USFL wins with football and fun, not politics

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On Sunday the Philadelphia Stars will play for the USFL championship just as they did over 30 years ago (though then representing Baltimore) in the last season finale of the doomed 1980s version of the league. They will take on the Birmingham Stallions to cap the inaugural season of this second version of the USFL.

New sports leagues are risky endeavors, but the USFL has had some good success, owing in no small part to the fact that it has strictly avoided politics and the culture wars.

Fox executive Mike Mulvihill said of the USFL experiment, “All we wanted to do is demonstrate that spring football can do viewership at the levels of Premier League, NHL regular season, Formula One or MLS. … We want to show we belong in that category, and I think that happened.” A big part of the recipe for the ratings was that the USFL was truly football for football’s sake. And in sports these days, that is much rarer than it should be. Fox has renewed coverage for next year.

In just the past few years we have see Major League Baseball remove the All Star Game from Georgia over a voting bill that wound up leading to record turnout, we saw Black Lives Matter logos emblazoned on NBA courts, ESPN, once the home of sports, now often resembles left wing cable news with a few scores scrolling by occasionally.


But by the time the USFL kicked off this Spring there had already been a backlash brewing against the non-stop politicking in professional sports. It might have been tempting two years ago for the nascent league to try to make a social justice splash, but instead they stuck to the gridiron. And the fans responded.

If anything, the appeal of the USFL has been that it takes viewers even deeper into the sport of football than the NFL or college games do. We hear the plays coming in from coach to quarterback, see how receiver routes are run, analyze big plays with the players who made them in real time sideline interviews. Not all of the gimmicks worked, the helmet cameras are a bit wonky, but in general, it’s a new look under the hood of pro football.

One example of how well the USFL has handled, or rather ignored, cultural issues was the hiring of Steve Strimling as head of officiating. Strimling is openly gay, and a smattering of stories about his role appeared in LGB&T outlets. But the league made no big deal about it. They hired the best person for the job who just happens to be gay. Isn’t that actual progress, instead of performative progressivism?

Going forward the league should stick to its apolitical programming. This year, all the games were played in the same stadium in Birmingham, next year this expands to all 8 teams playing in 2-4 markets, and eventually each team in their own city. These could be great family friendly events that fans can escape into, but only if the focus stays on football and fun.

As the Stars and Stallions set to clash on Sunday night Americans seem more curious than convinced about the USFL. It has a long way to go to create the kind of passionate team loyalty essential in the sports business, and like its predecessor will struggle to compete for top talent with the powerhouse NFL. But even the latter is an opportunity.


A lot of the wokeness in sports comes from its stars, millionaires like LeBron James and Steve Kerr, always quick with a left wing quip. But for the USFL, as is the case for other small leagues like Major League Soccer, the team and the fans can be at the heart of franchise culture. If the USFL can do that then there is no reason to think it won’t continue to thrive.


So may the best team win on Sunday night and may America find it compelling. The USFL has wisely punted on politics and millions of Americans are grateful. 


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