Arguably the most interesting thing to happen in English-language sport today (Felipe Sco-who?) is the announcement of firm detail from the fledgling United Football League, an initially US-based competition in professional American Football. Skip the official site, though, and get all your information from UFL Access, a well-informed and very well-written fan site with a vibrant web forum. I'm not normally a big web forum person, but have enjoyed this one.
The inaugural "premiere season" of the UFL is rather smaller in scale than people were hoping. Initial plans for eight (or later six) franchises, each owned externally, have been put off until 2010, with the investors they have attracted concentrating their efforts on a short season with home-and-away fixtures between four teams and an eventual play-off. The official press release names the four teams as Las Vegas/Los Angeles, New York/Hartford, Orlando and San Francisco/Sacramento; it seems likely that the split-site teams will play two of their home matches in one location and a third in another. Adding further cities still is not impossible, though the number of 2009 teams shall be four. (Five is right out.) In 2010, there should - could? - be sufficient investment to revert to the original plans for external ownership, one city per franchise and so on.
I posted about the UFL three posts (and three months, sigh) ago. It continues to fascinate me mostly at the level of geeking out about sports organisation, plus new ventures are always fascinating, plus taking swings at the NFL is always admirably ambitious, even if this one turns out to be a swing and a miss. Whether the UFL makes it or not, it will resolve the question "Can you found and fund a sports organisation in the style of many 21st-century technology companies?" The people on board have significant Wall Street and Silicon Valley experience, plus there are enough smart cookies on the football side to avoid inauthenticity. Oh, and the leader of the new investment group is the husband of Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the USA's House of Representatives.
The UFL faces many difficult challenges. While arguably the time to strike a new venture is now while so few of them are breaking ground, investment has been scarce and starting from a four-team basis will make the uphill struggle even longer, littered with corpses of other pro football ventures after the NFL extracted the juiciest parts. It should be a very entertaining ride, nevertheless, even if the web forum is as much of an attraction as the entity itself. (For much of late '07 and early '08, I was struggling and failing to write an article for here claiming that the proposed AAFL had hit written all over it and being negative about the UFL's chances...) The lead writer, Nation Hahn, is very good at what he does; probably the best starting-point is his two-part primer (part one, part two) of the UFL's first 21 months. His personal blog is fine, too.
Being sappy and egotistical, I wish him well at least in part because I recognise some of myself in him - or, more precisely, choose to project some of myself onto him. Let me tell you about my wonderful first job. I was a self-employed teleworking contractor working on the now virtually defunct web site of the Mind Sports Olympiad, and at the Mind Sports Olympiad events themselves. The concept was to establish an event, and a movement, that would do for mental sports like chess, bridge, poker, backgammon, go and so on what the Olympic Games does for physical ones. Compare with the more recent World Mind Sports Games. The Mind Sports Olympiad events in the UK are sputtering on annually, but have really been tailing off over the last few years; the smaller Cambridge events are rolling on and we have allies who do similar things, sometimes with our brand, in the Czech Republic and elsewhere.
The event was only a week or two per year, though. The vast majority of the upkeep of the web site pertained to the Mindzine, with news from all the aforementioned mental activities and anything else we could just about shoehorn in. We were very good at what we did, the team was lovely (I particularly happily enjoy remembering working with sir_gareth, amuzulo, godlovesevery1 and many others; ericklendl wrote a fine series for us once) and the work was fun. There were just two severe problems. One: surprisingly, painfully, unintuitively few people were interested in mind sports plural; there are more chess players or go players or poker players than generally-interested dilettantes who span the field. (I still don't want to believe this is necessarily correct.) Two: we didn't have a revenue stream.
This second problem was a rather severe one, and many investors ended up losing chunky sums that they had put into it. Many of the web site workers, myself firmly included, ended up not being paid for the last several months of work and there just wasn't anything left to sue. It was strange, it was irrational, it was built upon a big idea and it was pretty much the way things "worked" in the first .com bubble. Failures are useful feedback, though it's never clear whether a failure was due to an inherently bad idea or due to a bad execution of a potentially good idea. Having some self-employment experience on my CV probably didn't hurt me in terms of getting my later job, even though the transfer of skills was not an obvious one and nobody seemed particularly interested in the nature of self-employment.
And from here, it's not such a stretch to draw comparisons to the UFL. I dearly hope it makes it in a way that the MSO did not; it's a similar swing at a massive target, and there seem to be a lot of excellent talent, resources and good thinking behind it. Much as the MSO was a wonderful ride at the time, I have great confidence that the UFL will offer a fine ride, probably a much finer one, and think that UFL Access in particular will provide a grandstand seat from which to enjoy the ride.