.

In the announcement of the reboot, Woods seemed undaunted by the history of the league. “I’m extremely passionate about football and the opportunity to work with Fox Sports and to bring back the USFL in 2022 was an endeavor worth pursuing,” Woods said. “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.”

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