The United Football League (UFL) may be kicking off its inaugural season on March 30th, but the story goes back much further. Since 2020 we’ve seen the XFL, TSL and USFL kickoff, and in an interesting twist, they all share a certain degree of connection.
The story starts in January 2018, when Vince McMahon announced that the XFL would be making a return in 2020.
McMahon founded the new XFL to create a league with fewer off-field controversies and faster, simpler play compared to the bigger National Football League (NFL), and one without the features inspired by professional wrestling or entertainment elements of its predecessor. The league and its eight teams were originally owned by McMahon’s Alpha Entertainment. Seasons ran from February to May, with each of the league’s teams playing a ten-game regular season, and four progressing to the playoffs to crown a season champion.
During 2019 the league partnered with Brian Woods’ and The Spring League to serve as a testing ground for their innovations prior to their 2020 kickoff. As the season grew closer, there were even talks that the two were in discussions for TSL to become a development league for the XFL.
But, we all know the story by now. Right in the middle of their first season, COVID came and took everything down with it; including the XFL. On March 12th, 2020, the XFL officially cancelled their season due to the pandemic. At the time the league was still working towards a season 2.
Unfortunately, the XFL suspended operations nearly a month later on April 10th. Then, only two days later, the league filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy. The XFL went up for sale, and after a few months of uncertainty, welcome news came for all XFL fans. In August it was announced that the XFL had been purchased by Dany Garcia, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and RedBird Capital.
The original intent was to return in 2021, but that changed as the year grew closer. Then, news started making the rounds that the XFL was in talks with the CFL about a potential partnership. But, after a few months of debate, the two decided to go their own way for now. The led the XFL to postpone kickoff to 2023, but this would be their last delay.
A player combine was held on June 18, 2022, the 2023 XFL Draft was held from November 15 to 17, and training camps began on January 8, 2023. This all led to the XFL finally returning to the field on February 18, 2023. After their first full season since 2020, the Arlington Renegades defeated the DC Defenders in the 2023 XFL Championship Game.
The Spring League
The Spring League (TSL) was an American football developmental league and scouting event (pro showcase) that played from 2017 to 2021 and was founded by Brian Woods. Aimed at professional athletes but not paying a salary or expenses, the league’s goal was to “serve as an instructional league and showcase for professional football talent”.
In October 2020 FS1 reached a multi-year agreement to televise The Spring League along with the option to acquire a minority stake in the league, with initial agreement to play a 6-team fall-season in late October and November 2020. The league began its fall season on October 27th with six teams competing in what was intended to be a 12-game format over four weeks in a bubble environment, based out of the San Antonio Alamodome.
All six teams had brands and names, including the returning Generals, Aviators, and four new teams: the Blues, Alphas, Conquerors and Jousters.
In November 2020, amid the then-resurgent COVID-19 pandemic, TSL announced that the league would be cancelling the final week of the season. The top two teams met in the final on December 15, at the Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Florida. The Generals finished as the first TSL champions, after beating the Aviators 37–14 in the final.
In April, TSL announced the 2021 season was to start on May 6, and would feature two new teams – the Linemen and Sea Lions (eight teams in total), competing in a six-week regular season from two hub cities: The North Division in Indianapolis, Indiana and the South Division in Houston, Texas. For the first time, one game every week will be broadcast on Fox including the championship game, while all other games will be broadcast on FS1 and FS2.
The Linemen beat the Jousters 26–23 in the first and only Mega Bowl, and won the TSL championship. Linemen QB Ryan Willis won both final and regular season MVP awards.
On June 3, 2021, Woods announced that he had acquired the remaining trademarks of the United States Football League with intent of launching a USFL-branded league in 2022, with Fox Sports remaining as a partner in the new league. What was to become of The Spring League remained, at the time, an unresolved question, but according to the initial announcement TSL was to continue, probably as a scouting showcase or developmental operation. It was later reported that TSL in no longer associated with the new USFL.
The original USFL played for three seasons, 1983 through 1985. The league played a spring/summer schedule in each of its active seasons. The 1986 season was scheduled to be played in the fall, directly competing against the long-established NFL. However, the USFL ceased operations before that season was scheduled to begin.
As mentioned above, Brian Woods was able to secure the trademarks for the long-defunct USFL. This ultimately led to FOX to revive the league after a successful test-run with The Spring League. FOX definitely had interest in spring football after partnering with the XFL and TSL before deciding to go all in on the USFL.
This was the fifth attempt to launch a league using USFL naming, including prior attempts in 1945, a league proposed in the 1960s by eventual 1980s USFL founder David Dixon, the aforementioned league that existed between 1983 and 1985, and in 2010.
On October 12, 2021, Tad Snider, the executive director of the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center Authority, announced that the league was in serious discussions with the board of directors of the BJCC about the possibility of the USFL playing all of its games in Birmingham, AL. According to initial information, USFL players/staff would be housed in Birmingham during the season for an estimated economic impact of about $15 million (47,000 hotel nights), while the league would play the bubble season at Protective Stadium and Legion Field.
The pitch could see as many as four teams playing in Birmingham in 2023. The teams would then be expected to play in their own cities by Season 3. 2023 saw this vision come to fruition. The league expanded their hub system to Canton, OH (Tom Benson), Detroit, MI (Ford Field) and Memphis, TN (Liberty Stadium). Memphis would be the home of the newest USFL franchise. After interest from Fred Smith, Owner of FedEx and original owner of the Showboats, the league decided to rebrand the Tampa Bay Bandits.
Ultimately, the Birmingham Stallions were a force to be reckoned with. During the two season stretch, the team only lost 3 games and claimed both USFL Championship.
United Football League (UFL)
This all leads us to present day. On September 19, Axios reported that the USFL was in advanced talks with the XFL to merge the two leagues prior to the start of their 2024 seasons. On September 28, the USFL and XFL officially announced their intent to merge. Specific details surrounding the merger were stated be announced at a later date. The merger would also require regulatory approval, which was granted November 30.
On December 31, during the FOX Sports NFL game broadcasts, it was announced that the USFL was merging with the XFL under the name “United Football League”, with kickoff set for March 30, 2024. The eight surviving teams were announced the following day on College GameDay, along with the alignment; the XFL and USFL will survive as separate conferences.
The UFL held a dispersal draft on January 5th to compile rosters from the eight teams that didn’t make the cut.
Each team was to allowed to protect up to 42 players from its 2023 roster and select up to 20 players from the rosters of teams that will not be moving forward in 2024 from their previous league.
Players not protected or selected on Friday will be available for all UFL teams to choose from, regardless of previous league. That process will take place during a second dispersal draft on Jan. 15.
Phase two will implement a draft-style process, allowing USFL and XFL teams to claim up to 20 more players who are in the pool. What makes this first draft unique, is that USFL teams can only pick athletes from dissolved teams on the USFL side. This ensures that the top tier talent from USFL teams will stick in their conference. The same goes for the XFL conference.
Once Phase 1-2 is complete, UFL organizations can have a maximum of 62 players secured.
A league-wide dispersal draft will be held to continue to fill out each UFL roster on January 15th. This will include all eight teams, who will be able to select players from pools of the remaining USFL and XFL players. During this draft, an XFL team (i.e. St. Louis Battlehawks) could draft a USFL player (i.e. from the New Jersey Generals).
Training camp for the UFL is set to begin February 24th in Arlington, TX. Each team will invite 75 players to camp, with rosters being set at 50 players once the season begins. Each UFL team will have 42 active players on game days, with a third quarterback rule as an inactive going into games.
The UFL will kickoff its inaugural season from Arlington, TX, which will see the XFL Champion Renegades take on the USFL Champion Birmingham Stallions.
This has been a long and interesting road, but we may be looking at the spring league that will stick. Both the USFL and XFL bring their own specialties to the table. Russ Brandon is coming from the XFL to serve as the UFL CEO. On the USFL side there’s Daryl Johnston coming in as Executive VP of Football Operations.
Johnston has been a mainstay in spring football working with the AAF, XFL (2020), USFL and now the UFL.
It’s interesting to look back and see how these spring leagues all tie together. In fact, it’s possible we wouldn’t see the UFL if it wasn’t for The Spring League, XFL or USFL.
What are you looking forward to the most in the UFL? What has been your favorite spring football moment? Let us know down in the comments below or join the conversation on Discord.