Why the USFL's key to survival is also its biggest problem | Goodbread

Chase Goodbread
The Tuscaloosa News

The matchup is Case Cookus vs. J'Mar Smith.

But is that a weekend tennis clash at Wimbledon?

Or is it the quarterback battle of the USFL's championship game to be held Sunday night in Canton, Ohio?

It's the latter, but way too many sports fans might be tempted to guess the former, and that's the USFL's biggest problem as it closes out its first season: a lack of name recognition. The league simply didn't pay enough to attract many players that football  fans – even the fervent ones in Birmingham, where the league is based – know and love. Yet strangely enough, that's also a big reason why the league's short-term survival seems pretty secure.

The lab results are almost in.

That's what Year One of the USFL has been, in essence: spring football played in a cost-contained test tube, with FOX Sports overseeing the experiment. What's behind that colorful 13,000-square foot building wrap on the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Birmingham? Cost controls that, by design, are simultaneously holding the league back and ensuring its future.

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Every player signed a standard contract for the same base pay. Every regular-season game was played in Birmingham, eliminating travel costs. Everything about the league's year-one operation has been about viably reaching year two.

In other words, it's been run with the polar-opposite model as its 1980s predecessor. That USFL boldly went about building its franchises around a few handsomely-paid stars who brought instant credibility. The majority of those rosters were filled out by the likes of what the current USFL employs, all but ensuring the on-field success of its star players, if not the league. It corralled future Hall of Famers like Jim Kelly, Reggie White and Steve Young. Future Pro Bowlers like Sam Mills, Gary Clark and Anthony Carter. And the reckless spending by a splintered, financially unstable collection of owners ultimately spelled no future at all.

It was a calamitous cautionary tale that informed the new USFL on how not to approach its rebirth. But the old USFL was keenly aware of one lasting truth that the new one eventually must reckon with: it needs bigger names, and if the league is to scale up successfully, only increased player salaries can make that happen. That's not to suggest a 180-degree pivot to making the same mistakes of its past; the league's second-year option on player contracts hints that it won't. But at some point, it will have to fill a lot more seats - in both stadiums and on couches in front of televisions - to finally get spring pro football right.

The Birmingham Stallions and Philadelphia Stars will close out the fledgling league's first season in the title game.

It's cleverly timed, this clash, on a lazy summer Sunday, just before a holiday, and with no real sporting competition on the TV dial. Even Major League Baseball will be largely finished for the day by the time it kicks off, save for one game that's a bummer for FOX executives - a Phillies home game that won't help the USFL's local TV share on an otherwise fine night to introduce more Philadelphians to a team that, for now, is theirs in name only.

As problems go for fledgling pro sports leagues, that's a minor one.

Identifying the right time and method to level up as a league is the major one.

Reach Chase Goodbread at cgoodbread@gannett.com. Follow on Twitter @chasegoodbread