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Life's Rich Pageant

The USFL Is Back, Because No Bad Idea Ever Dies

Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Because the thing we most lack as a culture is that internal voice that whispers, “Who asked for this?” Fox is bringing back the United States Football League. Something you can’t always trust revivifies something nobody particularly wanted the last time and introduced the nation to the noted soul-deficient hyena known as Donald Trump? Sure. Who wouldn’t sign up for another round of that?

Yet here we are. The USFL, a foundational slab of the mighty dungpile of miserably failed spring football leagues, is being blackjacked back into our attention spans because … well, because television long ago ran out of new or stolen ideas and is deep into old failed ones. Next up: Video Village, You Are There, and Saoirse Ronan as Crusader Rabbit.

Fox announced this as a starter for next spring because you have always been nostalgic for the Houston Gamblers, Oakland Invaders, Chicago Blitz, and especially the Washington Federals. Which until this moment you hadn’t even realized you were because A) you weren’t born in 1983 and B) if you had been born, you gave up on this steaming mess in about six weeks.

It soldiered on poorly until Trump, who bought the New Jersey Generals because he couldn’t buy an NFL team (one of the smartest choices that league ever made), ruined it by leading a charge to turn it into a fall league and causing most of the other teams to fold, a loosely-adapted strategy he would try to repeat 30 years later in politics.

But here it is again, because Fox needs programming that badly. Why it chose this model and these defunct teams rather than the defunct teams of, say, the World Football League of a decade before is anyone’s guess, although the illusion of bringing back Jim Kelly, Steve Young, and Herschel Walker might have fogged the network’s thinking. And frankly, because nobody asked for any of them, the only value the league would truly have is to piss off Jerry Jones, who owns the NFL jointly with European Super League wingnut Stan Kroenke. I mean, the usual shelf life of a such a league is about six weeks, give or take—one in which people are interested, several more as the ratings crater, and one to collapse the teams the way Tom Dundon did the Alliance of American Football in 2019—by buying it, looking at the books, and declaring bankruptcy.

But of all the ridiculous underfunded and over-gasbagged organizations ever to try this scam, the USFL was the most ambitious and collapsed the loudest. It is the best sports model for BHNC (Big Hat, No Cattle) we have been given at least until the Super League’s two-day lifespan lowered the bar for viability into the earth’s crust.

Ignore the history, though, and try to remember that American sports fans are label shoppers, and incredible snobs. They will pay nearly anything for the thing they perceive is best and ignore and scorn anything else; the era of new leagues ended in the ’70s when the NBA and NHL each took four surviving teams from leagues that lasted less than a decade and moved on without a problem. Football’s last successful foray was the AFL, which was absorbed en masse by the NFL because Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt was richer than any NFL owner and had NBC doing its games for years. The last anything league to survive has been MLS, which has successfully ridden the wave started by regular telecasts of the best European leagues that began, oddly enough, with the Fox Soccer Channel in the late ’90s and early 2000s until it lost its major rights deals in 2013.

That’s been the model for all the crackpot startups since, with the torn Achilles being the army of franchise owners who had more mouth than money. Fox’s choice of the USFL that comes with it is fascin—oops, sorry. The moment for fascination just passed, in keeping with the national interest in professional spring football. Many have come, none have been chosen, and the idea that Fox can restart this rusted out old Oldsmobile, let alone find a collector to buy it, is among the least comprehensible concepts of recent history. Nobody wants to watch spring football unless it is SEC two-a-days, and nobody will want this, not even an aficionado of long-defunct teams with goofy logos like your humble author. Oh, for the days of the Scottish Claymores.

As for the USFL, it will die as it was born, two failed ideas merged into one, without even a decent attempt at new branding except for changing the league’s logo font to Sad Sans. This entire enterprise fails to rise even to the level of grade school plagiarism.

Besides, there is already a network that covers a failing enterprise that bears the mark of the accursed megalomaniac and failure curator Trump, and that is C-SPAN.