Legend has it that you don't tug on Superman's cape, you don't spit into the wind, you don't pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger and you don't mess around with the NFL. A financial whiz named Bill Hambrecht is challenging the last of those assertions. An article by Joe Nocera in the forthcoming Play, an occasional New York Times weekend supplement on sports, reports that Hambrecht is in the nascent stages of formulating the United Football League as a rival to the country's most powerful sports league. He's teamed up with Tim Armstrong, who has deep pockets thanks to his association with Google, and has installed a C.E.O. and C.O.O. with NBA experience. They've even signed up an owner for one of the eight planned teams - Mark Cuban.
So the first step in Hambrecht’s plan is to enter big cities where the N.F.L. isn’t. As Mark Cuban put it to me in an e-mail, “There are quite a few good-sized non-N.F.L. cities that can support a pro team.” So far, the U.F.L. has decided to put teams in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Mexico City. (Cuban is considering taking the Las Vegas franchise.) Each owner will put up $30 million, giving him an initial half-interest in the team; the league will own the other half. But eventually the fans themselves will become shareholders — because each team is going to sell shares to the public. Then the owner, the league and the fans will each own a third of every franchise.
Can it work? The NFL is only in 29 of the top 50 markets in the United States so there are certainly locations with a population that could support a professional football team. As for players, Hambrecht believes that his league could offer more competiitve and more secure contracts for low-round draft picks and players from the Arena and Canadian leagues than the ones that the NFL's collective bargaining agreement allows them to sign. Unlike the USFL there's no plan to challenge the NFL for the highest profile players and the $30 million buy-in is paltry when compared to the $800 million it takes to get an expansion franchise. The growth of cable television and outrageous television rights fees for mainstream pro sports makes it easier to secure space on programming schedules and judging from the growth of the Arena league there's a thirst for football in this country that can't be quenched.
The three cities mentioned above plus, for the sake of argument, San Antonio, Orlando, Portland, Sacramento and Salt Lake City would give the league eight teams in markets of more than or close to a million people. If they scheduled their games on Friday nights, something the NFL is barred from doing, there's a real opportunity to make a go of it. The relative ease of ownership for wealthy investors who aren't able to get a NFL team makes the chances of success even better. Guys like Cuban would put a lot into their teams and would guarantee them loads of media coverage. The league is planning to play its first preseason games next summer, expect to hear a lot about the UFL between now and then.