Two quick tales to show the breadth and depth of spring football:
This past Sunday afternoon, the first Sunday after the Super Bowl, the third iteration of the XFL began with a flourish. In the day’s opener, the St. Louis BattleHawks (yes, the middle H is capitalized) trailed the San Antonio Brahmas, 15-3, with less than two minutes remaining. Then, BattleHawks QB A.J. McCarron — you may remember him from his days at Alabama, not so much from his days with the Bengals, Texans, Raiders or Falcons — led St. Louis on the kind of run only achievable in spring football. He threw one touchdown pass, nailed a three-point (!) conversion, succeeded on a 4th-and-15 play that’s the XFL’s version of an onside kick, then threw another touchdown to win the game. Oh, and in the evening game, fans of the D.C. Defenders pelted the field with lemons.
Over in the USFL, running back Reggie Corbin is preparing for the upcoming season. Once among the country’s leading rushers when he played at Illinois, Corbin had the misfortune to be in the NFL draft class of 2020. He wasn’t picked in the draft and couldn’t catch on as a free agent. When he did get an invitation to try out, in Week 16 of the 2021 season, he stepped off the plane in Seattle and tested positive for COVID. And still he kept grinding. When the USFL came calling in 2022, he joined the Michigan Panthers … and became not just the league’s leading rusher, but the face of the franchise in Detroit. The grind paid off.
Spectacle and stories. They’re all over spring football, wonky rules and flash-and-dazzle combined with one-last-chance desperation and grind-it-out ambition. It’s compelling, without a doubt, but it’s most definitely not the NFL. In 2023, two separate leagues, the USFL and XFL, are banking that America’s love for football will sustain their efforts this time, betting that “good enough” is good enough. And given the fact that both leagues have major network buy-in — plus the fact that metrics for broadcast success are far different now than even in the pre-COVID era — spring football might have a shot at success, at long last.
“Americans love any football at all, the NFL in particular,” says Jon Lewis, creator of Sports Media Watch. “College football is a tremendous draw too, better than the NBA and hockey. Football is a strong enough draw that you could survive with the USFL or XFL, especially since today’s standards [for broadcast success] are so much lower.”
Once again, spring football is back. And once again, we ask … why?
Spring football’s brief, checkered history
The legacy of spring football is colorful if not particularly long. The first iteration of the USFL began play in 1983 and featured future NFL fixtures like Steve Young, Jim Kelly, Reggie White and Herschel Walker in uniform. The league flamed out after three seasons when a consortium led by then-New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump attempted to challenge the NFL both on the calendar and in the courts. The USFL “won” an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL but was awarded only $1, and the financially bleeding league ceased operations before ever playing in the fall.
The XFL began play almost two decades later, in the spring of 2001 as a testosterone-laden, volume-to-11 creation of WWE owner Vince McMahon. Crushing hits, an emphasis on violence, wrestling-promo player branding (remember “He Hate Me” and “Deathblow”?) and grinding cheerleaders all combined to draw huge audiences to the league’s debut … audiences that immediately tuned out when they realized the product was pretty awful. NBC, McMahon’s partner in the venture, pulled the plug after one season.
Spring football remained the province of college offense-vs.-defense scrimmages for the next two decades. In 2018, several football and broadcast executives formed the Alliance of American Football, but the league couldn’t even finish its debut season in 2019 before plummeting into bankruptcy. (Steve Spurrier, whose Orlando Apollos led the league when it vaporized, still jokingly claims an AAF championship among his accolades.) The XFL also attempted a revival. Unfortunately for the league, it began play in February 2020, and shut down weeks later in the pandemic.
That legacy of failure, incompetence and plain old bad luck was enough to make anyone question whether spring football is a viable proposition at all. But now both leagues are rising from history and giving it another go.
The USFL was first out of the gate last year, adopting many of the classic names of the 1980s iteration but without any other connection to the original league. Crucially, while the league began with eight teams named for various cities — Pittsburgh Maulers, New Orleans Breakers, Philadelphia Stars, and so on — the league played all of its games in Birmingham, Alabama. The season culminated with the Birmingham Stallions winning the league’s first championship in a game held in Canton, Ohio. Fox Sports holds an ownership stake in the USFL, and games are shown on Fox, NBC and their affiliates.
The XFL, meanwhile, returned this year with the investment and influence of Dwayne Johnson — you might know him better as The Rock — and his business partner Dany Garcia, along with some significant broadcast leverage of its own. The XFL has partnered with ESPN and, as a result, has enjoyed the full ESPN treatment, including a nine-part prestige documentary, “Player 54” helmed by “Friday Night Lights” director Peter Berg.
Both leagues position themselves as opportunities for players to make one last run at the NFL — “Player 54” is a nod to the last player cut from the NFL’s 53-man active roster — but both, obviously, are interested in financial success, too. They’re designed to tap into America’s love of football while taking advantage of historically weak stretches of the sports calendar: the stretch between the Super Bowl and the start of March Madness, and the fallow period between The Masters and summer vacations. Having games — or, in broadcast terms, “inventory” — to cover weekends is a handy asset.
“Weekend sports inventory is valuable,” says Lewis, who has tracked NFL ratings since 2014. “Pro bowling and professional bull riding average a million viewers. That’s the Mendoza line — get a million viewers, and you can justify your presence on broadcast TV. If you’re in that range, everything works financially — you can pay players, and you can stick around for a while.”
XFL vs. USFL, who wins?
Both the XFL and the USFL publicly shy away from direct comparisons, saying publicly that there’s room for both leagues. But is there? Both feature eight teams playing 10-week schedules. The USFL will play in four “hub” cities, while the XFL will site each team in its home city. The XFL is making the splashier debut, but the USFL has the advantage of surviving to this point.
“The USFL made it to Year 2, so right off the bat, they’ve got a better chance,” Lewis says. “The Rock’s involvement [in the XFL] is nice, but the XFL rode a lot of brand nostalgia and an ESPN ‘30 for 30’ the first time. COVID was the end of that.”
The key, Lewis believes, will be not splitting the audience. “Is there enough talent to sustain two leagues? I don’t know,” he says. “But the networks could make this work by not going head to head.”
The XFL kicked off last weekend and will run into April. The USFL, meanwhile, will start up in mid-April and run into early July, meaning that the leagues will indeed be going head-to-head for the last three weeks of the XFL’s season and the first three weeks of the USFL’s. Each league has justifications for its schedule.
“Guys that have the ability to jump to the NFL can jump during offseason workouts in late April, early May,” says Doug Whaley, former Bills GM and now the Senior VP of Player Personnel for the XFL. “Being able to get into an NFL offseason program in the spring and understand what’s expected means they’ll have a better chance when camp starts. They can hit the ground running.”
“We hear you can never have too much football. I beg to differ,” Dallas Cowboys legend and USFL Executive Director Daryl “Moose” Johnston says. “I like that our calendar gives us some separation from the NFL. You’ve got March Madness, the Masters coming up. Right around the time you start to think, ‘I miss football,’ you can tune into the USFL and watch us.”
In broad terms, the USFL focuses on the product and the XFL focuses on the production. Each one’s a necessary element of the whole; the NFL has mastered both. The XFL will be more recognizable to a casual fan, while the USFL has focused on what Johnston calls a “crawl, walk, run” approach.
In both cases, though, fans will have to learn a whole lot of new names.
Spring football rosters: Known, unknown, not-yet-known
You’ll recognize a few spring football players, especially in the XFL. Ben DiNucci, who won a memorable battlefield promotion from third-string quarterback to starting Dallas Cowboys quarterback in about 10 days in 2020, leads the XFL’s Seattle Sea Dragons; his No. 1 receiver is none other than Josh Gordon, who’s still only 31. Martavis Bryant, who had several productive years with the Steelers, now catches passes for the XFL’s Vegas Vipers.
For the most part, though, fans will remember spring league players’ names, if they remember them at all, from college rosters. The USFL’s Birmingham Stallions, for instance, featured former Alabama running back Bo Scarbrough as a key to their attack. These are the players who still possess high-level football talent but haven’t been able to stick at the next level.
“We’re looking for the player that, for whatever circumstance that has happened to him, hasn’t reached his full potential, and needs a venue and an opportunity to show how they can perform,” Whaley says. “Maybe they didn’t get enough coaching, maybe they were effective in college and got to the pros and their position group was too deep and they didn’t get the chance to show their ability. They’ve maybe bounced around but haven’t been able to hone their skills in a game setting.”
Obviously, with a few notable exceptions, the players in the XFL and USFL aren’t NFL-level talents. Maybe they were once, maybe they could be again, but at this exact moment, they’re not. The distance between themselves and an NFL roster is the key to whether this league will look like a reasonable facsimile of pro football, or an ugly mismatch of extreme talent differential.
“A lot of guys don’t understand what it takes to be a pro, day in and day out,” says Hines Ward, Steelers icon and now the coach of the XFL’s San Antonio Brahmas. “NFL teams don’t have a lot of money or time to invest in players down the depth chart. These players can’t cut themselves by being late, not showing up on time, not doing the little things right.”
“Scouts and GMs from the NFL are watching every week,” Johnston says. “Every player can change the narrative, have them say ‘This kid looks a lot better.’ ”
The ideal for any spring football player has to be USFL 2022 MVP KaVontae Turpin, who spent the 2022 season as a member of the New Jersey Generals, parlayed that into a training-camp invitation from the Cowboys, and made the Dallas roster. He turned into a legitimate kick-return threat, playing in all 17 regular-season games and both Cowboys playoff games and earning a Pro Bowl invitation.
“KaVontae Turpin showed us that if you do well in this league, it can lead you to the next,” Corbin says. “It’s a huge tool to prolong careers, help us get back to the next step, and get out of certain situations.”
“These players are either going to springboard to their ultimate goal,” Whaley says, “or we’re going to give them a soft landing, one last chance to live out their dream while maintaining a source of income.”
The players aren’t getting rich, but they’ll make some money. In the XFL, almost every player will get $800 a week for training camp and $5,000 a week if they’re on an active game-day roster, among other tiers, along with a $1,000-a-game bonus for each player on the winning team. A few players, mostly quarterbacks, will earn more. USFL players receive $5,350 per active game, plus $5,000 for a championship victory. It’s not life-changing money, but it’s money to play football, which is more than enough for many players.
“Some of these guys know their window is closed, but they just love the competition and love the environment,” Johnston says. “Not everybody can be Tom Brady and walk off on their own terms.”
For most players, spring football will be their final opportunity to play tackle football, to hang in a locker room, to enjoy the camaraderie that comes with being a part of a team. It’s a bittersweet experience, so the leagues will be doing their best to make it both memorable and enjoyable.
And that’s where the rule changes come in.
Spring rules changes: Aberration or improvement?
Upstart football leagues always serve as a kind of hothouse laboratory for new rules. The NFL adopted both the two-point conversion and instant replay after their use in the 1980s iteration of the USFL, and the 2001 XFL’s emphasis on grass rather than turf fields presaged the NFL’s similar interest.
This time around, the two leagues have in place rules that, depending on your perspective, are either pointless gimmickry or future NFL fixtures. For instance, both leagues have done away with the so-called “worst rule in football,” the rule that a team fumbling forward into the end zone loses possession of the ball. Both leagues also offer a three-point conversion — after a touchdown, a team has the option to attempt to score from the 10-yard line for three points.
Kickoffs feature an array of changes too numerous to list here; the emphasis is on returning kickoffs safely, meaning blockers and tacklers aren’t charging into each other with 40 yards worth of momentum. And to disincentivize tanking, the USFL introduced a rule last year that gave the No. 1 draft pick the next season to the team that won the battle of the league’s two worst teams.
Most interesting, from a momentum-swing perspective, is the XFL’s “fourth-and-15” play that the BattleHawks used Sunday to victorious effect. Basically, instead of an onside kick, a team that’s just scored has the option of taking the ball at its own 25. If it reaches the 40, the offensive drive continues; if not, it turns the ball over wherever the play ended. (The USFL has the same play, except it’s fourth-and-12 from the offense’s own 33.) It’s not as tough as recovering an onside kick in the NFL, but it comes with much more risk … and much more opportunity to second-guess coaches, which is a fan sport all its own.
Right now, both leagues are white-knuckling their way through the calendar, doing anything and everything that needs to be done to achieve liftoff. Ward laughs that even though he’s a head coach, he’s still responsible for everything from matching up roommates to ordering room service.
“You’ve got to be creative,” he says. “Some days we don’t have the indoor facility. The high school field we use is not always open. We had five days of bad weather that put the whole league back five days. You just have to adjust.”
Adjustment and flexibility are the keys for any spring football league — changing rules, changing locations, changing expectations. This is football, not physics; the rules can change if the product will improve.
The players, too, adapt to survive. What got them to this point might not be enough to get them to the NFL yet, but a tweak in mindset, approach or coaching might just be enough to get them over the top.
“One of my coaches always says, 'there are a lot of people that didn’t believe in you or passed on you,'” says Rod Smith, a four-year NFL veteran now playing running back for the XFL’s Vegas Vipers. “Don’t worry about proving those guys wrong. Prove those people who believed in you right.”
“Guys here are teetering on the edge of NFL rosters but haven’t had that opportunity or haven’t had good timing,” DiNucci says. “You’ve got 50 guys hungry to put their best foot forward.”