A few decades before he jumped into the murky waters of politics, Herschel Walker experienced something almost as harrowing. The Heisman Trophy-winning running back from Georgia stiff-armed the NFL and made a splash by signing with the USFL, a startup pro football league with big plans in the mid-1980s.
The league enjoyed a brief run of success, attracting big-name players and putting a respectable product on the field for three seasons before ultimately folding in 1986. The USFL failed mostly because of a string of embarrassing business debacles. Something was ventured and a little ground was gained, but the lessons from that fizzled league remain mostly lost.
Fast forward to April 2022. It was Monday night and football was on TV. The return of the USFL featured the Tampa Bay Bandits facing the Pittsburgh Maulers in Birmingham, Alabama, where there appeared to be fewer than 100 fans in attendance. The level of play was low and so was the score, with the Bandits stealing a 17-3 win.
The league’s opening weekend consisted of four games and the betting action at Las Vegas books was nearly nonexistent.
“It was disappointing,” South Point sportsbook director Chris Andrews said, laughing at the meager amount of money wagered on the games. “Everyone is comparing this to the old USFL, but they forget how good that league was. There were Hall of Famers, great players in that league. It was not a (crap) league. That was legit, and this is not.”
USFL executives and talking heads from Fox Sports, a minority owner in the league, will attempt to put a positive spin on the season debut. The truth is it’s another lame-duck pro football league with little chance of surviving.
There are no stars to attract eyes to the games, and that’s the biggest problem. The quarterbacks are not talented enough to be NFL backups and nobody is tuning in to watch former NFL burnout Jeff Fisher coach the Michigan Panthers.
The old USFL actually lured three consecutive Heisman winners, including Walker and Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie, who each signed with the New Jersey Generals. A few future Pro Football Hall of Famers — defensive end Reggie White and quarterbacks Jim Kelly and Steve Young — launched their careers in the USFL.
The new USFL is only launching more skepticism about the need for pro football in the spring and summer. There is no need for it, especially when the quality of play is so weak.
Of course, there’s always a counter argument, and in this case the USFL presents a betting option for those who want it. And some of us will be betting on it, picking a few spots where we perceive soft lines.
The sharpest angle to the opening week involved the totals, which opened in the low 50s at some books. While USFL coaches were promising explosive offenses, the lineup of no-name starting quarterbacks was more than a hint to ignore the hype.
“Professional-type players were active in the totals markets speculating on Week 1,” Circa Sports book director Matt Metcalf said. “It was moderate action from recreational players.”
The total crashed all the way to 41.5 in the Tampa Bay-Pittsburgh game, which finished with 20 points and put me to sleep — something that’s not easy to do — sometime in the third quarter. Three of the four games stayed Under the total.
“There was a little bit of money on the USFL games,” Westgate SuperBook director John Murray said. “I have not seen a wiseguy group get involved yet. I would like to tell you we have a lot of sharp guys playing it, but it hasn’t happened yet. We definitely had sharp guys in the past betting on the AAF, XFL and Arena football, and it’s inevitable that’s going to happen because guys are always looking for edges.”
With most books setting wagering limits at $1,000 for sides and $500 for totals, it’s not exactly tempting for sharp bettors to spend a lot of time handicapping the USFL.
The best game of the weekend was on Saturday night, when Birmingham beat New Jersey 28-24 on Stallions quarterback J’Mar Smith’s 2-yard touchdown run with 29 seconds remaining. The curtain-raising game drew a reported 3 million viewers mostly due to a simulcast on two networks, Fox and NBC. The next three games were a downhill slide.
“I don’t know if the USFL will make it through the season, to tell you the truth,” Andrews said.
Fox Sports has reportedly committed at least $150 million over three years to the league’s operations, so the USFL will make it for the foreseeable future, but it’s risky business.
Eight teams playing a 10-game regular season in Birmingham is a flawed plan. If the Maulers never play a game in Pittsburgh, why would anyone in Pittsburgh feel connected to the team? So there’s one home team and seven teams with phony homes.
Don’t expect even decent crowds in Birmingham despite tickets priced at $10. Football fans in Alabama are smart enough to suspect the Crimson Tide would probably roll over these minor-league teams. Nick Saban has a superior quarterback and a roster with more NFL talent.
Maybe it would help if the league provided another shot to quarterbacks like Colin Kaepernick and Johnny Manziel, but those would be carnival attractions.
The USFL is not without some credibility. It helps to have former NFL coaches and respected figures such as Mike Pereira, the former vice president of officiating for the NFL, as executives in the league.
Past failures have shown there’s not an appetite for pro football in the spring, not unless it’s the NFL draft. The sports buffet is full with the NBA and NHL playoffs, baseball, golf and UFC.
“There’s too much going on right now in the sports calendar,” Murray said. “Who has time to watch the USFL? I don’t know. I don’t get it. I’m rooting for it to be a success.”
I wanted to like the new-look USFL, but the first impression fell short of low expectations. It’s football to bet on for those who care enough to watch, but few will care.