Can the Shadowy, Strange USFL Play?

With disastrous media outreach, confused players, and games all played in Alabama, why will anyone care?
At least we know what the uniforms and logo look like. // Photograph courtesy of USFL

By the time this story hits print, the inaugural season of the United States Football League 2.0 should be underway. Did you know or care? The first go-around in the early ’80s actually saw some success — especially locally. Amid years of turmoil for the NFL’s Detroit Lions, the Michigan Panthers in that inaugural 1983 season won the whole dang thing on an explosive play by former University of Michigan wideout Anthony Carter. Many people were excited about spring football, and Michiganders were intrigued by a gridiron team that could — gasp! — actually win something.

But that USFL, which sputtered out in 1986 after three seasons, is not in any way attached to the new one. In fact, the first incarnation is suing the current one for falsely claiming otherwise. This USFL, owned by a Fox Sports subsidiary called National Spring Football League Enterprises Co. LLC, denies the claim, saying they’re using eight original USFL team names and logos to “elicit nostalgia.” The new folks have held the trademark since 2011.

Shady? Somewhat. Weird? Definitely. And that’s just the start of the weirdness here.

The league was set to launch on April 16, with games broadcast on Fox, USA, FS1, or NBC or streamed on NBC’s Peacock app. The season is 10 weeks long, with four games per week — all of which are played in, of all places, Birmingham, Alabama. A four-team playoff is planned for the Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio, in June.

And that, dear reader, is almost everything we know. You’d think a new sports league of this nature would be flooding the media with opportunities to write about it, to inform potential fans, to create interest and make people curious.

You’d be wrong. At this writing, one week before the first kickoff, it’s been seven weeks since I requested an interview with Panthers coach Jeff Fisher. The USFL’s communications staff, a mysterious and excruciatingly difficult gang to reach, has made no progress. Fisher is supposed to be one of the faces of this league — a former longtime NFL head coach whose bona fides should provide some legitimacy to the endeavor — but the USFL offered nothing. No general media availability. No one-on-one interviews. Nothing.

Normally the media is not the story, but here it is because the USFL is actually owned by a media company. Hour Detroit planned many months ago to feature a Detroit City Football Club player and a USFL player side by side in full, glossy glory on our cover; any competent publicist knows the value of such “earned media” is incalculable.

The USFL? Not so much. After months of effort and persistent chasing of the USFL’s spokesman, Darryn James, via text and Twitter, he finally replied as if it were a big bother to ask what we wanted.

James did give us one thing: a supremely odd Zoom interview with Panthers quarterback Shea Patterson, the USFL’s No. 1 overall pick in its Feb. 22 draft and a one-time star at the University of Michigan. The Panthers have a few other stars of in-state interest: linebackers Taiwan Jones from Michigan State University and Terry Myrick from Eastern Michigan University, plus defensive tackle Kyshonn Tyson from Grand Valley State University. 

The draft experience for Patterson, specifically, set off some alarms for our team.

“I got an email a month — not a month, a week before the draft [to send] in an application for the league. And a couple days later, they said, ‘Hey, come to Birmingham — we’re hosting a draft, and we’d love to have you,” Patterson says. “It was a spur-of-the-moment type thing.”

Does this sound like a serious, well-run operation to you? This league’s biggest star sent in what he describes as “kind of a resume,” and the first time he met or spoke with Fisher, he says, was onstage at the draft. The process of getting hired at Baskin-Robbins is more rigorous.

Michigan Panthers v Chicago Blitz
The 2022 USFL is not to be confused with the league of the same name from the early ‘80s. (right) John Corker of the Michigan Panthers takes on Rob Taylor of the Chicago Blitz, during a game at Soldier Field, on June 26, 1983. // Photograph courtesy of Bruce DierdorffNFL Photos/Getty Images

“I didn’t even know if I was going to get taken,” Patterson says. “So I was like, ‘Cool, I’ll come down there and see how it goes.’”

As confusing as it was for Patterson, that draft process remains even more mysterious to the public. Teams have no owners. It’s not even clear if they have general managers. So, who’s deciding who gets drafted where? Are they stacking certain teams with more talent than others, to encourage a certain outcome, in order to excite fans in more lucrative markets? Nobody will say.

It’s also strange that all the games are in the Yellowhammer State, and nobody’s available to explain exactly why. Maybe it saves a lot on travel expenses. Maybe when they planned this, there was more concern about COVID-19 and being able to create a “bubble” made sense. Who knows?

But this setup also raises a key question: Why should anybody care?

New football leagues that compete with the NFL have a long history of failure. In recent years, the Alliance of American Football went bankrupt after eight weeks of play in 2019 and the XFL reboot shuttered after five weeks of play in 2020, though the onset of the pandemic was a big factor there.

Now comes the USFL with its derelict media outreach operation. The thing is owned by a TV network, but the draft wasn’t televised. Huh?

Consider how real pro sports leagues operate. The main Twitter profile for the NFL links to a landing page with buttons for scores, schedules, combine results, and more. The MLB’s has links for new rules, FAQ, news, their shop, and other things. Any individual team’s Twitter page takes you to extensive team websites.

But @USFL? Every Twitter bio associated with the league and its teams takes you to the same place: In fact, none of the teams had an official website as of early April. 

If you only followed the league on social media — or caught its announcement on March 30 that it’d be pairing with NFL Films for a 12-episode all-access show on FS1 — you might think that the league has its stuff together. And maybe that’s a sign of something.

But what if the USFL has no intention of being a traditional football league? What if it’s an e-commerce company designed to move merchandise and encourage betting on the Fox Bet app? The league is clearly not relying on ticket sales; tickets cost $10 a pop and are mostly free for kids under 15. Also, they’re playing in Alabama, hundreds of miles from most of its teams’ home bases. Maybe selling the merch is the endgame here.

As long as the league stays alive and continues to give football players an opportunity to keep their playing dreams alive while presenting an entertaining product, there’s no harm in this setup.

But it certainly is different. Like the other  leagues that have come before it, we’ll have to wait until a trophy is awarded to know if this thing will actually work. If this thing is still happening by the time this piece reaches you, good for them. If not, don’t be surprised.

This story is from the May 2022 issue of Hour Detroit. Read more stories in our digital edition

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