A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the end of the Alliance of American Football, the newest league to try to give Americans the football they so hunger for during the football-less spring months, a relatively viable alternative to enjoy while waiting for the NFL and NCAA to return in the early fall.
While the AAF did show some serious promise at the start of the season, it soon faltered and suspended operations before even reaching the end of the regular season. With that, the league found itself relegated to the same place many other leagues that tried and were unsuccessful: the relatively forgotten trash heap of history.
With this in mind, that begs the question — can football in the spring ever be truly embraced or successful in the United States?
Yes, but it must be done properly and avoid the mistakes other leagues have made.
The first league to try playing a spring schedule was the United States Football League. Kicking off in 1983, the USFL lasted for three seasons and was planning for its fourth when the curtain fell. Most league historians point to three key flaws that doomed the league: the relative lack of a salary cap, the push to move the league to a fall schedule in 1986 and an anti-trust lawsuit filed against the NFL, for which the USFL was awarded damages totaling $1.
Then, 1991 brought sports fans the first season of the World League of American Football, featuring teams in the United States, Canada, Spain, Germany and the United Kingdom. The WLAF was actually supported by the NFL and was seen as a developmental league for players trying to make an NFL roster. Despite a major initial investment from NFL team owners, the league was losing money and those same owners refused to fund it any further. After going on hiatus, the league returned in 1995 as NFL Europe and continued to operate until 2007.
In 2001, football fans were treated to arguably the biggest disaster in professional sports when the XFL took the field. The brainchild of WWE’s Vince McMahon, viewers saw a relatively poor product on the field, while some even wondered if, due to its ties with professional wrestling, games were scripted. After the first week of play, television ratings looked like the 1929 stock market and the XFL folded after one season, although McMahon has announced a reborn XFL to begin play next spring.
Lastly, we had the AAF earlier this year. To summarize what I said about it recently, the league showed promise, bringing in big name players and coaches, but the biggest problem facing the AAF was of a financial nature with revenues not coming in like some may have expected.
Despite all of these flaws, there were some positives these leagues gave us. The USFL showed there was the potential for the NFL to be successful in new markets. The WLAF/NFL Europe proved to be an effective laboratory for rule changes. For all of its miscues, the XFL demonstrated the full potential of the skycam, which has become a staple in sports today.
So, looking back and learning from the examples of the past, there quite possibly could be a place for spring football in the American sports calendar. With our love of football and plenty of “open” calendar space to fill, spring football deserves a chance.
As long as the league is properly managed, has adequate funding, puts a respectable product on the field and brings in enough marquee talent to fill out team rosters, success is a distinct possibility.
Donald Campbell is a former staff writer for The Outlook.