ST. PETERSBURG — If you ask players, the first-year United Football League has been like a hidden gem.
There's the talent level, as coach Jim Haslett said his undefeated Florida Tuskers — who play the Las Vegas Locomotives tonight at Tropicana Field — have more than a dozen guys who could land back on NFL rosters or practice squads this fall.
There are the story lines, as many players are battling back from injuries — or off-the-field issues — with the hope they can prove they can still play on Sundays.
And there's the college-like camaraderie, with them all living together in a hotel.
"We're having a blast together," said Tuskers running back Tatum Bell, who played five seasons with the Broncos and Lions. "I go to sleep with a big smile on my face every night. … I was telling one of my teammates, 'I'm not going to know what to do when this is over.' "
While the UFL has former NFL coaches and players, and similar rules, the fan following has been "disappointing," Haslett said.
The average attendance for the four-team league is 11,982, with the California Redwoods playing in front of 6,341 on Oct. 17 at San Francisco's AT&T Park.
Haslett and Tuskers offensive coordinator Jay Gruden say the league could have done a better marketing job. The Tampa Bay Rays, who own a minority piece of the Tuskers, have tried, arranging for a postgame concert by Grammy-nominated rock band Switchfoot tonight.
Commissioner Michael Huyghue said concerts and promotions with the military are "not all working the way you think." He said the league has been its "own worst enemy" in terms of playing on different nights, which was by design, as this was more than anything an experimental year to see what works.
But Huyghue said while "we would have liked to have seen about 20,000 (fans)," they had budgeted accordingly, so the lack of attendance won't affect their financial model; they plan to expand by two teams next season.
The UFL aimed to enter "underserved" football markets (Orlando, New York, Northern California and Las Vegas) but has run into competition. Case in point: tonight South Florida hosts West Virginia in a huge Big East game in Tampa. The UFL's New York Sentinels hosted the California Redwoods on Thursday night at Giants Stadium, with Game 2 of the World Series going on in the Bronx.
Players acknowledge the challenges but hope it doesn't turn into another league that fades, like the AFL and USFL.
"I hope it takes off," said Tuskers quarterback Brooks Bollinger, the UFL's leading passer. "The NFL is great, but this is a lot of fun, too. There's a real good vibe to it. Everyone is kind of on an even playing field. There's no one guy that's making $20 million and the next guy making $300,000. … It feels a bit like college. That's the stuff that when you get to the NFL you miss."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.