Teesside Snog Monster (jiggery_pokery) wrote,
Teesside Snog Monster

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"It’s the sport of kings, better than diamond rings"

I have reason to believe that there will be a particularly interesting development in world sport on Monday as there may be the announcement of significant new information about a new American Football league in the US, the strangely-titled United Football League. (What torn-asunder things are being brought back together?) Despite the name, the organisation represents the most significant challenge to the dominance of the National Football League for some time. Since about February, I've been following UFL Access, rather a good blog about the foetal league, and lurking within its forums. The smart money is on the league starting with six teams, and Sports Illustrated have suggested they are most likely to be as follows: Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Orlando and - possibly - Hartford, CT.

Professional American Football in the US is all but synonymous with the NFL, but there have been plenty of other professional leagues over the years. A gold medal goes to the American Football League, which forced a merger with the NFL on fairly even terms in 1970. Silver medals go to the All-American Football Conference of the 1940s and the United States Football League of the 1980s both established American Football presences in cities that the NFL would later go on to absorb - in the case of the AAFC, even with names intact. Bronze medals - and that's being generous - go to the World Football League and the not-an-abbreviation XFL which were less successful still, with their impacts on pro American football being more accurately measured in terms of a few players, a few rule changes or a few presentation techniques.

New pro American Football ventures tend to be based on the presumption of the existence of unserved markets, both geographically and televisually. Las Vegas has not yet had a major league franchise in one of the big four US sports due to connections with sports gambling and Los Angeles lost its NFL connection in 1995. Austin and San Antonio, but very unlikely both, have also been mentioned as unserved markets in this regard. Televisually, NBC lost the rights to broadcast the NFL in 1998 and strongly considered starting a football league, in association with partners, simply because they thought it would bring good TV ratings. (Lest we forget, the XFL, which broadcast on NBC, actually attracted astonishingly low TV ratings in practice; this is a large part of why it only lasted one season, though game attendance levels were solid.)

There also exists indoor American Football, most famously in the shape of the Arena Football League, but also in similar - less significant - incarnations. If you're not familiar with Arena Football, it follows many of the rules and conventions of the outdoor game, but has been adapted and downsized to take place in buildings with central arenas which might host professional teams in either basketball and/or ice hockey. To an extent, the Arena Football League acts as a developmental league to US pro football, as (effectively) does the Canadian Football League. Other semi-pro outdoor football leagues exist at local levels. The closest that the NFL has come, so far, to having a formal developmental league has been the World League of American Football, which resurfaced as NFL Europa and had a long run. (See also the Football League of Europe, an interim measure stopping the gap between the two, which represents an interesting enterprise that is, strangely, written about in detail on German-language Wikipedia and not yet touched on the English-language one. A rare gap!)

It's interesting to compare the history of pro American Football to that of other pro sports in the US; similarities can be drawn. In football, the NFL absorbed the AFL and took clubs from elsewhere. In basketball, the NBA originally arose as a merger of two previous leagues; later on, it absorbed the American Basketball Association (in what can, culturally, be considered to be a reverse takeover) and eventually launched the NBA Developmental League as a farm system. In baseball, Major League Baseball represents a hundred-year-plus effective merger between the National League (originally Association) and the American League (ditto), with a long-established minor league system; indeed, the American and National Leagues almost had the Pacific Coast league as a competitor on equal league before they forced it to be recognised as - if this isn't a contradiction in terms - a senior minor league. (One round of MLB expansion was, effectively, to absorb the Continental League - a would-be third major league - before it properly started.) In hockey, the NHL absorbed many of the best teams from the World Hockey Association rather than deal with it as a competitor and has adopted the American Hockey League as an almost-exact-partition farm system, almost analogous to that of baseball. In short, major leagues will tend to merge with their competitors, or at least absorb their strongest markets, and will tend to set up their own development leagues with the avoidance of competition possibly in mind.

All of this skips past the existence of college American Football, about which I have written previously. I continue to be fascinated by college football, though. (Well, up until the past 28 or so hours, since when it has ceased to exist with a crashing halt. Ahem.) One question that I have considered is why college football remains so prominent and yet professional football does not have a long-term flourishing minor league. The gut reaction is that it's all to do with tradition, but it may be possible to be more specific than that. Spectator sport is rich in tradition, particularly in the USA. Now it's a reasonable question to ask in which countries spectator sport is not rich in tradition, but I tend to draw on the old saw that "the United Kingdom is a country where a hundred miles is a long way and the United States is a country where a hundred years is a long time" and opine that sport in the United States punches above its weight, or more precisely in this case its age, in terms of the creation and celebration of tradition.

American football is a minority interest sport in the UK; the BBC's free-to-air live coverage of the most recent Superbowl, combined with the (subscription) coverage on Sky, had a peak TV audience of 1.2 million viewers in a country of 60 million inhabitants, only half a million or so of whom stayed until the end of the game. (I wasn't one of them, for instance, due to work commitments.) College football does exist but is not really followed at all in the UK. We don't really have the tradition of devotion to university sports, with the exception of the annual Oxford vs. Cambridge Boat Race - and, to a lesser extent, the corresponding rugby union fixture.

BUSA, the British Universities Sports Association, is the British counterpart to the powerful and famous NCAA. They held as many of their national championships as they could in a single four-days-long Olympics-for-British-universities-style event in Sheffield, the British University Championships. Presumably this is the way that Sheffield can reuse all its Universiade infrastructure. How many UK cities would be capable of hosting this in future years? Possibly as many as six or eight... (Ahem. If this sounds familiar, then that's because this article is the longer one that I once said I might or might not get around to writing.)

Returning to the US, college (university) sports have a far stronger tradition than UK readers might anticipate. Indeed, American football played between colleges was a major attraction for decades at the start of the twentieth century, long before the professional game caught on. In fact, college football probably consistently drew bigger attendances than professional football until at least the 1950s. (I note that the biggest college football stadiums still hold very considerably more than NFL stadiums, but it's not unfair to say that the professional game draws more attention than the college game these days.) There are many people who prefer college football to pro football. (I'm married to one!)

It's probably a historical and geographical accident that university sports are not more popular in the UK; association football (soccer) clubs were formed from late in the nineteenth century and cricket had been governed by the counties for decades before that. (The counties are still influential in association football at the grass-roots level.) By the time Britain had the attention to spare on spectator sports, a pattern had already been established of dedicated sports clubs rather than university teams.

There are a couple of other factors, largely forced by the size of the country and the relationship between country and states. I suspect that the British feel much less attachment to their local university than Americans do, by virtue of the tradition being for funding to be made available for Britons to attend any British university of their choice, rather than the US pattern of funding being disbursed on a state-by-state basis and providing a great incentive for people to continue their education in their current state. (I also suspect that the small size of the UK compared to the US means that people pay more attention to local - i.e., state - matters in the US where the same degree of UK attention would be devoted to national issues, with US traditional terrestrial broadcast networks essentially being conglomerates of local enterprises.)

With this in mind, I shall tip my hat to the never-kicked-off All American Football League, which seemed to be a way of drawing upon college football traditions and provide a college-football-like experience outside the traditional college football season. It's a compelling concept, but wasn't properly funded or marketed. Perhaps part of its failure was due to the strength of the tradition that football is played during the conventional late-autumn-to-early-winter football season whereas the AAFL intended to play during the spring; compare with the USFL and WLAF as other spring football leagues that didn't catch on. I can't help thinking that a minor league might have more chance competing against the NFL pre-season, though summer may not be the best time to play in practice, especially with baseball so dominant. (There are other alternative league ventures under way, but they are considerably less promising than even the UFL.)

It's also interesting to consider which principles do have the strength to become traditions in practice as well as in theory, for what is a tradition if not the implementation of a principle repeated sufficiently many times with sufficiently little change? The whole existence of spectator sport depends in part on people's own self-confidence; the expression "I support team A" has a lot in common with the almost-never-expressed-out-loud statement "I consider team A to be the best because they are supported by me personally and I am always right". In essence, part of the purpose of supporting a sporting team is to give you a reason to oppose, with whatever level of passion you choose, those who support sporting teams which aren't yours. Consider the number of terrace chants whose functions are to express a communal hate of some other team. What other reason for spectator sport might there be? (The Onion speculates...)

(One other fascinating, but almost completely unrelated, issue of sporting tradition concerns the recent development of FC United of Manchester. It is a rare thing that a sporting establishment should have a manifesto, but the unfortunately-initialled FCUM do and it makes perfect sense under the circumstances. "FC United of Manchester is a new football club founded by disaffected and disenfranchised Manchester United supporters. (...) FC United of Manchester is intended to create a football club which addresses the concerns which many Manchester United fans have had over the last decade or more with how the club and football have developed, culminating in the club's takeover by Malcolm Glazer." Brilliant; a football club with more of a positive reason for existing than most. Alternatively, AFC Liverpool, in a very similar way, may be more to your taste. Other fan-owned sports teams may have come about in a different way, but the spin-off club concept may spread to other teams that have sufficiently alienated their supporters yet.)
Bear in mind that a lot of people care about alternative football only as a possible route towards getting high-level sport in their town; if further expansion of the NFL is unlikely, and franchise relocation always dubious, then a second major professional league seems to be the obvious way forward. You just know that there are bound to be many sports owners who would be considerably more interested in a UFL expansion team, should the league gain any traction at all, than in being one of the first people onto the metaphorical dance floor. The NFL commissioner has spoken on the record about the possibility of a developmental league some day; I think a lot of people would be happy if that was where the UFL eventually found its niche.

It's always nice to challenge some established patterns, too. The whole "world league" proposal - regardless of sport - won't go away, either; the NBA commissioner has talked openly about the possibility of European expansion, and there has been demonstrated to be some level of interest for American football in Europe. I note that the last NFL Europa season's attendance figures were its highest yet, indicating that there is a fan base in Frankfurt sufficient to support some sort of team, and the NFL International Series games have always drawn massively and sold out extremely quickly. This doesn't necessarily mean that UFL franchises outside the US would be guaranteed hits, but it certainly shows potential.

The XFL failed, in part, because the quality of their games was notoriously poor, not least because the players had little experience at playing together and so the teamwork was weak. It's not as if the XFL's players were necessarily bad; after all, there are thousands of players who can fill massive stadia in college football, and thus have demonstrated that they are by no means bad, but do not make it in the NFL. (Everything2, which as we all know is written by Wikipedia's more interesting writers after they've had a few drinks and so cannot be distracted from their ranting, has a fascinating analysis of its failure.) In contrast, the UFL at least has plenty of football expertise - as well as marketing expertise - behind it and would hopefully make wise decisions like ensuring there would be a proper pre-season so that the teams might get used to playing together and thus be able to produce attractive football to watch. This brings us back to what is speculated to make up part of the December 1st UFL announcement.

The question remains whether the UFL has any real hope of doing at least as well as other competitor football leagues that have existed; while several very rich executives have signed onto the project and they have a clear indication of what is required to be involved for the league to make it in the long haul, one poster to the UFL Access forums points out how little we know about the UFL so far, not least whether they have commitments from potential club owners willing to invest a rumoured $60 million per club on this new enterprise. (There was, at one point, a concept that the UFL itself might own a third of each club, an external owner another third and the fans the remaining thirds. That hasn't come to fruition; one cannot blame the credit crunch as such, but it might have had more luck as a concept three years or so ago.) Even if the UFL manages to get as far as having a first season, its extended success depends on it not losing so much money so quickly that the owners decide to abort early.

Accordingly, the UFL would probably be considered a major success, in alternative football terms, if it managed to re-establish Los Angeles and Las Vegas as professional American Football cities. I think most alternative football fans are interested in the ride that following the new league might provide, bearing in mind that there is so much that still needs to be done before the league ever kicks off. Yet, yet, there's so much potential in the football market that even a league that made many mistakes, but none fatal, might still be a thing of great beauty. Fingers firmly crossed!

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