- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 5, 2007

A new pro football league, one that would include Mark Cuban as an owner, hopes to kick off next summer, the New York Times reports. This is great news for the Cincinnati Bengals, who could be excommunicated from the NFL any day now.

Why, you ask, would a billionaire like Cuban, owner of the highly successful Dallas Mavericks, want to mess with the most powerful league of all time? Beats me. Maybe he just wants to get involved in a sport that has instant replay — admirer of referees that he is.

Or perhaps he has forgotten the sufferings of the WFL in the ‘70s, the USFL in the ‘80s and the execrable XFL just a few short years ago. Who, after all, needs Another Football League, a league made up of eight clubs that couldn’t beat the Oakland Raiders?

Actually, the United Football League, as it’s being called, is an interesting notion. In fact, it practically qualifies as a brainstorm this week — the week Billy Donovan decided to uncoach the Orlando Magic the way Britney Spears decided to unmarry her first husband (the poor schlub she was hitched to in Vegas for about one turn of the roulette wheel).

A little competition would be good for the NFL … and good for the fans as well. Competition has always had a positive effect on the game. It has brought fresh ideas (wild-card playoff teams, names on the backs of jerseys), new franchises (e.g. most of the AFC) and faces (Jim Kelly, Reggie White) and generally kept the folks at 280 Park Ave. from getting too full of themselves. Who knows? If the UFL can mount a serious challenge, the NFL might not have as much time to, oh, lay copyright claim to a generic term like “The Big Game.”

It’s a gigantic “if,” though. The proposed league likes to compare itself to the American Football League of the ‘60s, the only league to take on the NFL and win (or at least tie), but there’s a problem with this: The football landscape has changed greatly since then, and the prospects for a second league don’t seem nearly as promising.

Consider: In 1960, when the AFL was launched, the NFL had 13 teams, 38-man rosters and lacked a national TV contract (which didn’t come until ‘62). Owners were also sowing, with their hard-line tactics, the seeds of labor unrest that would lead to strikes and, ultimately, free agency. The NFL today has 32 teams, 53-man rosters (plus eight-man practice squads) and its games televised on five networks (including its own), and it continues to bask, employee relations-wise, in the glow of Pax Tagliabue. All these things — more markets and TV networks spoken for, more players under contract, more contentment in the union ranks — figure to make it harder for the UFL to get off the ground.

The UFL’s battle plan, it turns out, has less in common with the AFL’s than with the original vision of the USFL (before big-timers like Donald Trump upped the ante, that is). The league won’t go after top draft choices at the outset, it says, deeming them too expensive; instead, it will target players taken in the second round and later — the real bargains — and offer them better pay than the salary-capped NFL does.

(The AFL’s attack strategy was much more ambitious than that. It signed six players in its first year who were taken in the top 10 of the NFL Draft. It even went to court to secure the services of the No. 1 overall pick, Billy Cannon, the Heisman Trophy-winning running back from Louisiana State, who was also lusted after by the Los Angeles Rams. Some AFL franchises might have been a little strapped for cash, but the league as a whole understood the importance of having — from the get-go — marquee attractions.)

Something else the UFL might want to think about: In that inaugural season, the AFL had half a dozen future Hall of Famers — two coaches (Sid Gillman and Hank Stram) and four players (George Blanda, Don Maynard, Ron Mix and Jim Otto). In an eight-team league no less! A decade later, when the NFL grudgingly merged with its pesky rival, the AFL had three starting quarterbacks who were headed to Canton (Joe Namath, Len Dawson and Bob Griese), another who may yet get in (Ken Stabler) and another who was later voted NFC Player of the Year (John Hadl).

What Hall of Fame coaches and players, if any, will be roaming the fields of the UFL in 2008? Just asking.

Quarterbacks, of course, will be the key; football is still a passing game. And this is where the UFL’s business model might actually make sense. The NFL has had mixed success drafting QBs over the years. Plenty of first-rounders have been busts, and plenty of lower-rounders (and undrafted free agents) — the players the UFL will go after — have become stars. In the latter group, just to refresh everyone’s memory, are Tom Brady, Matt Hasselbeck, Brad Johnson, Trent Green, Marc Bulger, Tony Romo, Jeff Garcia and Jake Delhomme. Throw in Brett Favre and Drew Brees, who went in Round 2, and, well, you’ve got a pretty good foundation for a new league.

So the NFL can’t afford to be too complacent, even though it has a 73-0 lead. If the UFL can find seven more deep-pocketed iconoclasts like Cuban, guys willing to drop a short-term bundle in expectation of long-term lucre, it could be the ‘60s all over again. But talking about it is one thing; doing it is a whole different deal.

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