Competing League Coming (Then Going)

The NFL faces another challenge from a rival football league. Unlike the most recent challenge -- the WWE-inspired XFL -- the United Football League is prepared to challenge the NFL at old-school football. But the bigger questions facing the new league are who will watch it and, more importantly, who will air it?

The sports world was mildly abuzz Wednesday with the announcement that a rival league is forming to challenge the NFL. A league calling itself the United Football League includes such heavy hitters as one of the top dogs for Google Inc. and Dallas Mavericks renegade Mark Cuban as faceplates.

The NFL declined comment on the matter, but there's no reason for the NFL to be overly concerned about the potential new rival. Why? Where are they going to televise games?

Both the NBA and NHL have shown why they aren't truly mainstream professional sports and each was on display last night. The NBA is at the conference championship level and if you want to see those games, you need to tune in cable channels like ESPN and TNT. Even worse is the NHL. Wednesday night was Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals and the game was carried on the cable network Versus – which is hard for many casual cable TV viewers to even locate. Even when the league has broadcast games on NBC, an overtime playoff game was pushed over to Versus between the third period and the overtime. Why? So NBC could do pre-race coverage of the Preakness Stakes. In Wednesday's Game 2, the 1-0 win by Anaheim was seen on Versus, while NBC carried two hours of a show called "Most Outrageous Moments" – a collection of raucous bloopers and injuries.

The same fate is likely to be true for the new UFL. Unlike the last attempt to challenge the NFL – the ill-fated XFL – football is intended to be the primary source of entertainment, not wrestlers cutting promos and cheerleaders that look like no strangers to a stripper pole. They come in with good intentions and hope to achieve the success that the AFL had as being a legitimate rival and the lesser success that the USFL enjoyed by enticing some of the top college stars away.

The reality is that even the XFL attempted to make a splash in the football market, and it had a national TV contract with NBC. The NFL has successfully eliminated that loophole by incorporating all four of the major television networks in its latest TV contract as well as working its own NFL Network into the mix. CBS carries the AFC contract, FOX has the NFC contract, NBC has weekly Sunday Night games and ESPN (owned along with ABC by the Disney Corporation) holds the Monday night contract.

If any of the major networks were to start carrying the UFL, the NFL could easily flex its muscle and threaten to take off the NFL in its next bid package. Having the luxury of being able to bid on contracts with your own network should be a frightening concept to anyone – much less someone trying to fight against the league.

Most people in the initial reaction to the UFL (aside from laughing) are saying that the league will be viewed as inferior because of the power and lure of the NFL. The belief is that the only players that will come out as blue-chip college prospects will be the greedy types that are more about money than playing football. The rest of the league will consist of players who "couldn't cut it" in the NFL.

But more important is that, with the current television contract status of the NFL, all four major networks are involved in deals with the NFL right now and that pursuing a deal with any new league would be akin to financial suicide. With the power the NFL wields at this time, it's unlikely any TV network would want to upset the league by helping a competitor. The NFL didn't feel obligated to comment on the announcement of the UFL plan to begin play next summer. Why should they? Without a network TV deal, the new league is doomed from the start, which precludes why the NFL should comment.

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