I’ve been a vocal proponent of spring football. I want to see it work. I like the idea of a minor league. I simply enjoy football in general. And yet…I have yet to watch a single live snap of XFL football this year. I either find myself watching something else, like youtube videos or shows I’m currently working through, or more likely, I straight up forget it exists. Every time I suddenly remember it, usually randomly in the middle of the week, I say to myself I should watch some. Then I don’t. And increasingly, instead of watching it, I’ve caught myself wondering why I’m not. And these days I’m wondering if spring football ever has any chance to genuinely work. At least in the current climate.

Before I talk more generally, I will reiterate that I think the current 3rd iteration of the XFL fumbled the bag from the get-go with their scheduling. Starting directly after the Super Bowl, when everyone is coming down from a massive high, was stupid. Running your league directly against NFL free agency and more importantly, March Madness, was incredibly stupid. The Rock is dumb and has a massive ego. I guess that’s why we don’t call him The Brain. Hell, even the new logo looks like a failed crypto exchange. The USFL at least figured the schedule part out and will come to us during the dry season.

The thing I keep running into with Spring football, or minor league football if you want to call it that (because it is), is that it has a lot of inherent problems that have no obvious solution. Below I’ve listed several of what I think are the major unwinnable conundrums they face.

How to make yourself stand out from regular football
As an NFL fan, the biggest and most glaring problem with spring ball is that it’s just…inferior. An on-field product that is inferior to both the NFL and College ball. It’s like watching an entire league of nothing but Hall of Fame games. The league is made up of washouts and wannabes. Anyone who is talented enough to make the games interesting is just going to get signed by the NFL. This is likely to always be a problem, so the leagues need to find some other way to stand out. An answer might be major rule differences and structure changes. But how far do you go? A large number of people, like myself, would probably prefer the leagues to get kinda weird and sort of experimental as a way to innovate. But that is going to alienate anyone who hates change and doesn’t get it. The Arena League actually did this, and a lot of people think it’s too weird, and Arena Football has died multiple times. So how far do you go? Stick close to NFL football and just be a worse product or try out some new stuff and risk turning people off?

How to do keep fans coming back?
Marketing your spring league will always be a massive issue because these leagues simply will not have the funds to really show up. Out of the new leagues so far, the AAF did the best job marketing itself with a major commercial push and getting major TV networks to air the first week. I think it generally worked. The AAF also folded several weeks later because they ran out of money. So the big major push didn’t get people to stick around, and the new league’s attempts to better manage their money also hasn’t worked because nobody remembers they are around. These leagues need every ounce of attention to survive at all and to get the attention you have to get people aware of you. One thing I’ve wondered is if they are approaching this the wrong way and trying to appeal to the wrong people. A number of studies seem to show that Zoomers are not watching football as much as Millenials and up are. Zoomers grew up in a different, digital world, with so many distractions to take their attention away from the sport. This might be the actual place to try and market a spring league, but it would probably require a different approach than the leagues trying to get on regular TV. These leagues maybe should embrace things like Youtube and Twitch, putting many of their marketing funds into social media. This will, of course, annoy anyone older than 35, but I think this would be a smarter approach. Make these leagues very modern and digital, cater to that side of things, and you might be able to inject yourself into a more welcoming market. If you do it right, that’s the hard part. I didn’t draw them, but the FCF (Fan Controlled Football league) is kind of doing this. I have yet to check it out. If any of you have, give me a report.

Embracing the community
Going along with keeping people coming back I often wonder about the teams simply being in the wrong place. One of the joys of minor league sports is that teams are everywhere, and games are cheap. Paying a light fee to fuck around with the boys watching a minor league baseball game is a great way to spend a few hours on a sunny afternoon. This is especially true for cities that are smaller and underrepresented on the sports stage. But they keep putting these teams in major cities. Houston, DC, Seattle, LA, Vegas, Dallas (Arlington Renegades), Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, San Antonio. I can see the logic to it. These cities already have lots of sports fans, and these cities are large, so you have the best chance of getting more people to casually show up. But at the same time, why would a sports fan with many different options decide to spend their weekend at a minor league football game? I wonder if the right way to go would actually be to embrace the smaller cities starving for sports. The USFL has a team in Birmingham, a city with a decent population deep in football country that is severely devoid of other major sports teams. Places with little to no major representation are often eager to glomp onto a little piece of community identity. Instead of sticking yet another team in Houston, why not try Austin or El Paso? Albuquerque? Tuscon? Colorado Springs? Omaha? Tulsa? Lexington? Columbus? Richmond? Raleigh? Charleston? There are a ton of smaller cities without any sense of sports identity, and a team could potentially be embraced there. But they have less people, and less money, and less national attention. But it might be easier to survive if you can spend less money in these cheaper cities and embrace the locals.

Kinda went into this with the XFL already, but a big issue with spring and summer football is…spring and summer. Sports are great in winter when you can’t often go outside if you live above a certain latitude line and watching them on TV is no biggie since you can’t do anything out. This is the time of year when the sun comes out and I want to go outside and do yardwork, or go hiking, or ride my bike, or just sit in the damn backyard and read a book. I want to sit outside at a cafe and sip a drink and do lunch. Going to live games in this weather is cool, but watching them on TV is not. The games are on in the afternoon too, so I can’t settle in for some primetime XFL action. By the time I settle in on Saturdays, the games are long over. This only becomes more of an issue the later you go into the year. Of course, the earlier you start it, the more of a different problem you have. The USFL is being played in the doldrums of post-draft season when football fans experience severe atrophy, but will be going up against NHL and NBA playoffs. The XFL is playing right now, but March Madness is happening and the NFL is still interesting thanks to free agency drama and draft fun. The weather will be nicer in June, but will also be hotter and more dangerous.

Connection to the NFL
Unfortunately, spring football is kind of a competitor to the NFL, and in that sense, it’s fucked. But connecting itself to the NFL to function as a sort of summer league, getting the league’s backing, might be the only way to give it a strong foothold. Of course, the summer league works great for the NBA. Just send your young bench players into a summer tournament to get experience and develop. Can that work for the NFL? Football is a wildly different sport. If you are already signed on an NFL roster, why risk your body for this cheapo league? Would we really tune in to see teams UDFAs and 6th-rounders balling with washouts and whoever else is around? The Spring leagues have effectively gotten a few dudes into the NFL, like PJ Walker.

The biggest problem of all – apathy
Unfortunately, the biggest problem here is that getting people to watch requires an investment from the individuals. NFL football has been a default part of American life since before I was born, so sticking by it is easy. I grew up with it. It’s a part of me. Spring football is not. Like any other league I didn’t grow up with and already considered a part of my life, getting interested requires a committed investment on my part. It requires me to put in the effort to watch it. To go out of my way to choose it over a multitude of different things to do. It’s surprisingly difficult to stick with it. I lost my investment in Baseball the instant I went to college and was no longer in the vicinity of the Orioles. I gained an investment in the Trail Blazers since I moved to Portland and saw them on local bar TVs all the time, and they are a major source of city sports culture. I have tried and somewhat failed to get into Kraken hockey, but since I don’t live in Seattle and can’t casually go to games when I have the time and didn’t really follow hockey before this and didn’t know what to get attached to, I have struggled to keep up with them. Caring requires effort, and most of us just aren’t going to put it in. This is the big reason why I think the leagues should try smaller cities. Big cities have so much to do, but a football team can add a lot to a smaller city. Portland has two major sports teams (Blazers and Timbers) and the city fucking loves both of them. LA has like 10 teams and only cares about the Lakers and Dodgers.

The current XFL is probably going to die and the Rock will pout about it while drinking his stupid vodka. The USFL has smarter people and more funding behind it, with FOX backing the league and attempting to play the long game. I think this will work. The USFL was watchable last year and this year could be again. But I just can’t keep shaking the feeling that something is missing from these leagues. Something that truly sets them apart, that makes them worth paying attention to. They need to offer more than just “more football!”. They need to offer more community, or modernization, or personality. Compared to the original XFL and even the reboot, the Rock’s XFL is bland as shit and if they slapped the USFL or AAF logo on the field you wouldn’t be able to notice a difference. Spring football needs to find its little niche, but I worry that no league can keep our attention long enough for that to happen.