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Jacksonville’s UFL Opens Season 2

The United Football League kicks off their second season on September 18, when the Hartford Colonials host the Sacramento Mountain Lions and the Las Vegas Locomotives take on the Florida Tuskers.

Yes, those are real teams, this really is their second year of play and the league is actually based in Jacksonville, with their administrative offices located downtown.

Michael Huyghue, former Vice-President of Football Operations for the Jacksonville Jaguars, is the league’s commissioner. He’s someone who is not accustomed to losing. During Huyghue’s tenure with the Jaguars, the team became the winningest franchise in expansion history, achieving two AFC Central Division Championships and an unprecedented two AFC Championship appearances.

Huyghue is very ambitious, and that’s a good thing, because putting together a professional football league from scratch is no small task.

“Some of the same ingredients to starting an NFL franchise are going into building this league,” Huyghue told the Florida Times-Union last summer. “Our idea is that we can develop teams that have the same collection of players as on an NFL expansion team. As long as the NFL doesn’t expand, there is room for another league with those type of players.”

Another key UFL executive who had early ties to the Jaguars is Rick Mueller. He served as the team’s Director of College Scouting in 1998-99 and was in charge of his initial college draft in 1999. Ten years later, Mueller was acting as General Manager of all four of the league’s teams, but this season has shifted his focus to the task of helping build the UFL’s newest franchise, the Omaha Nighthawks.

Figuring out how to scale a brand new league has been one of the biggest challenges. Building an alternative to the NFL is something that has been tried before and failed every time. Most of these past attempts involved trying to play football at different times of the year, but Huyghue has made it clear that the UFL is happy to take to the field at the same time as their bigger cousin.

“Playing in the Fall was critical from a fan-interest standpoint. Fans are accustomed to watching football in the Fall,” Huyghue said.

The XFL and USFL both played Spring football, trying to get out of the way of the NFL. But another thing both of those failed leagues had in common was an excess of under-performing franchises. The UFL seems to have learned that lesson, taking on smart partners (including billionaire Mark Cuban) and limiting the number of teams while a fan base is established. Despite playing in the Fall, they don’t directly compete with NFL games, because the majority of UFL games are on Friday and Saturday nights.

Thus far, to the surprise of many, their strategy seems to be working. The UFL kicked-off with only four teams in 2009, expands to fi ve in 2010 and is expected to spread to as many as eight cities by 2011.

A UFL game broadcast on Versus or HDNet (the league’s two national broadcast partners) looks quite a bit like an NFL game you might see on your local station.  They have expensive and fl ashy graphics, iconic music and a well-known team of reporters and former jocks (such as Kordell Stewart) working the sidelines.  The new league has tried very hard to make sure their product looks and sounds like real professional football, avoiding complicated gimmicks or twists on the rules that fans are already familiar with.

The premier season’s championship game, played the day after Thanksigivng, saw the undefeated Florida Tuskers take on the Las Vegas Locos. The Locos and Tuskers saved the best for last, as 27 of the game’s 37 points were scored in the fourth quarter and overtime, and the lead changed hands three times in a matter of 7 minutes.

That final game helped to illustrate how the quality of play and competitiveness of the UFL games improved as the season went along.  In fact, of the final nine games of the 2009 season, five were decided by a margin of one touchdown or less.

OTHERS HAVE TRIED, FAILED

The UFL is not the first attempt to create another professional football league to compete with, or complement, the NFL.

Most recently was the XFL, a Spring league created as a joint-venture between the WWE and NBC. The league played one season in 2001, folding due to low television ratings.

Featuring eight teams, the XFL initially had agreements to broadcast games on NBC every Saturday night, plus Sunday games on UPN, and cable network TNN. The XFL got off to a strong start with a lot of hype, but the product on the field ultimately failed to deliver. Adding to their challenge, the fact that the league was co-owned by NBC meant that ESPN (owned by ABC) and Fox Sports Net (owned by Fox) largely refused to cover the games.

The league’s most interesting player was Tommy Maddox, who had started his NFL career with the Broncos in 1992, played for the L.A. Rams in 1994 and eventually washed out into Arena Football. By 2001, he had joined the XFL’s Los Angeles franchise, the Xtreme, and lead the team to a championship win. Following the league’s failure, Maddox rejoined the NFL. He was signed by the Steelers and lead the team into the playoffs in 2002, being named NFL Comeback Player of the Year.

Other modern-era attempts to compete with the NFL included the World Football League (1974-1975) and the U.S. Football League (1983-1987). Jacksonville had a franchise in both of these leagues, the Sharks in the WFL and the Bulls in the USFL.

The Sharks failed to complete their first season, getting shut down by the league for excessive debt and poor ticket sales. The folding of the Jacksonville Sharks meant that the Gator Bowl would not host the first ever World Bowl, as had been originally scheduled.

The Bulls were significantly more successful and played for two seasons, helping to put the city on the map and start a drive to eventually bring an NFL franchise to the area.

Coincidentally, Jacksonville was also slated to be the host of the 1986 USFL Championship Game, but that game was never played. It would not be until February 2005 that the city would finally host a championship pro-football game, Super Bowl XXXIX.

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