The higher-ups with the A11 Football League know there is no iron-clad, definitive blueprint of how to create a successful spring professional football league.
Since that is the case, those leading the effort to launch the A11FL will look to create that iron-clad, definitive blueprint.
The A11FL, which will take professional football back to its roots thanks to its signature rule change of not having a jersey-numbering system for offensive players, is looking to build off the successes of the United States Football League (1983-85), the World League of American Football (1991-92, 1995-97)/NFL Europe (1998-2007) and the XFL (2001) – and learn from their failures.
The USFL was the first professional football league to play its games in the “non-traditional” time of the year – spring and summer, as opposed to fall and winter. The plan was for the USFL to debut in the spring of 1983 with modest team payrolls and fiscal sanity. That quickly went out the window, and the money hemorrhaging was underway early.
Going away from the original fiscal plan was one problem. The next was expanding too quickly – as in growing by 50 percent from Year 1 to Year 2. Going from 12 teams in 1983 to 18 teams in 1984 turned out to be a mistake – one that was exacerbated by the final nail in the USFL’s coffin, trying to move its season to the fall/winter for 1986. Of the USFL’s seven expansion/relocation cities in 1984, only four were around for the 1985 campaign.
In the end, having future Pro Football Hall of Famers like Jim Kelly, Steve Young and Reggie White playing on their fields wasn’t enough to save the USFL from itself, and its run ended after three seasons.
The WLAF/NFL Europe was a two-fold exercise by the National Football League – a) to develop players at the lower end of NFL rosters, and b) attempt to build the game globally. The original incarnation of the WLAF was more popular overseas in Europe than it was in North America, so when it returned beginning in 1995, it became an all-European circuit. The problem during the restart was the fans who came out in 1991 and 1992 felt jilted by the two-year hiatus, and the popularity – despite the league’s second run being 13 seasons long – wasn’t at the same level.
While the WLAF/NFLE didn’t necessarily do its job of growing the game globally to the extent the NFL was looking for, the development part was a success at times. See players like Kurt Warner, Adam Vinatieri, Brad Johnson, Michael Sinclair and Mike Jones – who made the game-winning tackle for the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV – as proof of that.
Finally, there was the XFL. The biggest mistake the XFL made was evident immediately – the football wasn’t nearly as important as the professional wrestling-type bombast and swagger. While the XFL did pioneer a current football television staple like “sky cam,” its brand of football wasn’t nearly up to par of that of the USFL, and it probably was slightly better than the WLAF/NFLE.
Despite having players like league Player of the Year Tommy Maddox and future NFLers like Rod “He Hate Me” Smart and current Denver Broncos linebacker Paris Lenon, the quality of play in the first week – especially in primetime – simply couldn’t match the hype. The television ratings and attendances declined as the season went on, and the XFL was put out of its misery shortly after its only campaign.
So what are the lessons to be learned from these three past spring leagues?
- Come up with a viable cost structure, and stick to it.
- Don’t expand too fast – and too much.
- Keep the league about the football first – and have any other entertainment value in the background.
Learning those three lessons will make the A11FL’s blueprint building go a lot smoother.