The Success of Spring Football is Good Business For the NFL
The latest incarnations of the XFL and USFL seem to be sustainable ways to bring football during the off-season, and that is great news for the NFL
There is no question that football is the preferred sport of the American viewer. For 20 weeks a year, the NFL dominates television on Sundays, it is the primary topic of sports talk shows, and it is the sport that people bet their money on. In 2022, 82 of the top 100 most-watched TV broadcasts in the US were NFL games. The NFL and the sport of football have captured the imagination and fascination of the masses, and the sport continues to separate in popularity from the NBA and MLB. The NFL’s championship game, the Super Bowl, has become more of a part of popular culture than it is the crowning of the sport's best team.
But after the Super Bowl, we see football fans unsure of what to do with their Sundays now that their favorite thing to watch is in its off-season. This is where the spring football idea comes into play. The reimagined (for a third time!) XFL and rebranded USFL have come to fill the professional football-sized void in the hearts of Americans everywhere. The idea behind these leagues is simple: why not have football all year round? They are a huge win for the NFL because it keeps football front of mind every month of the year.
Cooperation Not Competition
The NFL is no stranger to competing leagues trying to overtake its position as the dominant player in football. In the 1960s, the league faced a threat in the American Football League (AFL) for 10 years. The two leagues eventually merged, giving us the National (NFC) and American (AFC) conferences we know today. Ever since then, there have been other football leagues that have appeared but none have truly matched the gravitas of the NFL.
There have been leagues such as the United States Football League (the original USFL), World Football League (WFL), and Xtreme Football League (the original XFL), all of which entered the football landscape with the idea that there was room for more than one dominant player. But for a variety of reasons, all of them have failed within a few years while the NFL has remained. The only league that has truly succeeded in parallel to the NFL is the Canadian Football League (CFL) where eventual NFL stars Warren Moon and Doug Flutie got their starts.
In recent years, however, the NFL has become too big to compete with, causing many leagues to go bankrupt trying to do so. So why not fill in the gaps after the NFL season is over? The first batch of spring football leagues featured the Alliance of American Football (AAF) and the first reincarnations of the XFL and USFL. The AAF faced financial hardship in the middle of its first season and filed for bankruptcy, while the XFL and USFL both had the misfortune of starting a new professional league in the middle of a global pandemic and had to cease operations. But despite these roadblocks, the viability of spring football remained. And that brings us to where we are today, with the latest iterations of the XFL and USFL trying to prove that this idea can succeed.
What they are doing well is, establishing spring football as a sort of feeder league to the NFL. On XFL broadcasts, announcers are quick to mention players being able to compete on the NFL level in addition to calling out players that were drafted by NFL teams before they joined the XFL. The USFL, having already had a season under its belt before the April 15th kickoff of its second season, has shown success in players making the jump to the NFL. Most notable of these players is KaVontae Turpin, who found success this season as a kick returner for the Dallas Cowboys. These two spring leagues have embraced that they are not competitors to the NFL, but rather an ally to the league. A developmental system that the sport has been missing since its inception.
Leagues of Development
Developmental leagues and lower tiers of sports are not a new concept, even here in the United States. Baseball has the MLB but also multiple levels of professional ball lower than that in the A, AA, and AAA levels. The NBA has invested a lot of money in recent years into its G-League developmental system. Even American soccer has levels below the MLS in the USL and NISA leagues. Football has been the lone exception where the only option was to make it in the NFL or try your luck in Canada in the CFL.
But with the XFL and USFL, players that couldn’t make an NFL roster have another option to play professional football in the United States. Every year there are roughly 71,000 student-athletes that play college football, and only 1.6% of those players are drafted into the NFL. And of the 1.1 million high school players, only 853 will make it pro. Making it to the NFL is a blessing, to say the least. So why not give players that didn’t make the first cut another opportunity to compete and even possibly a shot at getting into the NFL in the future?
Much like other developmental leagues, namely the G-League in basketball, the XFL and USFL have experimented with new ideas that the NFL may adopt eventually. The XFL in particular has introduced interesting wrinkles to the game that the league may look to implement. They have revamped overtime by going with a best of three scores from the opposing 5-yard line. The XFL has also changed the way that the extra point is handled, getting rid of the kick and allowing teams to line up from the 2, 5, and 10-yard lines to earn 1, 2, or 3 points respectively. And perhaps the most interesting rule change is the option to complete a 4th & 15 conversion instead of an onside kick in the 4th quarter. All of these rules are designed to make the game more fun and also take some of the monotony out of it (full list of rules here).
Will the NFL adopt all of these changes? Probably not. But the XFL is the perfect place for the league to field test potential shifts in rules before deciding to implement them into the NFL game. This is tough to do in college, due to the politics of the student-athlete. But in the XFL and USFL, we are talking about professionals, so there is less red tape to work through. And because of the associations that the NFL can make with these leagues, football can be on the mind of the consumer throughout the year.
Going Year Round
The NFL understands the media machine that surrounds it. It’s a league that is in perpetual motion, one that is looking to dominate the minds of its fans year-round. It has been investing in flag football leagues, which would make it more relevant in the dregs of summer, and it’s now associated in the spring with the XFL and USFL leagues that have been formed. Ultimately, these leagues that have the NFL’s blessing (whether officially or unofficially) are set up for success and that success is only going to be good for the NFL’s business.
In the past, there was typically silence surrounding the NFL between the Super Bowl and the kick-off of the next football season, aside from the NFL Draft in April. But now, stories are coming from everywhere, all the time. Rumors of players being traded are rampant, with general managers getting more aggressive in trying to win now. Free agency has been more active than ever, perhaps cementing the NFL as the king of off-season drama. Having relevant football for the masses to watch keeps football front of mind for football fans, and gives them a look at players that might be on their favorite team in the fall.
Spring football in its current state is a case study in understanding a niche and excelling in it. A market like St. Louis has embraced its XFL team after having lost the Rams to Los Angeles a few years ago, and attendance continues to rise. This only helps the game of football in the long term, to offer feel-good stories about players staying committed to their craft and dreams realized. After years of negative press for the NFL, the league has needed some feel-good PR. In short, spring football keeps the game in our minds and helps us remember why we all love it so much, a nice step away from the politics and rhetoric that surrounds the NFL. The success of these leagues is something that the NFL should be hoping for with every passing week.