File this one in the out-of-the-box department. A new pro football league calling itself the USFL wants to launch in 2014. Like the original USFL, the new league plans to play its games in the spring. Unlike the 80’s version of the USFL, the new league has set it sights a bit lower and broader. The new USFL expects to launch with eight teams in markets such as Southern California and Alabama.
The kicker to the league’s business plan is that the USFL has inked a deal with an unnamed national developer to build “villages” containing a 20,000-seat stadium for each franchise and ancillary commercial development to go with it. If successful, the business model would turn minor league sports inside-out. Building a stadium has been hard enough in the past, let alone building stuff to go beside it. While it’s doubtful that the additional development can be built and filled quickly enough to help defray the stadium cost in every case, there’s a chance that there could be one or two shining examples. In the South or Texas, where regulations are lax and zoning in some cases doesn’t exist, this can be fairly simple. In California, where CEQA looms large over everything, it might not be such an easy task.
Going with a 20,000-seat stadium plan for each franchise and a single-entity operations model makes the new USFL similar to the launch of MLS in 1996. MLS took numerous years of billionaire owners like Phil Anschutz pumping in money to keep the league afloat, though that was with soccer, not football. Even with the more familiar sport, Americans generally haven’t taken well to lesser-talent football, finding that the NFL and NCAA FBS serves most of America extremely well. Only the Arena Football League has survived long enough to fill that minor league niche, though it experienced its own financial problems during the recession.
The potentially problematic thing about the 20,000-seat plan is that MLS has already filled numerous markets with that size of stadium, driving up competition for decreasing numbers of 20,000-strong outdoor events. In the USFL’s press release it has indicated interest in Ohio. Columbus could be a spot but it has a stadium for the Columbus Crew MLS team. Cleveland, Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky, or Dayton may be better choices. Dallas and Houston also have those stadia, while San Antonio doesn’t. Alabama, Oklahoma, and Virginia seem to be ripe for this kind of thing, though the Virginia Beach UFL team hasn’t exactly made people sit up and notice.
If the UFL folds, the USFL would be poised to pick up the pieces and establish relationships. At the very least there will be some number of temporary stadia at which to play, though minor league football isn’t exactly the sexiest proposition. They’ll also be poised to become a feeder league for the NFL, a concept that generally failed to date (UFL, NFL Europe). The AFL has had a shaky record performing in this mode, and it plans to launch its own league in China in late 2014.
No element of the USFL’s plan is more mysterious than the partnership with the unnamed developer. It’ll be fascinating to see how aggressive each market’s deployment is, and whether each team is able to succeed quickly with its development goals. If it works, we may see many medium and smaller markets use this as an example on how to build the next generation of venues. If not, USFL2 will be relegated to the dustbin of history.