On Thursday, the XFL and USFL officially announced their intention to merge. Each league drafted separate press releases, both of which featured scant details. They appear to be keeping things close to the vest until the merger passes regulatory approval – and both appear ready to operate as separate entities until then.
Reaction from fans of both the USFL and XFL has been largely positive thus far, an acknowledgement that the spring football space can’t sustain two leagues of this size over the long term. For some, that enthusiasm is tempered and comes with caveats: The devil is in the details, and those details may ultimately lead some fans to either stick with the newly-formed amalgamation, choose to support other leagues, or throw in the towel on alternative football fandom altogether.
What will the ownership structure look like?
The Axios article that broke news of the discussions between the two groups referred to it as a “merger of equals.” It’s possible that it’s an equal 50/50 split between FOX and RedBird, but I’m not sure how likely that really is. One would think as solvent as FOX is, they’d be interested in RedBird’s cash – if RedBird is still interested, that is.
And what of Dany Garcia and Dwayne Johnson? The usually effusive co-owners were awfully brief in their only public comments on the subject. Given they didn’t have as much skin in the game as RedBird, it’s fair to wonder what their future is. The XFL may have relied too much on Garcia and Johnson as the faces of the league during year one, but there is value in having them on board. Garcia certainly relished her role as chairwoman; would she take a lesser role if offered?
Perhaps more than anything, the ownership and management structure of the new league will be a key in the success – or lack thereof – of this merged entity. If all major players from both sides remain involved, it will require the setting aside of egos to stay on board, and risk those egos clashing at some point down the line.
XFL fans who have bought into what Garcia and Johnson were selling may want to see them continue with a role of some sort. There are probably just as many, maybe more, who see Garcia and Johnson as an impediment to success, having made the XFL their own personal vanity project. Whether they’re still involved or not, some portion of XFL fans are bound to be unhappy.
To hub or not to hub
If social media reaction is a barometer of what fans at-large believe, this could be the most critical decision league bigwigs make. The USFL and XFL both had hubs, but of different kinds. The most vocal fans prefer each team to play in-market, which is the set-up the XFL had. While the USFL’s hub system saves money, the game atmosphere suffers, as does fan interest in cities for which teams are named but don’t play.
The name of the game is survival: If the new league believes it can’t exist long-term without at least a few years playing in USFL-like hubs, they’re going to do it. Ideally, the league would eventually branch out into the home cities at some point. That was the plan for the USFL as a stand-alone league, but then they were prepared to go through the hub system for a third year in 2024, not having reached the point that they could expand into all eight markets. How long is that type of hub system sustainable for an ownership group that eventually wants to make a significant profit on this project?
Playing in a hub doesn’t guarantee survival years into the future. And if you’re starting your league off trying to be frugal to this extent, some would say you’re putting yourself behind the eight-ball already. The XFL’s business plan obviously was not adequate, but I’m also not sure the biggest culprit was the fact that teams played in their home markets.
Survivor: XFL and USFL franchise edition
It would be great if all 16 teams from both leagues advanced to the newly-formed super-league, and it would be great if they could all play in their home markets. That’s not realistic, however, and would seemingly defeat the purpose of combining for the purpose of splitting the costs associated with running a professional football league.
That means some teams won’t survive the merger. Like with so much associated with this topic, there are conflicting reports around what the make-up of the league will be. The bottom line is moving forward with anything less than 16 teams means a loss of jobs for players, coaches, and team employees, which is something fans of these leagues never like to see.
What, then, becomes of those coaches? If the Houston Roughnecks cede The Bayou City to the Gamblers, will Wade Phillips be retained in some capacity? One would imagine he’d have value to a league trying to establish its credentials in the football world.
What about Anthony Blevins? He was hired to coach the Vegas Vipers in early July, just as the talks between the USFL and XFL were reportedly beginning. He quit an NFL job to take this opportunity, and now the Vipers seem to be the most likely team eliminated. Does he get the boot without the chance to even coach one game? How would that be perceived from the outside?
The USFL/XFL group has a lot of tough decisions to make in this realm, and the decisions could end up reflecting poorly on the league. They’ve got to figure out a way to minimize the damage that would be done in eliminating teams (and coaches) and potentially alienating those fanbases.
How realistic is a 2024 start?
This all may come down to the vague “regulatory approval” term used in the press releases touting the merger. What does this entail? And how long does it take? Will the seemingly inevitable federal government shutdown coming at the end of the month affect the speed in which this approval is made?
Both leagues have sent out information to players and staff indicating they’re forging ahead with plans to play 2024 separately in case, for whatever reason, the merger is not approved. Or, if the merger is not approved in a timely manner.
Even if it is, a 2024 timeline looks daunting. The XFL took two-and-a-half years to get its bearings, and while this group is not a start-up, there are many logistical hoops that have to be jumped through for even an April start in line with the normal USFL kickoff.
At the same time the XFL was deep in negotiations with the USFL, they continued to make significant front office hires at both the team and league level. Teams from both leagues have added players to their rosters during that period. Both are set up for individual 2024 seasons, if need be. It seems clear, though, neither would prefer that option.
Where do the games air?
FOX’s ownership stake in the USFL makes it a safe bet they’ll continue airing games of the merged league. And that’s a good thing: Fans who watched both the XFL and USFL tended to prefer FOX’s television presentation of the games over that of ESPN. FOX also had better (and more) advertising than the XFL did across ESPN platforms.
There are advantages to being associated with ESPN, though. The coverage of the league on ESPN-related programming and ESPN.com is valuable in reaching as wide an audience as possible. XFL’s games on ESPN/ABC networks also drew a younger audience than the USFL on FOX and NBC, and that’s a demographic advertisers covet.
Having a package involving all of FOX, NBC, and ESPN would be ideal, though unlikely. It’s possible the new league airs on only two of those three networks, and which two could depend on a variety of factors including time of year the league plays, availability of broadcast windows during that time, current contract status and more. A favorable family of networks is yet another key to the potential success of the league.
Don’t forget the players!
The whole point of these leagues is to give a platform to players whose NFL ambitions are just beyond their reach. So I feel like it’s only proper to include them in the discussion. For the most part, it should be easy to transition players and teams to the new league; after all, there’s no cross-over of players: They’re either under contract to one league or another, and they should be able to transfer over, with that team, to the new league.
Then there’s the issue of players whose rights belong to teams in both the USFL and XFL. Does the league simply allow the player to choose for which team he’d prefer to play? What about the players on teams that will be dissolved? Do they go into somewhat of a reverse expansion draft (a contraction draft?) where the remaining teams are allowed to draft from a pool of players belonging to teams no longer in the league? And how will the USFL player’s union be integrated?
The last thing a league like this should strive to do is start from scratch with all new rosters. There might be that temptation if the feeling is there is a competitive imbalance, or if contracts can’t automatically transfer over. When XFL 2020 players were redrafted by XFL 2023 teams, it was understandable given the three year gap between the play of each league, and how many coaching staffs were different from version two to version three.
For the sake of fans in these cities who follow these teams and have grown close to the players, even in just one or two years, there is some continuity needed. If you’re a St. Louis Battlehawks fan, you shouldn’t have to experience a third year of complete roster turnover. It’s not fair.
These are just a few of the major landmines that must be navigated by these two leagues. It’s possible they’ve already been hashed out. If not, there’s still a lot of work to do in the meantime as the XFL and USFL both prepare to play separately in 2024 and, at the same time, get their ducks in a row for a merged kickoff next year.
Fans want reasons to care about this league, to believe in its ability to sustain itself into the future. Each of these decisions will be scrutinized by those fans and weighed against their own preferences for how the league should operate. The new ownership will do everything they can to make sure that scale tilts toward supporting them, because they’re going to need as many fans as they can get to make this work.