Virginia beat Las Vegas, the two-time defending champions, 17-3 Friday night to win the third United Football League. It was reported there were over 14,000 fans in Norfolk, a sellout crowd.
But this might be one of the few places you will read about the game, in what might have been the curtain call for yet another fledgling sports endeavor with the backing of successful businessmen who somehow, some way, ventured off their proven path of personal wealth and accomplishments to revert to kids in the candy store when they entered the big world of sports business. A gum drop here, some caramels there, a few bars of chocolate, whatever was in reach early with nothing amounting to sustenance to maintain them.
What you also might not have heard since in this third season the UFL operated without any national broadcasting partners to spread their word, show their games, is that the season was cut in half. It just basically ended. Was it money? Probably. But lo and behold suddenly in what was to be only the fifth weekend of the regular season, a championship game was instead played. The four team league struggling for some inkling of dignity even made the remaining game for the pair of 1-3 teams a “consolation” event, the coveted third place game. For the record Sacramento beat Omaha 25-19, no doubt a joyous compromise to the abrupt ending of the campaign.
There is an affinity here for the UFL, after calling their first two seasons with the legendary announcer Paul Maguire. It was a league that had a place, to give veterans and more important to provide young players who had just missed the cut with an opportunity to stay football ready for another chance at the NFL come November. It was a no gimmick game, no crazy run to the ball at midfield in lieu of kickoffs; no free-for-all scoring contests. It was a football game played by very talented men, a few who got another shot at the big time because of their UFL play.
Past tense. They say they will be back again, so it is slightly presumptuous to write of its passing, yet history shows leagues that make a third year and have to dramatically change things for the lesser probably will become a rapidly fading memory for even ardent sports fans. Their souvenirs not even ebay attractions.
The International Fight League was that way to the MMA world. Fresh, idealistic, even innovative in certain aspects, most notably the team concept of competing. They had a TV deal, they had young fighters who needed a chance to showcase their talent and like a few of the UFL guys, they got their shot at the UFC. They had veterans who wanted to make one last stand maybe get one more try at the UFC or Strikeforce. And exactly like the UFL, the IFL established themselves quickly albeit briefly by bringing in top coaches, highly recognizable to their fans.
The UFL gave their followers Jim Fassel (who won 2 titles), Dennis Green, Chris Palmer, Marty Schottenheimer (who won the title this year) and two well-known NFL assistants, Jim Haslett and Jay Gruden who parlayed their UFL stints to get back to the NFL. Haslett is defensive coordinator for the Redskins, Gruden is offensive coordinator for the Bengals.
The IFL went with former MMA greats, some already established coaches at their gyms: Bas Rutten, Pat Miletich, Renzo Gracie, Ken Shamrock, Don Frye, Frank Shamrock, Matt Lindland, Marco Ruas, Ian Freeman and Maurice Smith.
The coaches in each league were the real stars, a quick fix public relations burst that brought credibility and a curiosity–if these big names were giving these leagues a chance maybe it was worth a look.
Ironically it was the fast start, the notoriety for each league that became its undoing. Everyone started believing their own press releases that they had indeed reinvented the sports wheel. Before a foundation was firmly laid, they each were expanding in front office personnel. A clutter, or cluster mostly, of people who were happy to have a job where they were being paid while still learning, the assistant to the assistant type employment. Money was tossed around like it was growing on trees, high priced real estate for league offices, private parties, private jets, unlimited expense accounts.
The vision once so clear became blurry. Businessmen were making silly decisions with their hard earned wealth that afforded them such an enormous cushions they could be frivolous. Again, men became kids in the candy store, and direction went off course faster than the Titanic. A fascinating physiological study: brilliant men, some Forbes list guys, several self- made who could account for every decision as they leaped rungs on the financial ladder, suddenly making moves, hiring people they never would have considered in their real ventures. How could sports do this to them?
The UFL and IFL each were hedge funds. The UFL was started in anticipation of the inevitable NFL lockout of its players and the new league in 2009 was pointed toward this year from the beginning. They would be solidly in place by the lockout and fans craving pro football would be turning to them, networks would be lining up with pitches to come over to their side and fill the void of no NFL games on Sunday. But it was a shaky at best proposition and when the NFL lockout was resolved faster than they expected they had to delay the start of their third season because the UFL, as it had from the beginning, depended on stocking its rosters with players cut by the NFL. Until that happened there was no way to field a team and TV networks knew that better than the owners, they weren’t about to sign any deal for a league that barely had four teams and that was unable to guarantee a full season.
The IFL had the UFC in its sights from the get-go. They had name coaches and an intriguing concept plus a TV show each week. All was in place however with the cash flowing out way faster than it could come in, and along the way were never able to secure the national sponsor for their product relying instead on trade outs with protein shakes and apparel companies. And in the still most incredulous move in the history of bad sports organizational moves, the IFL went public with its stock. Then as now most investors are still wondering exactly what value the league offered other than high profile coaches and a few very good fighters but still many complimentary tickets, no TV revenue and no income otherwise. They spent UFC style money for a brief time but never even a glimmer of UFC style return.
New leagues are always a daunting concept. Only the AFL being absorbed by the NFL and four ABA franchises being included in the NBA are the only upstarts becoming successful in the last 50 years. To a lesser extent given the brief history of MMA, the UFC is the business template for having a plan and following through. The same for both the WEC and Strikeforce, each shining examples of staying within their means, making judicious use of talent available and actually executing a plan that led to inclusion in the UFC.
With both the UFL and IFL it is sad to see them go. Okay let’s give the UFL a bare minimum of a pass they might stay around. But each had something to offer. There is a need for a Triple A level football league that could become a feeder for NFL teams. The team concept of the IFL might still work with the right management, giving up-and-coming fighters better venues to shine than some regional shows now offer.
But if there is a common thread that leads to the unraveling of new leagues, it again comes back to the tunnel vision of rich, smart people who seem to gravitate toward any slick talking, unproven associate who just knows how to make it work without any track record of succeeding. A puzzle that defines insanity, to keep doing the same thing over and over hoping for a different result.
So when a new football league begins, another sure fire fight organization comes along, it will likely be another meet the new league same as the old league. The history is glaringly against them.
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