February 23, 2009 | last updated May 26, 2012 6:52 am
PIGSKIN DREAMS

Despite Odds, Football Startups Charge Ahead

PHOTO/STEVE MILNE-U.S. PRESSWIRE
PHOTO/STEVE MILNE-U.S. PRESSWIRE
New England Patriots quarterbacks Matt Cassel (left), who hadn't started a game since high school until Tom Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first game of the 2008 season, would have been able to gain playing time in either an NFL development league or an alternative professional league, according to the heads of two such startups.

The heads of a couple of new football leagues think they have found the right formula to attract fans to the nation's top spectator sport, and the gridiron battle is playing out right here in Connecticut.

Historically, professional startup football leagues don't stand much of chance. There was the United States Football League, the World Football League and, most recently, the XFL, which all shut down after just a few years, unable to generate a strong following.

Despite those failures and the nation's worst recession in generations, officials from the New Haven-based United National Gridiron League and the New York-based United Football League — which will play in Hartford — are charging ahead to launch their inaugural seasons this year, confident that they've learned a couple of things from the failures of past efforts.

An NFL Connection

Marvin Tomlin, chief executive officer of the New Haven-based UNGL, knows his league can't possibly compete with the talent of the National Football League, so he's decided to join forces. Tomlin is positioning the UNGL as a developmental league for the NFL, similar to Major League Baseball's minor league system or the National Hockey League's American Hockey League.

Though the eight teams in the UNGL's opening season are not directly affiliated with NFL teams, the league will give college graduates with fringe NFL potential a chance to prove themselves on the field instead of warming the bench for an NFL squad. Tomlin said he and the NFL have been engaged in talks over the past year and a half about his developmental league.

"[The NFL] said the timing was right, and they will be like a big brother looking over us for the first year to see how everything pans out," Tomlin said.

New Opportunities

Tomlin and United Football League Commissioner Michael Huyghue identified New England Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel as a player who would have been a perfect fit for their respective leagues before rising to stardom while filling in for an injured Tom Brady in the 2008 season.

Cassel, 26, had not started a game since high school and would have likely remained on the Patriots' bench if it weren't for Brady's misfortune to go down with a season-ending knee injury in September.

Had Cassel had a chance to shine in another professional league or a developmental league, he could have paved his own way to a starting role in the NFL, Tomlin and Huyghue said.

In addition to providing underplayed athletes opportunities to start, UFL Commissioner Michael Huyghue said his league is targeting large, "underserved" markets the NFL misses. Having started his career in the NFL and rising to the executive level in the Jacksonville Jaguars' front office, Huyghue said the UFL talent pool will mostly consist of players either cut from the NFL or those stuck in the perpetual backup role.

"Fans want pro football. There's a real thirst for football in this country, and everyone recognizes that," said Huyghue, a Windsor native.

Recessionary Effects

Regardless, the recession is having an effect on the leagues' plans.

The UFL had to scale back its kickoff season, despite having $30 million invested from major names, including Google executive Tim Armstrong, investment banker Bill Hambrecht and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's husband, Paul.

Instead of following original plans for six teams playing in a 10-week season, four teams — three of which are split between two cities, including New York/Hartford — will play in a six-week season.

Huyghue said he does not think the league risks anything by starting slow out of the gate.

"While it may not have the sizzle of a bigger, full-scale launch, we have to be mindful of the economy," Huyghue said.

Meanwhile, the New Haven-based UNGL was set for a February start until the league's primary investor suddenly withdrew its $15 million contribution. Tomlin said the league is now set for a March start but is still trying to make up the investment gap.

"It was disappointing on our end," Tomlin said. "We had all of our general managers, all of our coaching staffs, all of our roster and facilities in place."

Affordable Fun

While the recession is affecting their launch plans, the startups hope the tough economic times will present an affordable option to viewing professional sports. UFL ticket prices will range somewhere between $20 and $25, and UNGL tickets will cost between $12 and $15. The average price of an NFL ticket last season was $72.70, according to SportsBusiness Daily.

Despite the good deal, it will be hard to convince people to shell out money for an unproven product, said Darin David, managing director at the Dalla-based sports marketing group Millsport. Even the popular Arena Football League canceled its 2009 season because of financial troubles.

"They would have been better holding off," David warned. "It's too tough right now."

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