Sunday, June 17, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Man who owns USFL's rights hopes to start in spring, work with NFL

That miserable annual spring-summer lull for football fans, when even NFL training camps seem impossibly far off, is something Jaime Cuadra knows well. Actually, he's making a considerable investment in it.

"I'm not a huge basketball fan," the San Diego businessman said. "So there's always such a void after the Super Bowl, and it would be great to have some football in the spring. And the USFL has a romantic kind of past, and people have a nostalgic feel for that league. It has such great brand awareness, even to this day. It would be so much better to start with a leg up and a league name people recognize."

So 30 years after the United States Football League made its short-lived challenge to the NFL's football supremacy, a new league will carry the same name this coming spring. Cuadra, 53, bought the rights to the USFL brand — he says it cost less than $1 million but more than $500,000 — but this league will take the opposite strategy of its namesake, avoiding any competition and hoping to work in conjunction with the NFL.

Cuadra knows well the carnage of failed pro leagues that have come and gone since the original USFL's three-year run ended in 1985. He said there are three lessons: don't play in the fall, don't pay exorbitant salaries, and play traditional, 100-yard football without gimmicks.

The new USFL has yet to name its first franchise, but the San Diego-based operation has laid out its basic model — an eight-team league initially, playing a 14-game schedule on Saturday nights from March to June with a four-team playoff.

Players are expected to earn about $3,000 per game, and with a 50-man roster, that creates an operating annual payroll of about $2.5 million per team, including coaches. Franchises will be owned and operated locally, and should be named by September — Cuadra is hoping for a first-year average attendance of 17,000 fans per game, with ticket prices no more than $35.

"We want to make this as fan-friendly as we possibly can," Cuadra said. "We would be ecstatic if we hit 20 (thousand fans), 25, 30, but our business model has us at about 17,000 in Year 1."

The original USFL went for the brass ring, placing teams in major NFL markets and landing top college standouts such as Herschel Walker, Jim Kelly and Steve Young. Its three-year run went from 1983-85, officially ending when its antitrust lawsuit against the NFL came back in 1987 with a judgment of just $3 in damages for the USFL.

Its new incarnation seeks to work with the NFL, providing development much like baseball's Triple-A minor leagues or the NBA's Developmental League, with players free to go directly from the USFL season to NFL preseason camps. Franchises will target markets without an NFL or MLB presence, with speculation on strong college areas such as Austin, Texas; Baton Rouge, La.; Birmingham, Ala.; and Raleigh-Durham, N.C.

The original USFL had a strong Florida presence, with the Tampa Bay Bandits as one of its most successful and well-attended franchises, later joined by the Jacksonville Bulls and the Orlando Renegades. Cuadra said his league has talked with potential ownership groups in Tallahassee, Orlando and Daytona Beach.

"We would love for (there to be) a Florida market," he said. "We think it's important to have football in Florida. With the colleges and universities there, there's a (wealth) of talent that doesn't make it to the NFL, not because they're not talented but because it's a numbers game. We'd love to have something going on in Florida and we're constantly talking to groups there."

Many fans in the state will already recognize some names involved with the league — Florida State legend and Hall of Fame receiver Fred Biletnikoff is on the board of advisers, as is former Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia, who played in the CFL before his NFL days, as well as one season with the UFL's Omaha Nighthawks in 2010. He said the development of young players in the USFL and the experience of pro football under NFL rules will help their progress.

"There aren't enough jobs out there," Garcia told the North County (Calif.) Times last week. "I'm finding this now from the representative side of the business. It's tough to get a player a crack at the next level. It's a really tough business. It's the elite of the elite … players who come into the NFL who are third-string QBs and never see the field, they don't ever get a chance to develop. That's where the USFL can really prepare players and give them that sort of opportunity."

Greg Auman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3346.

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