Spring Football: Why Both Leagues Stand to Gain from the Others success

Spring Football: Why Both the USFL and XFL Can Exist, Together, Without Harm or Merge

Written and Edited by Seth Brown

12:33 am. March 12th, 2023

             Spring football is a concept almost as old as fall football. Leagues have taken advantage of the massive gap between fall footballs' season finale and season opener since the early 1920's, but almost always, some odd factor steps in and causes the league to collapse. However, the modern spring leagues may be different. Todays USFL and XFL may just be the spring leagues that break the century long streak of failure. But, how can two leagues succeed in the same season? Would one not have to fail? Would they not have to merge into one combined league? The answer may be yes to either of those, but just as likely it can be no, they do not have to compete and they do not have to fail. It may be a difficult concept to grasp, but that's what we are here to do. But before that, lets take a look at the history of each league.

In the USFL opener, the Birmingham Stallions downed the New Jersey Generals, 28-24, in a down-to-the-wire thriller. The loss would go on to be the Generals only loss of the regular season, as both teams finished 9-1 and champions of their respective divisions.

The Philadephia Stars, who finished the regular season 6-4 and second place in the North division, fell to the Birmingham Stallions 30-17 in their week 5 matchup. The two teams would go on to meet in the USFL Championship game. 

The USFL: From 1983 to 2023

             The Initial USFL was founded in 1982 by Businessman David Dixon, although it did not begin play until 1983. The original USFL was defined by stars, both by the big-name athletes who opted to choose the USFL and the hefty paychecks that USFL teams would dish out over the NFL, and by the team by the name of the Stars, who appeared in all 3 USFL title games during this time. The original USFL was a financial mess, with no salary caps, teams drove themselves broke signing big names from the NFL like Herschel Walker, Steve Young, and Jim Kelly among the names who took massive USFL paydays over NFL fame. Eventually, this big spending would be the downfall of the USFL, as the league was cut from 18 teams down to 8 in the 1986 season due to financial issues. Prior to the '86 season, New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump insisted on a move to the fall to compete with the NFL. After much resistance from fellow owners and persistence from Trump, the USFL would reluctantly move to a fall schedule to compete with the NFL. This would be the nail in the coffin, as the USFL went bankrupt soon after due to inability to compete with the much larger league.

             36 years after the original USFL went bankrupt, however, the USFL would be revived. This time, with the help of FOX investing $150 million into the league, the business model would be much stricter. With a lengthy plan about expansion, expenses, and stadiums, the modern USFL stands to avoid any of the failures of the original, as it is now built to be able to sustain multiple seasons without needing to rely on income, instead using the investment from FOX to establish itself while it slowly grows the league and brand until, by the time that $150 million is used up, the league is entirely self sufficient. The USFL now nears its 2nd season since revival and 6th total season, and the league stands strong and looks on its way to becoming the first successful spring football league.

The XFL: From 2001 to 2023

             The XFL as a whole is much younger than the USFL. Initially founded in 2001 by WWF Chairman Vince McManon and NBC-Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol, the XFL would begin play the same year. The goal of the league was to be a 'violent, sexualized version of the NFL'. Removing the grit and dirty work of regular football for more flashy, action-packed play. The 2001 league was given so much advertisement and hype that by the time the league actually began play, it was already considered a disappointment for not fulfilling its promises. The league would not survive for a second season,

             19 years later, however, the league would play again. Although this reboot was actually founded in 2018, it would take two more years for play to begin. Similar to the initial XFL, this version of the league would focus on providing flashier, more action-packed entertainment than the NFL. Unfortunately for the XFL, however, it had not built its financial structure for the storm that would come. The Covid-19 pandemic would strike just five weeks into the season, and play would halt. Just a month later, the XFL filed for bankruptcy after spending a reported $200 million dollars.

             Just three years later, The XFL would return again. Bought in the summer of 2020 for $15 million dollars by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, the newest version of the XFL is much more financially efficient than its prior iterations. Raising $125 million dollars to run its first season under Johnson, the modern XFL shows no signs of suffering the same fate of its predecessors.

The XFL's San Antonio Brahmas, leaving the tunnel in their home opener. The Brahmas lost to the St. Louis Battlehawks 18-15, after leading the game 3-15 with just under 1:30 left in the fourth quarter.

The Brahmas and Battlehawks week 1 matchup saw an incredible comeback. Down 3-15 with under 1:30 left in the fourth, the Battlehawks punched in 6 points on a touchdown before attempting and completing a 3 point conversion. With the game now 12-15, they attempted a 4th down conversion to maintain possession. They succeeded, and scored another touchdown to win the game 18-15.

USFL vs XFL: Is competition brewing?

             The short answer: no. Bar a drastic event, the XFL and USFL have no reason to compete. This is especially true for the XFL, as they sit in a much worse financial position and also have one less season under their belt in their current forms. If the teams were to compete, the USFL would come out on top simply by doing nothing. The USFL has an investment of $150 million from FOX, compared to the XFL's $125 million from various investors. Although a gap of $25 million is not major and could be leveraged by advertising and better product, what really matters is the time in which this is used. The modern XFL raised their $125 million for their first season. Although it is not expected that the league would use all of this on one season with no plans for the future, there is no published plans of the future. Alternatively, the USFL's $150 million investment was made with full intentions of a minimum 3 year plan (For comparison, the 2020 XFL spent $50 million more than this total investment for 5 weeks total). This means that, before the USFL even played a game, it had financial stability guaranteed throughout its first 3 seasons. On top of all of this, although it is difficult to judge the XFL on this metric due to numbers not yet being available, the USFL reportedly made a little under $10 million in its inaugural season. Although it does not seem like a lot, profit is profit, especially for a first year league. Ultimately, the USFL seems to be structured much more efficiently financially, which is what everything ultimately comes down too - which league can stay afloat the longest. Although it is too early to tell in depth with the XFL, everything currently points to the USFL having a large edge should the leagues draw themselves into competition.

If not Competing, what about Merging?

             Across social media platforms everywhere, fans of the USFL, XFL, and even NFL are floating ideas about an eventual merger between the XFL and USFL. Although this could draw benefits to both spring leagues, ultimately, the deal would be too lopsided. Due to the USFL's better financial situation, in the event of a merger it may be expected to cover any potential shortcomings of the XFL. This situation alone is enough to deter the USFL from rushing into a merger - especially when the USFL has proved it can reach a second season, while the XFL has failed to do so twice and still has a year to go until it can prove if the third time really is the charm. Furthermore, there are a small amount of barriers between the leagues. Although the XFL and USFL have a lot more in common with each other than they do with the NFL, there are still various rule barriers. Both leagues allow for a 3 point conversion after a touchdown from the 10 yard line. Both have much neater officiating than the NFL, and both allow for a 4th down conversion instead of an onside kick. However, there are also a slew of differences. The USFL keeps the regular 1 point PAT field goal and 2-yard 2 point conversion options, while the XFL ditches kicking after a touchdown entirely for a 2-yard 1 point conversion and 5-yard 2 point conversion. The 4th down conversions instead of onside kicks also differ, as the USFL requires a 12 yard gain, while the XFL requires 15 yards.  Rules about catches being in bounds also differ, as the USFL requires 2 feet in bounds, while the XFL opts for the collegiate rule of 1 foot. Both leagues, however, include interesting choices involving players and refs: in both leagues, all coaches, players, and refs have microphones which can be listened in to live. This is not nearly as present in the NFL. The USFL takes this a step further by mounting cameras onto all player helmets and ref hats, which is not present in the XFL. Although they share more in common which each other than the NFL, both spring leagues would need to iron out a lot of rules before talks of merging can begin.

The D.C. Defenders and the St. Louis Battlehawks met in week 3 of the XFL season. Both teams entered the matchup undefeated at 2-0, with the Defenders coming out of the contest victorious, 34-28.

Philadelphia Stars Quarterback Case Cookus, facing pressure from a dominant Stallions defense in the USFL title game. Cookus would be injured late in the game, allowing the Stallions to win the USFL's first championship of the leagues revival, 33-30.

Can two leagues co-exist?

             Due to the lack of ability between the USFL and XFL to merge or compete in the near future, they must co-exist. But, how do two different professional sports league of  the same sport exist together? Well, they don't, but not in the way you're thinking. The XFL begins play just one week after the NFL's Super Bowl title game, avoiding overlap with the much larger league. The XFL season runs until the end of April, and then sees two weeks of playoffs in May. The USFL begins play April 15th, running until mid june, with the playoffs lasting until the title game early July. Ultimately, this allows both spring leagues to only have a total of four overlapping weeks. Although there is some competition, it is about as minimal as the spring leagues can get.

NFL: From hostility to friendship

             The NFL has a history with spring league football. It has even attempted to start its own spring league, which eventually was moved to Europe as NFL Europa before being declared a failed experiment and ended. The NFLs ties to spring football go beyond their own experiments, though. The NFL was in a fierce legal battle with the USFL of the 1980's over players. The original USFL, lacking salary caps, saw multiple teams offer blank checks to big names in football to choose the USFL instead, and some players signed. This caused outrage from the NFL, as it was now seeing well known players ditch the league for a lesser spring league. The NFL sued, and a fierce legal battle ensued. This USFL-NFL fight would worsen as, led by Generals owner Donald Trump, the USFL would move to the fall to attempt to directly compete with the NFL. The USFL would lose this fight, and the battle between the leagues would end.

             However, despite these early failures and fights with spring football, todays NFL has established friendly relations with both spring leagues early on. Today, the NFL shares stadiums with a team from each league - the NFLs Detroit Lions share their Ford Field home with the Michigan Panthers of the USFL, and the NFLs' Seattle Seahawks share their own Lumen Field with the XFLs Seattle SeaDragons. Both of these NFL teams have even went out and promoted their spring league roommates on social media, and the Detroit Pistons, a professional basketball team in the NBA, have also given promotion to the newest addition to Detroit Sports by advertising USFL tickets during a Pistons game and having the Panthers mascot inside Little Ceasar's Arena. The NFL has also signed deals with the leagues about development. Ultimately, the modern NFL has made amends with its past feelings towards spring football and now works with both modern leagues to see both succeed.

Birmingham Stallions players celebrate and hoist the USFL trophy after downing the Philadelphia Stars 33-30 in a thriller of a USFL Championship showdown.