Two weeks ago, the United Football League - referring to the version of the sport known in the United States of America as football - kicked off its inaugural game in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Las Vegas Locomotives hosted the California Redwoods at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas at 6pm PST. You can watch the UFL games live at no cost online on their web site; if you're in the USA and your TV provider carries it, you can watch it on the Versus and HDNet channels. The next match features the Florida Tuskers hosting the California Redwoods, kicking off at 7pm Eastern on Saturday in the Citrus Bowl in Orlando; again that will be available online, but it's one of the games that will be broadcast in the USA on Versus.
If you're not a fan of American Football, this will mean nothing to you. If you are well-disposed towards the sport, I think the UFL is well worth following, and offer you ten reasons why football fans should give the new venture a try.
1. More high-quality, real football. The UFL is trying to enhance the established pro football landscape by basing itself mostly in underserved pro football markets like Las Vegas, Orlando and New York. (Specifically, that's New York City as opposed to New Jersey, mostly.) It's also playing most of its games on Thursdays and Fridays to avoid the majority of the NFL games being played on Saturdays and the majority of college games being played on Sundays. It isn't trying to compete by being the best football you'll see all week, but it won't be too far off, and it will generally be the best football available on the days it plays.
2. The NFL. The NFL is the most conservative of the major US sporting leagues in its operations, but also probably the most effective at squashing other pro outdoor play in the sport. (Baseball has its farm system and hockey has something similar, the NBA has its D-League and independent competition, and the NFL has no pro rival.) The NFL wouldn't support NFL Europe, even as it flourished in its later years; the extent of outreach is the NFL International Series. It's a staid product and worthy of competition; its competitors over the years shot themselves in their feet in various ways, which the UFL is so far avoiding.
3. High-quality players. About half of the players in the UFL have NFL experience, and the rest are close in calibre. Many (a quarter?) were drafted in the first three rounds. Some of the most celebrated standouts include Dexter Jackson, the MVP of Super Bowl 37; Simeon Rice and Todd Sauerbrun, each with three Pro Bowl appearances and the former with a Super Bowl ring to boot; Jermaine Wiggins, a Super Bowl winner who Georgia fans may recall, and so on. The quarterbacks are familiar, too - the Bills' J.P. Losman, the Jaguars' Quinn Gray and Brooks Bollinger who had a stint with the Jets - but another UFL QB, Shane Boyd, has already impressed and is an example of the lesser-known, sadly-ignored talent that the UFL has been able to develop.
4. Well-known coaches. Jim Fassel took the Giants to the Super Bowl and now oversees Las Vegas. Dennis Green and Jim Haslett have both taken their teams to NFC post-seasons and are looking to bring success to the UFL's California and Florida outfits. Ted Cottrell hasn't been a NFL head coach yet, but has an excellent record as a Defensive Co-ordinator. The coaching line-ups are well-qualified and experienced throughout, and detailed in full elsewhere.
5. No gimmicks. Some of you may recall a certain one-season wonder of a football league from 2001 which lost credibility through its part ownership and set non-NFL pro football back several years. While the XFL improved considerably in quality over the course of its season and suffered unduly from bad luck (for instance, one of the two games in the first week was a blowout and the other was competitive - guess which one people used to form their first impressions?), it struggled under the shackles of the McMahon WWE association. The UFL has football people through and through and deliberately plays an authentic game.
6. Small rule enhancements. The UFL isn't going to make ridiculous calls about inappropriate celebrations, as has ruined at least one or two football games so far this year; the overtime system ensures both teams get at least one possession, so it isn't decided by who wins the coin toss; a replay official (and a replay official alone) oversees all the reviews, which speeds the game up; the NFL's kludge-y "tuck" rule has been replaced by something simpler and more logical, the UFL's intentional grounding rule makes more sense and so on. It doesn't feel different at all and the hits are just as hard as anywhere else.
7. Reasonable ticket prices. NFL and college football tickets (at least, if you support a popular college team...) are often very hard to come by and attract extremely high prices. The UFL has set its stall out that its ticket prices will be very reasonable - the average is about $20 per ticket, and most grounds range from something like $10 to something like $50. It's fair to say that attendances for the first few games have not been massive, and discounts may sporadically be available; for instance, when the New York Sentinels host a game at the Mets' Citi Field, Mets ticket holders have picked up discounts. Certainly it'll be very hard to find that quality of football at a comparable price.
8. A whole new season. So the college season is half-way through, the NFL season is a third of the way through and there are likely to be quite a few people reading this whose teams have not impressed. (*raises hand grumpily*) It's not cheating to pick a UFL team and start supporting them as well. I would point to the Florida Tuskers containing, for instance, a reasonable representation of talent from Georgia's very own Dawgs, even if it may be anathema in some cases to root for a team whose name contains the word Florida.
9. National recognition. The UFL has managed to sign national TV deals with both Versus and HDNet even for their first season; an impressive feat to have every game televised, even if both channels might be considered mid-majors. The TV line-ups are full of established football talent - no Jim Rosses here - and the league has achieved a full slate of sponsors under difficult economic conditions. The league is catching the eye of the football industry; the business model, planning for a slow start and sustained growth, has been favourably commented upon. It took the NFL an awfully long time to catch more people's imagination than college football, and there are still parts of the US where it hasn't.
10. Following it from the start. Probably the most exciting thing about the league has been watching it develop and grow over the weeks and months; even though it has so far played only two rounds of games, you can already start to see the ways in which it is improving upon its initial shortcomings. The biggest challenge to date has been marketing and getting its name out there, though it is making progress on a local level. Challenging the NFL is the tallest order in US sports organisation, but the market is as big as it gets. The UFL has the funding and management talent for the long haul; take an interest now and you'll have been there before it got famous!
For much more detail about the league, the best places to look are the official web site, well-informed and lively fan site UFL Access (where, if I'm honest, I've been spending most of my online time recently) and Orlando blog Tusker House. The most comprehensive document about the league is probably the media guide; if you can handle a 87 MB .pdf file, download it from this web page.
Exciting times, and what a start!
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