Soon, we will have more football.
On Thursday afternoon, word broke that a professional football league, one unaffiliated with the NFL, will begin operating in April 2017. Apparently it’s the work of the founder of a previous independent football league, the Fall Experimental Football League (FXFL), which was disbanded in 2015. Details are few, but the main thing is: more football.
Whether we need more football — much less want it — is hardly the point. The problem with football is not that it’s dangerous, or intractably doomed, or a cynical conduit for capitalizing on the talent of young men, some of whom have little knowledge of the dire risks they’re facing by playing the sport at all. To a very small subset, the problem is simply that there’s not enough of it. The NFL is perhaps the most comically profitable entity this country has ever seen, a ruthlessly efficient machine that cranks the levers of TV rights and publicly funded stadium deals and emerges with mountains of cash. In 2016, the NFL pulled in somewhere around $13.3 billion in revenue, and commissioner Roger Goodell has said the league is on track to hit $25 billion by 2027. Who wouldn’t want even just a crumb of that pie?
At present, we do not know much about what the new league will entail. We know — kind of — it’s tentatively named the Spring League, a fact that is difficult to confirm given that its website buckled almost immediately under the weight of Thursday’s sudden traffic. Will it be populated with “four squads of veteran free agent players” as an early — and at least partially incorrect — report suggested? Where will the coaches come from? What will be the “unique overtime format” described in the league FAQ? Will there be drug testing and fines and suspensions? What will the dressing look like — the team names, the uniforms, the dopey giveaways to lure fans?
With little else go on, it’s hard not to contemplate the absurd possibilities for veterans who might play or coach. Brett Favre never met a retirement that couldn’t be undone. Tim Tebow is going to keep trying to script his Lifetime movie until we’re all wiped off the earth in nuclear war. Maybe Jeff Fisher will get another crack at the all-time loss record. Perhaps this is where Chip Kelly is actually meant to be. Has Steve Spurrier gotten bored yet?
One thing we do know: There’s not much of a reason to be optimistic about the Spring League’s chances of success. Judging by the early reports, this seems to be the work of former FXFL CEO and commissioner Brian Woods, a man so confident in his ability to litigate sporting events that he has set the URL of his LinkedIn profile to read /sportsexecutive.
So what did he oversee at the helm of the FXFL? Here are some things that befell the league over the course of its two-year existence: settling for a four-team league instead of the planned six; the abrupt cancellation of the last game of the inaugural 2014 season; the failure to follow it with a promised championship game; the sudden contraction of the Mahoning Valley Brawlers (one-fourth of the total franchises in the league) just days before the start of the 2015 season; the early cancellation of the second and final season, too.
This isn’t just an FXFL problem: This is more or less how it’s gone for just about every would-be independent football league — and there have been many. The 2001 crash of the XFL’s promotional blimp was arguably one of the lesser disasters to occur during the league’s one-season financially disastrous run. The United States Football League collapsed in 1985 after three seasons, as did the United Football League (2009–2012), as did the Canadian Football League’s American expansion (1993–1995). The Regional Football League lasted just one season, 1999; the Spring Football League limped through a handful of games the next year. The Professional Spring Football League was scrapped 10 days before its season opener in 1992, and the World Football League collapsed midway through its second season in 1975. The All American Football League was postponed in four successive years before falling silent in 2011. The North American Football League has yet to play its first game, as has the much-ballyhooed Major League Football, which was recently served eviction papers at its Florida headquarters.
Even the more “successful” leagues have struggled: The NFL-backed World League of American Football made it two seasons before the plug was pulled in 1992; it came back in 1995, was later rechristened the “NFL Europe League” and then “NFL Europa” before it, too, went bust. The most stalwart of them all, the indoor Arena Football League, founded in 1987, lost five of its eight remaining teams after this year’s season (though two expansion teams are being added).
Over and over and over, the market — us, the fans, people who like football — has spoken. But time and again, the powers that be — the ones who look at our love of the sport and see only a buck to be made — have shown that they don’t care one bit.