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The Future of the USFL: What Challenges and Opportunities Lie Ahead

The United States Football League (USFL) has merged with XFL for the start of the 2024 spring season, the fifth proposed league to operate under the USFL league, and only the second to successfully do so. After failed leagues back in the 1940s and the 1980s and just two seasons as a standalone league in the 2020s, the new UFL aims to become a viable alternative to the NFL as a spring season.

The Format of the New League

The USFL and XFL will exist as separate conferences, hosting four teams each and building a healthy rivalry between teams at a steady pace over the coming years. The Championship game will then take place between the winners of each conference at The Dome at America’s Center in St Louis on 16th June. The teams in the USFL Conference are:

  • Birmingham Stallions
  • Houston Roughnecks
  • Memphis Showboats
  • Michigan Panthers

The teams in the XFL Conference are:

  • Arlington Renegades
  • DC Defenders
  • San Antonio Brahmas
  • St Louis Battlehawks

Ownership is split 50-50 between Fox Sports and the backers of the XFL (which includes Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, Dany Garcia, and RedBird Capital Partners.

The History and Future of the USFL

The first attempt at the USFL came back in the 1940s, intended as a direct competitor to the NFL, but this folded in 1945 after failing to attract players and investors. A spring/summer USFL was envisioned by David Dixon in 1962, between the NFL and college football seasons, but this was shelved in 1966 when his proposal for an NFL expansion team for New Orleans was granted in 1966. He revisited the idea in the 1980s, with ‘The Dixon Plan’ a blueprint to secure NFL-standard stadiums, a national broadcasting contract, and territorial draft rules to keep college stars close to home.

The USFL league was launched in 1983 with an average of 25,000 fans per game and higher than expected attendances for 10 of the 12 teams. Quickly though, owners exceeded salary caps and spending got out of control in 1986 a fall schedule was agreed and after a drawn-out court case against the NFL and its monopoly of broadcasting, the league was disbanded in 1990.

This brings us to the latest installment of the USFL, which operated under the former brands of the USFL franchises for 2022 and 2023 and a successful full spring calendar for football for the first time since the XFL season of 2001. The merger with XFL looks to take the league to a higher level, but there are challenges of course, such as how to share coverage between the two rival broadcast partners, how to grow viewership and attendances in an organic way, and to bring in a standard of player that leaves a legacy as a breeding ground for top players and not just a stepping stone to the NFL.

Competing With MLS

In the past, football of any kind would not need to even think about soccer, let alone worry about it. Premier League soccer has a sizable audience in the US, but now Major League Soccer is bigger business than ever before on home soil with the arrival of the greatest player of all-time, Leo Messi to the Inter Miami roster.

Although you’re not going to see the highest soccer score in an MLS game, such as the famous Australia 31-0 American Samoa game from 2001 that was made into a documentary film in 2014 and a movie starring Michael Fassbender and directed by Taika Waititi in 2023, the nuances, tactics, and standards of Major League Soccer are higher than ever before and the crowds are growing.

MLS vs. UFL: The Battle for Fans Ahead of the 2026 World Cup

In the build-up to the soccer World Cup being hosted by the USA, Canada, and Mexico in 2026, could MLS be a rival to the new UFL, taking eyes away from the fledgling league? Spring football in the US is something that has been tried and failed on a few occasions, but it does make sense for the NFL, a winter sport, to have a different league that keeps the minds of fans on the sport over its own barren off-season months.

It has been difficult over the years though because of the way the different sports in the US are fixed to specific seasons (football is fall and winter, basketball is fall through to spring, and baseball is spring to fall). This is the perennial challenge that spring football faces, but with the merger of XFL and the USFL, the new UFL from 2024 has the branding, the big-name support, and the finances to give it as good a go as any of the past incarnations of the USFL.

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