Monday, February 01, 2010

NFL Squabbles Could Lead to UFL Success
B. Clifton Burke

While the negotiations between the NFL and its players over a new collective bargaining agreement continue to stall and worry its fans, a new football league, the United Football League, is quietly building momentum and could stand to gain a swell of attention should the NFL owners lockout their players in 2011.
The general attitude toward the NFL's future beyond next season is as bleak as the Mayan calendar.  The owners claim the players haven't made a serious counter-proposal to their original offer.  The players say ownership isn't listening to their demands.  They have met 11 times with little progress of any kind and the possibility of a work-stoppage grows.  
The main sticking point is the amount of team revenue that must go to player salaries.  The NFLPA wants that percentage to stay at 60; the owners want it down to 42.  The thinking is that 51 percent of team revenue earmarked for player salaries could end the impasse and allow the games to continue uninterrupted.  It remains likely, however, that serious negotiations will not heat up until closer to the March 5, 2011 deadline. Until then, expect both sides to do their fair share of posturing for the public's support.  
If the NFL is unable to make a deal on time, and if there are no games played on the first Sunday after Labor Day, then many fans could very well tune in on Thursday and Friday nights to watch the UFL instead.  
The landscape of the UFL as it enters its second season will look much different from the “premier” season of a year ago.  Two existing teams will change locations---The California Redwoods (based in San Francisco) move to Sacramento and will change its name, and the New York Sentinels will go to Hartford, Connecticut.  The league also said it will expand by two more teams in 2010, bringing the league total to six.  
The two new sites have not yet been made official, but UFL Commissioner Michael Huyghue announced that either Omaha, Portland, or Salt Lake City would be selected for one of the expansion spots.  Other cities rumored as possibilities to land the second team include San Antonio, Memphis, and Los Angeles.  
With more teams, the season will grow to 10 weeks, beginning in September and ending on Thanksgiving Day.  UFL games will be aired on Mark Cuban's cable network Versus for the upcoming season, but the league has not announced a television deal in place beyond that.  
The UFL is taking some unorthodox methods to ensure its survival.  Unlike start-up leagues in the past where one or two owners outspend the rest of the teams and ultimately kill the whole operation, the UFL has hired one person, Rick Mueller, to perform as general manager for all four teams as a way to properly allocate its resource of talent.  
That talent is more impressive than one might first imagine.  There are many players and coaches with NFL experience, and a majority of the UFL front-office personnel also worked with the NFL in the past.  Each roster includes a handful of reputable players that football fans will recognize, and last year's four head coaches were Jim Haslett, Jim Fassel, Dennis Green and Ted Cottrell; not bad.
Fassel led his team, the Las Vegas Locomotives, to the league's first championship with the help of the game's MVP, running back DeDe Dorsey.
Dorsey, who was released by the Cincinnati Bengals, found a roster spot on the Locos and went on to average 6.4 yards a carry and five touchdowns on the season, tops in each category.  
“[The UFL] was a fun experience,” Dorsey said.  “the league has some hall-of-fame caliber coaches, it's some quality football being played there and I think it will stay around for a while.”
Dorsey said it is possible that NFL players could be interested in playing in the UFL should they be locked out in 2011.
“I could see it,” Dorsey said.  “It would be a good way for guys not to stay idle.  It's a chance to stay in shape and play good football.”
In 2008, the NFLPA instructed player agents to consider the UFL as a viable option for their clients.  Commissioner Huyghue told agents that his league would compete with the NFL for players drafted in the third to seventh rounds in the NFL Draft, and has since seen UFL rosters filled with many players formerly on NFL practice squads.  Even veterans like Simeon Rice and Dexter Jackson have made their way to the new league.  
No matter how big the name, though, none of these guys were rich last year.  
The UFL paid a league-average of $35,000 to each player, with quarterbacks making a little more and punters and kickers making a little less; miniscule next to that of the NFL league-minimum of around $300,000.  What attracts many players to the UFL, however, is not only a chance to play and stay in football shape, but also the fact that the league offers free housing to its players during the season equipped with what it claims 'first-rate facilities'.
“It helps,” Dorsey said of the housing program.  “Not having to worry about something like that makes it easier, and I think that is something else that will help this league improve.”
Mueller, the UFL's general manager, said in an interview with Pro Football Weekly last November that clubs will gain more autonomy as the league expands and becomes more established, but that a firm and equal salary base is important for the league to control costs.
Game rules were also somewhat unusual in 2009 in that they were designed to assist the quarterback.  Defenses must always use four defensive linemen and can only blitz one additional player.  This rule was set up to allow inexperienced quarterbacks to become more comfortable facing pro-style defenses and to ensure the QB's health.  It is said that this rule will be eliminated in the upcoming season, though the UFL has not yet made such an announcement.  
Like the rules, the cities where the teams play and the league's unsightly uniforms worn a year ago, there are many scheduled changes that will improve the UFL next year and beyond.  Dorsey sees the league as a work-in-progress too, but is encouraged about its future.  
“Whenever you're working from the ground up, you're going to face some trials, but [the UFL] is making strides and is only getting better.” he said.
If DeDe is right, the NFL has another big reason to end its squabbling and get a deal done soon.  Otherwise, the UFL may get more of our viewership, more of our favorite players and ultimately more of our money; all things the NFL has worked hard to corner in the past 50 years.  
As the AAFL and the AFL have proven in the past, the NFL, at times, can be effectively challenged; I believe this could be one of those times.  If there is an NFL lockout in 2011, I certainly hope that is the case.


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