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Why I like rival leagues

Posted by Doug on June 8, 2007

The prospect of a new professional football league always excites me. Until last week, I wasn't sure why it did, but I knew it did. After some thought, I think I've figured it out. Indulge me as I spend a Friday explaining myself. If you're roughly my age (35), I think some of this might resonate with you.

I posted some thoughts last week about the United Football League, the new venture of a bunch of rich guys including Mark Cuban. In the comments to that post were several interesting thoughts about why the league would or wouldn't succeed and tips for Cuban about how to make it successful. Here is an interesting one from Jason:

I think a new league can’t be successful unless it either:

a) Offers a significantly different product from the NFL; or

b) Offers a significantly better product than than the NFL

You're not going to displace google by making minor improvements to their search algorithm. You're not going to take down the iPod by creating a product with the same features for the same price but which is a tenth of an ounce lighter. And you're not going to topple the NFL by playing NFL-style football with players comparable in quality to those in the NFL. Since no investor on the planet has the money to make (b) a reality, (a) is probably the best bet for any rival league that wants to survive. I really find it hard to argue with any of that.

And so the comments (and the rest of the blogosphere) included some proposed rule tweaks that the new league could consider. Anyone who has been reading this blog for awhile knows that I'm a big fan of rule tweaks. I've got a whole category devoted to them, in fact.

But for some reason I don't want the UFL to create its own brand of football. I want them to play NFL-style football.

I wanted to be a fan of the Arena league. When it first hit the scene, a friend and I --- we were high school sophomores at the time I think --- read all about it and were pumped up for the start of the season. But it didn't take. I just didn't buy it. A few years later I went to a game, and I just couldn't get past the fact that I was watching football in a venue where I was clearly supposed to be watching basketball. It's sort of like when you start watching the movie Rounders. After the first few minutes, you're thinking, "this looks like it could be a good movie, but how dumb do they think we are if they think we're going to buy Matt Damon as some sort of gritty tough guy?" But thirty minutes into it, you get sucked into the story and are able to temporarily suspend any disbelief you had about Damon's street-smarts.

For me, arena football was just like that, except I never got sufficiently sucked into the story.

The situation with the XFL was largely the same. I wanted to watch it. I wanted to like it. But it was just too wrestlemania. Not the game itself, but the whole atmosphere. And the rule tweaks seemed more gimmicky than well-thought-through.

Had Mark Cuban called me last week and ask me to spend a few minutes thinking about what I'd like to see in the new league, I'd have said:

1. Be willing to soak up a lot of financial losses for a lot of years.
2. Make a splash by signing a few big name players from college or from the NFL.
3. Play gimmick-free football.

Does this sound familiar? I just realized that what I want is a return of the USFL.

Ah, the USFL...

I loved the USFL. But why did I love the USFL so much? Was it because they played essentially gimmick-free NFL style football? Was it because they had some big name stars? Was it because they had a franchise in my hometown of Tulsa for a year? No, it wasn't any of those things. In retrospect, it's clear that I loved the USFL for the same reason that I spent a substantial portion of my life honestly believing that Tommy Kramer, Sammy Winder, and E.J. Junior were all-time greats:

It's because I was 12 years old at the time.

More precisely, my current memories of the USFL are so fond because the USFL was in existence when I was 12. Ask anyone over the age of about 27, and they'll tell you: the world was perfect when they were 12 years old. (At least the sports world was. I think for music it's more like 20 years old.)

Donald Trump could have put helmets on donkeys in 1984 and I'd have been right there watching. It would have been awful, and I probably would have realized at the time that it was awful. But by now I would have forgotten that. My memories of watching donkeys run counter-treys would be so intertwined with memories of my carefree youth that I'd be telling Cuban, "really, the only way you're going to be successful is by using donkeys."

Despite generally being a supporter of progress, innovation, and unique ways of doing things, and despite seeing myself as someone who is usually above "The Sports World was Perfect When I was 12" Syndrome (more commonly known as being an Old Fart), I just can't help myself in this case. I will always be excited by rival sports leagues and I will always root for them to succeed. Unfortunately, I seem to be doomed to constant disappointment, because no league will be able to live up to the standard set by my idealized image of the USFL.