Rough around the edges, UFL hopes big names help bring viability
Friday, October 8, 2010
USA Today

Forget that some Omaha Nighthawks players have locker stalls fashioned out of cardboard U-Haul boxes and folding chairs.
Or that the Nighthawks ride to and from practices in yellow school buses, with 300-plus-pound linemen squeezed into seats designed for children.

Or that they practice at five different locations and play their home games in a baseball stadium that has a date with the wrecking ball.

"Sometimes in sports, you have to swallow your pride a bit," said Ahman Green, the Green Bay Packers' all-time leading rusher and one of the UFL's marquee names as he stars for the Nighthawks in his hometown.

For all its shortcomings, Omaha is the second-year United Football League's signature franchise.

Don't be fooled. This isn't another fly-by-night pro football venture.

The five-team UFL is losing millions, but it also is winning fans and credibility. There are deep pockets involved, including Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, and a business plan that will grow the UFL to eight teams next season.

And if there's a lockout in the NFL next year, as feared, the UFL is positioned to get a major boost in exposure.

The Nighthawks feature Pro Bowlers in Jeff Garcia, Cato June and Green among their 38 players with NFL experience. Omaha also is the place where former Ohio State star Maurice Clarett is attempting his football comeback after legal problems.

Each 52-man roster includes an average of 24 players with NFL experience.

"One of our coaches thought they could compete with the bottom teams in the NFL last year," commissioner Michael Huyghue said. "I'm absolutely convinced this season or next season that would be true for most of our teams."

Indianapolis Colts linebacker Gary Brackett wouldn't doubt that. Brackett stays in touch with June, his former Colts' teammate, and believes a lot of UFL players could make it in the NFL.

"It's attracting players who still want play, and you know we don't have a development league, so these guys can stay in shape and when their season is over, maybe they can come over here and play," Brackett said.

The UFL doesn't aim to challenge the NFL's place at the top of the nation's sports hierarchy. Huyghue and league founder Bill Hambrecht see the UFL as a complement to the NFL, a haven for players who were cut in training camps and veterans who want to get back in the big league.

At the same time, the UFL provides affordable pro football — the average ticket costs $20 — to markets that don't have the NFL.

Average attendance heading into this weekend was 16,638, far higher than last year's season average of 9,678.

Credit Omaha, which drew 23,069 for its debut against Hartford. Another sellout was forecast for its game this weekend against Sacramento, a Garcia-Daunte Culpepper duel that the UFL hyped as "arguably the best quarterback matchup in all of professional football this weekend." (Never mind that Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick will square off in Philadelphia.)

Last week, Omaha's last-second 27-26 win over Hartford, along with hip-hop star Nelly's halftime concert, livened up Rosenblatt Stadium, which in June ended its six-decade run as home of the College World Series and will be demolished after the season to make way for a parking lot.

The Nighthawks will move next year, along with the CWS, to the new TD Ameritrade Park downtown.

Sacramento's Dennis Green, the former coach of the Minnesota Vikings and Arizona Cardinals, said the UFL can be viable because there is a surplus of high-quality players.

He likened the UFL to the old American Football League, with the exception that the AFL went head-to-head against the NFL for players before the two leagues merged in 1969.

"We're not trying to outbid anybody," the coach said. "Ours isn't about money. Ours is strictly about the love of the game because the guys don't make hardly any money. It gives them a chance to get on the field and play."

The standard UFL contract pays $50,000 for an eight-game regular season that starts with training camp in August. Quarterbacks earn more, but the league won't say how much. Bonuses are paid to players on the teams that reach November's championship game.

Players are free to sign with NFL teams once the UFL season ends, and Huyghue said 43 players did so in 2009.

But there is no formal agreement for the UFL to serve as a feeder league, and Huyghue said the UFL's immediate concerns are putting fans in the seats and improving the product.

"As far as partnerships and joint-venture operations that may develop, I think that will depend on the strength and credibility of our league," he said.

The UFL is bankrolled mostly by Hambrecht; fellow investment banker Paul Pelosi, husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; private equity investor Bill Mayer; AOL chairman Tim Armstrong; and Cuban.

The league owns at least 50% of each franchise, with local investors making up the rest. The UFL lost $30 million in its inaugural season and projects to finish this season $15 million in the red.

Huyghue said the UFL hopes to break even next year and then start making money. That depends on whether it can land a revenue-generating television contract. Right now, the league pays an undisclosed amount to cable networks Versus and HDNet to carry games.

"It's a plan we've built to evaluate after the third year," Huyghue said, "and I still feel we're on track."

The UFL could fill a void next year if the NFL's collective bargaining agreement expires in March and isn't resolved by the time next season is scheduled to begin. Cuban wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press that an NFL lockout "would make the UFL the best friend of every pro football (fan) on the planet."

Former head coaches were the league's biggest names during the inaugural season —Jim Haslett, Chris Palmer, Jim Fassel and Green.

This year, the players are the draw, with Garcia and Ahman Green in Omaha, Culpepper in Sacramento, Josh McCown in Hartford, Tim Rattay in Las Vegas and 2009 UFL MVP Brooks Bollinger at Florida.

"This ain't no farm league or what you might call a semipro league," Ahman Green said. "There are Pro Bowlers, some guys have Super Bowl rings, some were perennial starters for NFL teams sometime in their career and due to injury or something else, that got them out. Now they're trying to make their way back."

Nighthawks general manager Rick Mueller said agents have been doing a better job making clients aware of the UFL, but that there is more work to do.

Linebacker Tyjuan Hagler, signed by the Colts this week after being released by Seattle, crinkled his face when asked whether he would have considered playing in the UFL.

"No, no," he said.

The UFL, however, is not beneath the 40-year-old Garcia. The four-time Pro Bowler had his best year in 2001 in San Francisco, and he's bounced around to four other teams, most recently Philadelphia last year.

Garcia said he's fighting the perception that he's too old. Barring injury, he said, he has two or three good years left.

"I see a lot of players in the (NFL) right now at the quarterback position who I feel don't have anything on me," Garcia said. "If this allows me to play and to continue to compete and do what I love to do, and maybe that opens a door down the road, great.

"If not, I've had a great career, a blessed career, and I can understand that maybe it's time to move on in my life. I feel I still have too much to give from a player's standpoint, physically and mentally."

Culpepper, who quarterbacked the Vikings for Dennis Green, was a backup for the Detroit Lions last season.

Like Garcia, he sees the UFL as a stop on his way back to the NFL.

"I definitely want to be a starter, but that opportunity wasn't there in the NFL right now," he said. "I could have waited until somebody got hurt, but why do that when I've got a chance to get ready to play and have a chance to be a champion right now in the UFL? That's the choice I made, and I'm happy I made it."

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