It may be early fall, and Week 3 of the 2023 NFL season, but spring football did manage to grab some headlines this week. According to reports that began early in the week the two dominant spring professional football leagues – the USFL, owned and operated by the FOX Corporation and the XFL, owned and operated by a group led by Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and Dany Garcia – have been working towards a merger.
For both fans of year-round football, as well as those who scoff at the spring game and just watch the NFL, this is good news all around. A merger would help keep spring football steady, while also potentially improving the quality of play in the NFL.
In the decade leading up to the COVID-19 Pandemic, there were a number of attempts to start a pro football league in the spring, which hadn’t been done with any level of success since the original USFL in the mid-1980s. The UFL (2009-2012), FXFL (2014-2015), TSL (2017-2021), and AAF (2019), among others, all came and went without much fanfare. However, the USFL, which began in 2022 and the XFL, which began in 2020 and then resumed after the Pandemic in 2023, have gained some footing – mainly thanks to TV deals with major networks.
If the XFL and USFL merge into a single league (which is expected to have a new name, according to reports), both the visibility and stability of the new league would be strengthened. A definitive league to watch broadcast on a major network or networks will help draw viewers not only because of the accessibility but also because it will allow fans to focus on a single league, rather than follow two nearly simultaneously.
As for the NFL, this new league should provide an opportunity. When there were two leagues going head-to-head, it made sense that the NFL stayed at arm’s length (the league had very minor partnerships with both). If the NFL had thrown its weight behind either spring league from the start that likely would have decided on the spot which league would make it and which wouldn’t rather than letting the market play itself out.
Now, with just one league, the NFL can get more involved – and it should. There are many reasons officially partnering with a spring league would be beneficial to the NFL but one stands above all else – an official minor league system.
As we’ve seen through the first few weeks of this NFL season, play has been sloppy at times. Many experts have attributed that to the limits on practice – both the overall number and intensity of those practices – in training camp.
It would help if the league had a way to prepare younger players or those who don’t see as much game action for professional football beyond training camp. That’s where the new spring league made of the former XFL and USFL could come in.
What would that look like? Probably not like baseball, where all 32 teams have a fully-rostered minor league affiliate. Instead, they could draw from the closest thing the NFL had in the past to a minor league system in NFL Europe, which existed from 1995 to 2007.
With NFL Europe, teams could allocate a certain number of players to the league in order to get them game experience. Those allocated players were spread out over the league’s nine teams, although some NFL franchises had unofficial ties with certain NFLE teams that saw more of their players go there.
This system ended up helping with the development of a number of successful NFL players – especially quarterbacks, for whom time on the field in both practices and games is limited in the NFL. Examples include two-time league MVP Kurt Warner, Super Bowl winner Brad Johnson, as well as Jake Delhomme and Jon Kitna. Other notable NFLE alumni include kicker Adam Vinatieri and returner Dante Hall.
16 years later, could the NFL set up a similar system in the US with a spring league? If they do it won’t just be the league and players who benefit, but the fans as well.
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