United Football League (2024)

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United Football League
Current season, competition or edition:
Current sports event 2024 UFL season
ClassificationSpring football league
SportAmerican football
FoundedDecember 31, 2023
First season2024
Owner(s)National Spring Football League Enterprises Co, LLC[1] (50%)
CEORuss Brandon
PresidentRuss Brandon
No. of teams8
CountryUnited States
HeadquartersCenterfield Office Building
Arlington, Texas
U.S.
TV partner(s)
Related
competitions
Direct: XFL, USFL
Affiliated: IFL
Other: NFL
Official websitetheUFL.com

The United Football League (UFL) is a professional American football high-level minor league which started play in March 2024. The league was created following the XFL–USFL merger of the latest incarnations of the XFL and United States Football League (USFL).[3] It consists of eight teams, all of whom were members of the XFL or USFL prior to the UFL's creation, concentrated in the Midwest and Southern United States.[4]

Background[edit]

2020–2021[edit]

In 2017, Vince McMahon, who had previously launched the XFL in 2001 as a partnership with NBC Sports, registered a trademark for the United Football League name.[5] An unrelated United Football League, founded by Bill Hambrecht, had played four abbreviated seasons from 2009 to 2012. McMahon ultimately did not use the UFL trademark, as response to the ESPN Films 30 for 30 documentary "This Was the XFL" in 2017 showed that the XFL brand was still viable, and in February 2020, McMahon relaunched the XFL with a similar business structure (though, unlike the 2001 XFL, operated as a sole proprietorship of McMahon's separate from his professional wrestling corporation, WWE) and an emphasis on speed and innovation.[6] The XFL, which was largely successful with its attendance and television ratings, was forced to shut down halfway through its 2020 season in March due to stay-at-home orders imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic and declared bankruptcy in April;[7][8] later that year, McMahon sold the league to a consortium led by businesswoman Dany Garcia, Garcia's ex-husband Dwayne Johnson (a former WWE wrestler under the name "The Rock"), and private equity firm RedBird Capital Partners.[9][10] The XFL chose not to play a 2021 season (most gathering restrictions would not be lifted until spring of that year) and cancelled the 2022 season after partnership discussions with the Canadian Football League collapsed without any agreement in fall 2021.[11]

While the XFL was on hiatus, Fox Sports—which had been one of the XFL's broadcast partners along with ESPN in 2020—entered into a partnership with Brian Woods, who had been operating The Spring League (TSL) as a non-paying, pay-to-play developmental showcase for professional players[12] under a single-campus bubble format[13] since 2017. The XFL had funded The Spring League's 2019 season to test rule changes and were holding discussions about a potential affiliation between the two leagues before the bankruptcy.[14] Fox aired the autumn 2020 and spring 2021 seasons of The Spring League.[15]

2022–2023[edit]

Following the 2021 season, Woods and Fox announced they had acquired the trademarks of the original 1980s incarnation of the United States Football League and would be launching a reboot of the USFL in spring 2022.[16] The 2022 USFL season, though its eight teams nominally bore the names of eight former USFL franchises including their cities, continued to use the bubble format with all eight teams based in Birmingham, Alabama, in the 2022 season.[17] The playoffs were held in Canton, Ohio.[18] Woods eventually backed out of the USFL after the 2022 season.[19]

The XFL and USFL played separate, partially overlapping seasons in 2023, to roughly similar television viewership numbers.[20] The USFL expanded to four home cities, adding Memphis, Tennessee (backed by former Memphis Mad Dogs owner Fred Smith[21]) and Detroit, Michigan,[22] to Birmingham and Canton, with each city hosting two teams, while the XFL moved three of its eight teams to new cities and held all eight teams' practices at a hub in Arlington, Texas.[23]

For the 2023 season, the USFL average viewership in 2023 was down 16% from its debut season to 601,000 and 3% lower than the 2023 XFL season, despite having 28 over-the-air network games compared to eight for the XFL.[20] The championship game also saw a significant decline in viewership from 2022 as the game averaged 1.2 million viewers across NBC, Peacock, and NBC Sports digital platforms.[24] USFL President Daryl Johnston expressed disappointment and anger that the USFL was comparable to the XFL in ratings for the 2023 season, dismissing the XFL as "no competition" to the "far superior" USFL and musing "to be on par with our competition from a ratings standpoint in Year 2, I'm still trying to figure out: How did that happen? (...) they're not even close."[20] The USFL was already seeking additional investors prior to the start of the 2023 season and had hired Allen & Company to assist in the search; Fox lost an unspecified amount of money on the venture in 2023 due to the high startup expenses for a professional football league.[25]

At the same time, the XFL lost nearly $60 million during the season after spending approximately $140 million in expenses over the course of the 2023 season and earning $80 million in gross revenue, including roughly $20 million that came from its broadcast contract with ESPN.[26][27] Executives with the league and ESPN indicated that they considered the season a success.[28] Like the USFL, the XFL was also seeking additional investors with the assistance of PJT Partners.[29] After the season ended, the XFL made league-wide cuts affecting up to 30 people, including two marketing executives, and shifted other employees to seasonal work.[30][31]

Both the USFL and XFL believed that the leagues could be independently viable in the long term even if they continued to compete against each other but, by the time of the 2023 USFL championship, they had decided that setting aside the business rivalry and merging the two leagues would be even more financially advantageous.[32]

History[edit]

XFL–USFL Merger[edit]

In September 2023, Axios reported that the XFL was in advanced talks with the USFL to merge the two leagues prior to the start of their 2024 seasons.[33] On September 28, 2023, the XFL and USFL announced their intent to merge with details surrounding the merger to be announced at a later date.[34] The merger would also require regulatory approval.[35] In October 2023 the XFL filed a trademark application for the name "United Football League".[36] On November 30, 2023, Garcia announced via her Instagram page that the leagues had received regulatory approval for the merger and were finalizing plans for a "combined season" to begin March 30, 2024.[37]

The merger was formally announced on Fox NFL Sunday on December 31, 2023.[38] The eight surviving teams were announced the following day on College GameDay, along with the alignment; the XFL and USFL will survive as separate conferences.[39] Daryl Johnston would note in February that maintaining the XFL and USFL conferences as separate entities was designed to build an on-field rivalry between the two brands and to give the winner of the league's championship "bragging rights".[40] President/CEO Russ Brandon would later say that the league would be looking at expansion shortly,[41] while Defenders defensive coordinator Gregg Williams revealed plans to expand to 12 teams by 2025 and to 16 teams by 2026.[42]

2024 season[edit]

The 2024 UFL season began on March 30, 2024, with a matchup between the 2023 XFL champion Arlington Renegades and the 2023 USFL champion Birmingham Stallions.[38]

Teams[edit]

Four teams came from the XFL and three came from the USFL, while both league's Houston-based teams were merged, maintaining the branding of the XFL's Roughnecks, and the divisional alignment, players rights and coaching staff of the USFL's Gamblers.[38][43] In essence the Gamblers changed their name to the Roughnecks.

Overview of United Football League teams
Conference Team Location Stadium Capacity First season Head coach

USFL Conference
Birmingham Stallions Birmingham, Alabama Protective Stadium 47,100 2022 Skip Holtz
Houston Roughnecks Houston, Texas Rice Stadium[41] 47,000 2022 Curtis Johnson
Memphis Showboats Memphis, Tennessee Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium 58,325 2023 John DeFilippo
Michigan Panthers Detroit, Michigan Ford Field 65,000 2022 Mike Nolan

XFL Conference
Arlington Renegades Arlington, Texas Choctaw Stadium 25,000 2020 Bob Stoops
DC Defenders Washington, D.C. Audi Field 20,000 2020 Reggie Barlow
San Antonio Brahmas San Antonio, Texas Alamodome 64,000 2023 Wade Phillips
St. Louis Battlehawks St. Louis, Missouri The Dome at America's Center 67,277 2020 Anthony Becht
Locations of teams for the 2024 UFL season (USFL Conference in red, XFL Conference in blue)

Timeline[edit]

Players[edit]

Each team carries 75-men roster to training camp, with regular season rosters will stand at 50 (45 active on game day).[44][45] The minimum stay on injured reserve is five games, while season ending injured reserve designation guarantees player a camp invite the following season.[46]

While the UFL embraced more of a "developmental league" mentality,[47] they're also targeting veteran backups type players, with Johnston saying: "there are a lot of guys who are at peace that their NFL window has closed, but they love the camaraderie of the locker room. They love the day-to-day grind... That's been the really inspiring thing to me, is there is a number of guys in our league who just love the game and want to keep playing it as long as they can.[48] Players that have three or four years in the NFL and want to kind of rewrite that narrative, the way that they’re being viewed by front office’s in the NFL, they want an opportunity to come into the UFL and change that narrative".[49] Johnston also mentioned that the league would like to change the narrative, from "developmental league" and starting to talk about the "sustainability of spring football": "I think one of the things that we’ve started to have conversations is what do we want our new messaging to be? We do want to move off of the developmental component. We want to get away from the opportunity component. We want to talk about the talent of the players that are in this league... (compere to) spring football that you have seen in other iterations, this will be the best talent that if you’re a fan of spring football, you will have seen in recent history".[50]

Unionization & compensation[edit]

Local 9004 of the United Steelworkers, which had served as the labor union for the USFL in 2023, will continue in that capacity for the UFL, operating as the United Football League Players Association[51] (This is not to be confused with the United Football Players Association, which Local 9004 disowned during the 2023–24 offseason).[52] The league will continue operating under the USFL's collective bargaining agreement.[51][53]

Initial reports suggested that, contrary to the 2023 XFL season, quarterbacks would not be allowed to sign for salaries higher than the other positional players.[54][53] However, the UFLPA later clarified that the agreement with the league is for minimum salary only, and any player could sign a personal contract above the minimum.[55] As late as January 2024, the league had resisted "pushback" from some of the higher-paid XFL quarterbacks to increase quarterbacks' salary, with Johnston at the time refusing to deviate from the plan to pay all players equally while acknowledging "there's a good argument for both sides. How do we manage this situation(...)? It's hard to thread that needle."[48]

Select XFL players, who had voted against joining the USW in 2023, expressed concern about the lack of winning bonuses (a key feature of the XFL's pay structure) and a requirement to pay union dues,[53] while some players decided not to return to the league, citing the pay cut as a contributing factor.[56] On an interview after the merger, former Battlehawks QB AJ McCarron revealed that XFL players were in advanced talks with the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) for exclusive representation.[56]

Salary[edit]

UFL players' minimum salaries will be $5,500 per week ($2,500 for inactive players) and $150 a week toward 401K contributions, with $400 a week house stipend and $55-a-day per diem stipend during travel days. All contracts will run from January 1 to August 24. During training camp, all players will receive $850 a week. Players on injured reserve will receive $2,500 a week (plus house stipend). UFL players will also be entitled for "players accolade bonuses" for Player of the week ($1,000), All UFL ($2,500), Player of the year ($5,000), and MVP ($7,500).[46] The overall league player budget is $24 million.[32]

Rules[edit]

Mike Pereira and Dean Blandino are in charge of the UFL's officiating and rules.[41][57]

The league rulebook was released February 13, 2024. Though most of the UFL's unique rules were common to both the USFL and XFL (such as allowing a second forward pass if the first does not cross the line of scrimmage, and the treatment of a fumble through the end zone the same as other forward fumbles in that it is brought back to the spot of the fumble), a limited number required compromise or were changed entirely from both leagues' rules:[58][59][60]

  • The league will use the USFL's kickoff rule, which resembles that used at most levels of the game but kicks off from the kicking team's 20-yard line instead of the 35-yard line used at the college and NFL levels (as opposed to the XFL rule which kicked off from the 30-yard line but had the opposing teams line up 35 and 40 yards downfield from the kick respectively and required the kicker to land the kick within 20 yards of the end zone without going in).[61][62] A rule proposal would replace the kickoff with a punt, thereby resembling the safety kick at other levels of the game, but this rule did not make it into the rule book.[63]
  • The onside conversion option will remain available, with a team trailing in the fourth quarter allowed to attempt a single scrimmage play to gain 12 yards from its own 28-yard line. (The XFL used 15 yards from its own 25-yard line; the USFL used 12 yards from its own 33-yard line.)
  • Pass interference penalties will be limited to 15 yards from the previous line of scrimmage or the spot of the foul, whichever is less.
  • The league will use the XFL's variable-distance conversion rule, offering one, two or three points depending upon how far away from the goal line the offense chooses to attempt the play, and prohibiting kicking for the extra point. (The USFL had allowed the two and three point scrimmage conversions but allowed for an extra point kick.)
  • All touchbacks will come to the receiving team's 25-yard line. Any coffin corner punt that goes out of bounds beyond the 25-yard line will be treated as a touchback, a rule previously used in the XFL (though that league had used the 35-yard line for its touchbacks).
  • The league will use the National Football League rule requiring a receiver to land both feet in bounds for a forward pass to be counted as complete. This was a change from both the XFL and USFL, along with most other professional leagues other than the NFL, that only required one foot in-bounds for a completed pass.
  • The XFL overtime rule will be carried over, in that tie games will involve a best-of-three shootout of two-point conversion attempts from each 5-yard line. If the tie persists, multiple attempts will be played until one team scores, which wins it. One timeout can be called per attempt. The overtime has no game clock, but the play clock will still be used.

Partnerships[edit]

In February 2022, the XFL signed a collaboration agreement with the NFL to "experiment with proposed rules, test new equipment and develop prospective officials and coaches and explore new ways to address player safety".[64][65] In October 2022, the XFL announced a player personnel partnership with the Indoor Football League (IFL), with the IFL functioning as the XFL's de facto minor league.[66]

In 2023, Dwayne Johnson said that "the XFL specifically designed its schedule to give its players the best chance of latching on with an NFL team in May",[67] while Gerry Cardinale stated that "the minor league analogy is valid, that's an important part of this."[68] After the merger, UFL Executive VP of Football Operations Daryl Johnston refuted the notion of a "minor-league" when he said in an interview: "I don’t want to be considered a developmental league or a feeder league. We’re a professional, stand-alone football league", but he also acknowledged the importance of an NFL partnership: "the number of people we have at the top of our league office that have connections to the NFL, I’m hoping we’re able to accelerate that process and have meaningful conversations with the NFL about what our league can provide (...) What we’re trying to do is maximize the talent and quality of play in our league. One way we can do that is having access to guys who are in the NFL, on that fringe, on that cusp".[69] It was later announced that the XFL's previous agreement with the NFL would continue for the 2024 UFL season.[41]

League finances[edit]

The league was created as a "merger of equals", with the respective leagues' owners assuming 50% ownership of the newly formed UFL[70] and The Walt Disney Company also holding a minority stake.[32] RedBird Capital Partners owner Gerry Cardinale called it "a tremendous opportunity to achieve something unique. A legitimate shot at becoming one of the top professional leagues in the country after the big four leagues".[71] In the event that the league, in the future, begins accepting individual team owners, it stated in 2024 that it would follow the Major League Soccer business model of buyers buying into the league itself and not separating the teams into individual business entities.[32]

In March, Under Armour announced they extended the multi-year agreement signed in 2023 with the XFL.[72] Later that month Michael Strahan's MSX brand was announced as the "Official Off-Field Apparel Partner".[73]

St. Louis Battlehawks signed a sponsorship agreement with Budweiser.[74] The sponsorship returns Anheuser-Busch to the league, after it had sponsored the XFL in 2020 to promote Bud Light Seltzer.[75] In March, Flux announced a multi-year sponsorship with the D.C. Defenders and St. Louis Battlehawks.[76]

Personnel[edit]

Source[77]

Broadcasting[edit]

In the United States, the television rights for the UFL are held by Fox and ESPN, which held the rights to the USFL and XFL, respectively.[78][79][80] NBC Sports, which had shared broadcast rights to the USFL with Fox Sports in 2022 and 2023, will not carry UFL games due to an increase in schedule conflicts, stemming from the proposed start date being slightly earlier than 2022 and 2023.[81] There had been one year remaining on NBC's contract.[82] ESPN will also air a weekly multi-platform post-game show.[83] Both ESPN and Fox will carry audio simulcasts of their coverage on their Sirius XM Radio feeds, ESPN Xtra and Fox Sports Radio, respectively.[84]

References[edit]

Informational notes

Citations

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  39. ^ UFL reveals team markets and head coaches for 2024 season press release.
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  55. ^ https://twitter.com/TheUFLPA/status/1752763400675790963
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  72. ^ "UFL and Under Armour Announce Partnership for 2024". UFL. March 8, 2024.
  73. ^ "MSX by Michael Strahan Named Official Off-field Apparel Partner of the UFL". UFL. March 13, 2024.
  74. ^ "WE'RE BACK! We are proud to announce Bud Select as the official beer sponsor of the @xflbattlehawks ! See you at the Battledome. 🍻 #KaKaw #314Day". X.
  75. ^ "XFL Brings On Gatorade, A-B InBev As Sponsors Ahead Of Launch". www.sportsbusinessdaily.com.
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External links[edit]