Former JMU quarterback Vad Lee plays in the USFL for Pittsburgh. 

Multiple upstart spring football leagues attempted to fill the yearly void after the conclusion of the college football and NFL seasons in the last decade. The latest attempt at spring football — the revamped United States Football League (USFL) — is heading into its sixth week of the season, but the USFL already shows signs that it may not be around much longer. 

The USFL was founded in 1982 and is the only pro football league to compete with the NFL since the NFL-AFL merger in 1966 as it drew top-tier talent. Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly famously opted to begin his professional career with the USFL’s Houston Gamblers over the Buffalo Bills, who drafted him in the first round of the 1983 NFL Draft. The USFL had high-profile ownership with New Orleans Saints co-founder David Dixon creating the league and Donald Trump owning the New Jersey Generals. Legal troubles in 1986 ultimately doomed the league after three seasons.

The modern USFL is trying to recapture its success from the ’80s. Unfortunately, lightning won’t strike twice, as the new USFL resembles the original in name only.

The June 3, 2021, announcement of the league’s return came one year after the rebooted XFL ceased due to COVID-19 and two years after the Alliance of American Football (AAF) folded in the middle of its inaugural season. Right off the bat, the USFL had to set itself apart from the other leagues and overcome spring football fatigue.

While both leagues failed, the AAF and XFL had their share of successes. The AAF smartly chose to put its teams in football-crazed cities without NFL teams like Birmingham, Alabama, and San Antonio, Texas. The USFL made the strange decision to put its teams in cities with NFL teams but to solely play games in Birmingham. This was likely done to eliminate travel expenses but unintendedly made it so that the teams couldn’t garner fanbases — the only exception being the Birmingham Stallions, who’ve been the only team to draw a crowd this season with the rest playing in near-empty stadiums.

TV ratings are on the decline for the USFL. The league’s opening game, the New Jersey Generals vs. the Birmingham Stallions, drew 3.07 million viewers on NBC and Fox — a comparable showing to the AAF’s opening game on CBS. In week two, USFL ratings plummeted by 57%, with none of the league’s five games cracking a million viewers. 

The major factor hindering the USFL is that it lacks distinct branding. The XFL’s reputation was built on an “extreme” brand of football that set it apart from the NFL, and league founder Vince McMahon’s showmanship made the league like no other. The USFL has neither of those. 

The only remotely unique aspect of the USFL is its extra-point system. A kick from the 15-yard line earns one point, and teams can earn two or three points by attempting a scrimmage play from the two- or 10-yard line, respectively — an idea pioneered in the AAF. Take away this rule and you’re left with another lackluster attempt at second-tier football.

USFL rosters lack recognizable names to draw in viewers. The AAF showcased well-known players like Trent Richardson, Christian Hackenberg and, for a brief time, former Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. The XFL had Cardale Jones and Aaron Murray. Even the lesser-known Fan Controlled Football (FCF) brought former NFL superstar wide receiver Terrell Owens out of retirement. The biggest name in the USFL is Paxton Lynch — known as one of the biggest NFL draft busts in history.

Even the players who end up on USFL rosters aren’t guaranteed security. The league rushed its offseason and allotted one month for practices between the draft and the start of the season. This not only contributed to sloppy play in week one but also made players vulnerable to injury. New Jersey Generals' first-round pick Ben Holmes didn’t play a single snap in the USFL as he was released on April 1 after injuring his foot in practice.

With the XFL returning in 2023 backed by the financing of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, the USFL has an uphill battle. The XFL announced April 11 that it entered a partnership with the NFL Alumni Academy, providing its players with in-season training and exposure to NFL scouts. Players like Washington Commanders’ quarterback Taylor Heinicke, Atlanta Falcons’ kicker Younghoe Koo and Carolina Panthers’ quarterback P.J. Walker gained exposure from the XFL, and we could see more XFL players make the jump to the NFL in the future with the new partnership.

The XFL has the financial capital to properly pull off spring football and the brand exposure to put players on NFL scouts’ radars, making the XFL the destination for players over the USFL. With any hope, the XFL’s return next year will finally give football fans the spring football experience they deserve.

The USFL revival seemed to be hastily thrown together as a last-ditch effort to corner the spring football market. With subpar play and no individuality, the USFL will be dead and forgotten by next year.

Contact Logan Skinner at skinnela@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.