Following the recent announcement that two Indianapolis based organizations are bringing lawsuits against the Spring Football League, which recently hosted half of its 2021 season games in Lucas Oil Stadium, I thought it would be interesting to explore the risky nature of these NFL alternatives that seem to pop up every few years.
The NFL has a long history of succeeding while its potential competitors fall to the wayside. The first casualty of the NFL’s dominance was the Continental Football League, which operated from 1965 to 1969. This league folded after the NFL and AFL merger solidified the NFL as the primary football league in the nation (Reineking, 2019).
Roughly 20 years after the failure of the Continental Football League, the United States Football League (USFL) emerged and saw modest success during its 5 year run in the 1980s. The league eventually succumbed to a lack of funds, but this was not the last we heard from the USFL, as an attempt to return in 2010 never came to fruition and a current effort to bring the league back for a 2022 season is underway (FOX Sports, 2021). The announcement of this return brought with it confusion about structuring and potential partnership with another existing football league, The Spring League.
For the past three years, The Spring League, a player development focused league, has been operated by CEO Brian Woods. During its 2021 season, which saw two divisions of 4 teams play out of Indianapolis, IN and Houston, TX, all of the league’s games were broadcasted across the various networks that make up Fox Sports. This marked the first time that the league was broadcast on television (Rachuk, 2021a).
Prior to kickoff of the season opener of The Spring League, CEO Brian Woods hinted at an exciting announcement that would be expected later in the season. This announcement was later revealed to be the planned return of the USFL. Fox Sports was announced as an owner and broadcaster of the League, with Brian Woods serving as President of Football Operations (FOX Sports, 2021).
Due to ties between Woods, Fox Sports, and The Spring League, initial impressions were that the two leagues would work together. In the months following the announcement however, it was clarified that the two leagues will not be cooperating in any capacity (Rachuk, 2021b). This leaves The Spring league in an uncertain state, but the league is not dead in the water yet.
The Spring League operates in a much different model than other NFL alternatives have adopted in the past. This league pays rostered athletes a grand total of $0. In fact, if a player has not been on an NFL roster within 3 years, they are required to pay $2,000 for the opportunity to to play in the league (Keating, 2021). So while the league may not receive support from the returning USFL, it operates on a sustainable model that may be able to keep the league afloat. With no athlete payroll, a broadcasting deal with Fox Sports, and centralized locations where games are played, the league was able to turn a profit during their 3rd season.
While The Spring League’s business model may keep them afloat, it has not kept the league out of trouble. Following the conclusion of its 2021 season, two Indianapolis based organizations brought litigation against the league for debts owed. B&D Associates (Owners of Crowne Plaza Station) and the Capital Improvement Board (CIB) of Marion County have both filed lawsuits against the Spring League as of late November 2021. The suit claims that the Spring League owes $1.1 Million to the hotel for 4,700 room nights and food. The CIB is suing for $235,000 for six games played in Lucas Oil Stadium (Shuey, 2021). Brian Woods reportedly told the Crowne Plaza that the invoice would be paid by the end of August, when the league was expecting a significant influx of capital. The hotel alleges that they never received the promised payment. With the CEO of the league accepting a title with the returning USFL, the future of the league is uncertain.
There are plenty of other leagues that have tried and failed to stake a claim in the American Football market. In 2001, the XFL was created under the leadership of WWE CEO Vince McMahon. Following its opening season, massive financial losses forced the league to fold and McMahon lost millions. This was not the end of the XFL story however, in 2020 the XFL was briefly rebooted, but the season was cut short due to the Coronavirus pandemic. The league had to shut down after 5 weeks and filed bankruptcy. The league owed large sums to many different parties, including 7 out of 8 of its head coaches and the St. Louis Sports Commission (Porter, 2020). Eventually, McMahon sold the league to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and an investment firm who plan on bringing the league back once again for a 2023 season. Details of this planned return are limited, however discussions of a partnership between the XFL and the Canadian Football League were reported, but quickly abandoned as the leagues could not agree to terms.
Another resounding failure can be seen with the Alliance of American Football’s 2019 attempt at creating a league. After just 8 weeks the league was forced to shut down due to a lack of ability to pay the athletes rostered on its teams. In spite of strong TV ratings, the league struggled with funding. Tom Dundon, owner of the Carolina Hurricanes, provided a midseason influx of cash. Once Dundon learned that his investment was almost exclusively used to cover payroll, he rescinded his financial support and the league was forced to shut down. The league owed money to its athletes and Tom Dundon claimed the league owed him money back as well. Two years following the folding of the league, athletes were finally contacted with a process to receive their owed pay-checks through the bankruptcy process the league was undergoing (Rachuk, 2021c).
Two other leagues emerged and fizzled out in similar fashion earlier in the 2010s as well. The Fall Experimental Football League was a small league, with 4 teams for its inaugural season in 2014 and 3 for its second and final season in 2015. This league sought to serve as a developmental league for the NFL, yet never received any formal support and eventually shut down. The United Football League operated from 2009 to 2012 and held games in the Fall, directly competing with the NFL. The league crumbled midway through its 2012 season due to lack of funds (Reineking, 2019).
Many leagues have tried and failed to bring more football into the world, be it as a competitor with the NFL or as a hopeful ally. The failings of these leagues can be harmful to the athletes that make up the league, cities that host games and teams, and investors that help to get the league off of the ground. As the USFL and the XFL are both preparing for (another) return, skepticism is highly advisable for any party that may be interested in getting involved.
FOX Sports. (2021, November 17). What you need to know: The new United States football league on FOX [Press Release]. https://www.foxsports.com/stories/other/what-you-need-to-know-about-the-new-united-states-football-league-spring-2022
Keating, S. (2021, May 3). Football – The Spring League finds ‘secret sauce’ to survival. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/lifestyle/sports/football-the-spring-league-finds-secret-sauce-survival-2021-05-03/
Porter, R. (2020, April 13). XFL files for bankruptcy, up for sale. Hollywood Reporter. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/tv/tv-news/vince-mcmahons-xfl-files-bankruptcy-up-sale-1290073/
Rachuk, S. (2021a, April 14). 2021 TSL television schedule released – Will air on FOX, FS1, & FS2. Pro Football Newsroom. https://xflnewsroom.com/news/2021-tsl-television-schedule-released-will-air-on-fox-fs1-fs2/
Rachuk, S. (2021b, October 18). The Spring League reportedly no longer associated with the new USFL. Pro Football Newsroom. https://xflnewsroom.com/news/the-spring-league-reportedly-no-longer-associated-with-the-new-usfl/
Rachuk, S. (2021c, December 1). Lost wage bankruptcy notices reportedly being sent to former AAF players. Pro Football Newsroom. https://xflnewsroom.com/news/lost-wage-bankruptcy-notices-reportedly-being-sent-to-former-aaf-players/
Reineking, J. (2019, April 3). Alliance of American Football is just the latest in a long line of failed start-up leagues. USA Today. https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nfl/2019/04/03/aaf-joins-xfl-usfl-wfl-start-up-pro-football-leagues-failed/3349422002/
Shuey, M. (2021, November 22). Downtown hotel, CIB sue developmental football league for nearly $1.4M. Indiana Business Journal. https://www.ibj.com/articles/downtown-hotel-cib-sue-developmental-football-league-for-nearly-1-4m