Can Fledgling Four-Team, Seven-City Pigskin League Prosper? This Former Bay Area Pro Football Owner Thinks So

Categories: Business, Sports

Can a new pro football league survive this economic blitz?
The WFL, the USFL, the AFL, the CFL-USA, the WLAF -- and who could forget the XFL (He hate me, he hate me not)? The sporting world's mausoleum is dusted with a veritable alphabet soup of busted football leagues. Will the forthcoming United Football League join this legion of the doomed? The signs are there; let us count the ways:

  • The league will feature four teams playing in seven cities, a geographical oddity that may perterb fans and could possibly lead to homicidal behavior from the guys who type up newspaper headlines and agate pages (take it from someone who knows). The teams: Las Vegas-Los Angeles, New York-Hartford, Orlando, and Sacramento-San Francisco (two games will be played at AT&T Park -- and the team hasn't been named yet). 

  • The league will kick off in October and conclude its six-week round-robin at around Thanksgiving Weekend -- competing against the National Football League, college, and high school football.

  • Teams' rosters will be filled by players unable to make the cut at the NFL level -- and Americans have not typically reacted joyously to second-tier pro leagues.

And yet, there are some positive signs. League founder Bill Hambrecht, a San Francisco investment banker, is not the type to toss $50 million down the toilet. And one of the leading investors is Paul Pelosi -- as in husband of the most powerful woman in the world Paul Pelosi.

One Bay Area man who loved and lost when it comes to kick-starting a pro football league is Tad Taube, the former owner of the Oakland Invaders of the United States Football League (in fact, Hambrecht was his limited partner). And Taube isn't ready to write off the UFL as another soon-to-be drop-kicked league yet.

Tad Taube
"Obviously the NFL doesn't even come close to satisfying the thirst -- really, it's an addiction -- the U.S. has for football. And the monopoly of the NFL makes it impossible for most people to watch a live professional football game. There are a number of markets out there that are essentially open," says Taube, a Woodside businessman and philanthropist (you'll notice his name liberally sprinkled around the Stanford campus).

Perhaps 1,500 players are employed in any given year by the NFL. Taube estimates the pool of potential players at 10 times that -- and "that talent is available on an economic cost basis." You mean they'll work cheap? "I was trying to avoid that word, intentionally." But, yes, they'll work cheap. Unlike basketball players who don't make the NBA cut and can go hoop it up in Italy, Greece, Israel, Russia, China, the Azores, or any number of American developmental leagues, employment options for subpar football players are limited. There's Canada, the Arena Football League (which has suspended its 2009 season), or serving as the bouncer at a local establishment. That's about it.

Like the WUSA women's soccer league, all of the UFL teams are centrally owned by the league. While the WUSA burned through $100 million in two years, Taube doesn't foresee this happening with Hambrecht's league. With about $4 million to spend on personnel per team -- possibly including coaches, trainers, stretcher-bearers, etc. -- that translates to perhaps $80,000 per player. NFL players use that kind of money in lieu of Charmin -- but Taube argues it's not bad pay for a kid right out of college playing a short season. And with centralized control, you won't get owners bidding like lunatics on unaffordable talent and spending themselves into oblivion (Taube can't help but mention how Los Angeles Express owner J. William Oldenburg signed Steve Young to a $40 million contract in 1984 -- the largest in football history at the time -- went bankrupt, and surrendered his team to the USFL.).

With two games to be played in San Francisco, SF Weekly wondered if Taube would show up to root on the local team and support his old partner. He laughed, and said he wouldn't.

"I've lived that life," he said. "I get all the excitement I need at Stanford Stadium."  

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