A revived USFL begins play Saturday when the Birmingham Stallions host the New Jersey Generals in the reinvented league’s inaugural game.
The original USFL was arguably the most successful spring start-up pro football league. Five future Pro Football Hall of Famers – quarterbacks Jim Kelly and Steve Young, defensive lineman Reggie White, offensive lineman Gary Zimmerman and linebacker Sam Mills – all got their pro football starts in the USFL. The USFL completed three seasons (1983-85) before a reckless decision to go head-to-head against the NFL in the fall proved to be the league’s ultimate demise.
Lately, the reimagined XFL (2020) and Alliance of American Football (2019) showed that it’s tough out there for start-up pro football leagues. So, good luck USFL version 2.0. It likely will be greeted with big TV ratings and significant fan interest at its launch, only to have those hopes and dreams crushed by mid-May.
Dating back to World War II, only one start-up outdoor professional football league survived. It currently exists as the American Football Conference. Back in 1960, the American Football League went head-to-head with the National Football League and succeeded, forcing a merger between the two leagues and spawning the unofficial national holiday that is the Super Bowl.
Whether these leagues were direct competitors to the NFL, or just trying to fill a void in the football calendar in the timeframe after the Super Bowl and before NFL training camps open, these leagues provide a cautionary tale for anybody thinking about getting another pro football league off the ground.
XFL (version 2.0)
Existence: Five weeks (2020)
What happened? The coronavirus pandemic forced the suspension of all in-season sports leagues, including the NBA, NHL and MLS, as well as college athletics. The 2020 version of the XFL, a reboot of the failed 2001 version of the XFL, was an eight-team league that made it halfway through its intended 10-game regular season before COVID-19 shut down the world. A month later, the XFL filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, but in August 2020 Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was among a team of investors that purchased the league for roughly $15 million. The XFL is planning on a return in the spring of 2023, and already has hired head coaches.
Alliance of American Football
Existence: Eight weeks (2019).
What happened? The AAF jumped out to strong TV ratings, but financial problems emerged early and Tom Dundon – who also owns the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes – stepped in with a $250 million investment. Six weeks later, after trying to secure cooperation from the NFL Players’ Association to use young players from NFL rosters in AAF games, Dundon pulled the plug on The Alliance.
FAMILIAR FACES: Players to watch as USFL season kicks off this weekend
Fall Experimental Football League
Existence: 2 seasons (2014-15)
What happened? The FXFL was, well, small. It played with four teams in 2014 and just three in 2015. The league had hoped to be a developmental league for the NFL, playing its games in the fall and ending its season in November, which is normally a time when injuries can take a toll on an NFL roster. However, without official NFL support, the league never became profitable and closed operations before it could complete its second season.
United Football League
Existence: 4 seasons (2009-12)
What happened? A rare start-up football league to try to play its games in the fall, the UFL nearly benefited from a prolonged lockout in 2011 as the NFL and NFLPA worked out a new collective bargaining agreement. Instead, the NFL lockout was resolved in time for the 2011 season and the UFL wouldn’t be the only pro football option for TV networks that autumn. The UFL played the 2011 season, but its 2012 season was cut short after four weeks of play as the league succumbed to financing issues.
Existence: 1 season (2001)
What happened? Triggered by the marketing power of Vince McMahon and what is now the WWE (plus a partnership with NBC), the XFL opened to huge TV ratings. Those ratings quickly deteriorated as the season went along. Billed as “the toughest football ever played,” the XFL failed to live up to expectations. It was just bad football, featuring trash-talking TV commentators such as Jesse Ventura (then the governor of Minnesota) and borderline-inappropriate cheerleaders. Less than a month after it played its championship game, the XFL folded after massive financial losses. Only the AAF failed faster than the XFL in 2001. Despite all of this, McMahon reincarnated the XFL for a 2020 relaunch, which lasted just five weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic.
World League of American Football/NFL Europe/NFL Europa
Existence: 15 seasons (1991-2007)
What happened? This start-up lasted the longest of any, thanks to the backing of the NFL. The original “World League” featured three Europe-based teams, one in Canada and six teams in the U.S. This incarnation lasted two seasons and the league was put on hiatus until being brought back as NFL Europe in 1995 with each of its six teams based in Europe (it was rebranded as NFL Europa for its final season in 2007). The NFL assigned developmental players to NFL Europe teams, and the league’s track record for producing NFL talent was tremendous. Pro Football Hall of Famer Kurt Warner is the most notable alum. Others included QBs Jake Delhomme, Brad Johnson and Jon Kitna, LB James Harrison, DT La’Roi Glover, return specialist/WR Dante Hall, and kickers David Akers and Adam Vinatieri. Actor Terry Crews also played in the league. In 2007, as part of a new strategy to “make the NFL more accessible on a global scale,” the NFL shut down NFL Europa and focused on the International Series of games in London.
United States Football League
Existence: 3 seasons (1983-85)
What happened? Playing its games in the spring, the USFL wasn’t a direct competitor to the NFL. However, it was competing for talent. The first salvo was the signing of 1982 Heisman winner Herschel Walker. While Walker never became a Pro Football Hall of Famer, four players enshrined in Canton did begin their pro football careers in the USFL: Jim Kelly, Steve Young, Reggie White and Gary Zimmerman. A relatively modest beginning for the USFL got a huge jolt when Donald Trump bought the New Jersey Generals. Trump worked to convince other USFL owners to move league games to the fall. With the USFL planning a 1986 move to fall games, Trump convinced USFL owners to file an anti-trust lawsuit against the NFL. This did not go well. The USFL was awarded $1 in damages and the league was done.
World Football League
Existence: 2 seasons (1974-75)
What happened? Aligned as a direct competitor to the NFL, the WFL signed a number of notable NFL players, including a trio from the Super Bowl champion Miami Dolphins: Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield. The league’s first season ended with the league champions – the Birmingham Americans – having their uniforms repossessed. Despite that obvious financial trouble, the WFL came back for more in 1975. It didn’t survive long enough to hold another title game, folding midway through its season.
Continental Football League
Existence: 5 seasons (1965-69)
What happened? This is where Bill Walsh got his first head-coaching gig, coaching the San Jose Apaches in 1967. The Continental Football League survived until the AFL-NFL merger, when teams folded and the league was no more.
All-American Football Conference
Existence: 4 seasons (1946-49)
What happened? The AAFC – like the American Football League after it – was a legitimate competitor to the NFL. For the 1950 season, three AAFC teams – the Baltimore Colts (a separate franchise than the team currently located in Indianapolis), Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers – were merged into the NFL. The Browns – winners of all four of the AAFC championship games – were an instant powerhouse in the NFL. Defeating the defending NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles in a famous 1950 season-opener, then winning the league title that season and playing in the NFL championship game in seven of its first eight NFL seasons.
Pacific Coast Professional Football League
Existence: 9 seasons (1940-49)
What happened? The PCPFL operated mostly during a time when the furthest west NFL franchises were the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers. In 1941, Jackie Robinson played in the PCPFL as a running back for the Los Angeles Bulldogs. Before becoming NFL pioneers with the LA Rams, Kenny Washington and Woody Strode – Robinson’s teammates at UCLA – played for the Hollywood Bears. Popularity in the league decreased due to the Cleveland Rams’ move to Los Angeles in 1946, as well as the presence of the AAFC’s Los Angeles Dons.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jim Reineking on Twitter @jimreineking.