The fledgling United Football League wants to run with the Big Dogs of pro football, but can it get away with pissing on the NFL's turf?
By Barry Janoff, Executive Editor, NYSportsJournalism.com
(Posted September 23, 2009)
The NFL has been down this road before: A group of investors start their own league with its own initials — USFL, XFL, AFL — carve out territories, sign some marketing deals and TV contracts, fill rosters and open their doors to the public. The United States Football League lasted three seasons (1983-85) and produced Herschel Walker before folding (although a "new USFL" is being planned for 2010); the XFL lasted one season (2001) under the auspices of WWE founder Vince McMahon and broadcast partner NBC; the American Football League, founded in 1959, posed the biggest threat in the NFL's history and eventually merged with the older league to form the American Football Conference. The other AFL, the Arena Football League, was founded in 1987 and played its games indoors with its own unique logistics, but in 2009 suspended operations indefinitely.
The United Football League is the brainchild of Bill Hambrecht, a San Francisco-based investment banker and founder of WR Hambrecht + Co., who in 2007 started to unite investors and veteran football executives. Major backers now include Tim Armstrong, the chairman and CEO for AOL; Bill Mayer, founder of Park Avenue Equity; and investment banker Paul Pelosi, who is the husband of Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The commissioner is Michael Huyghue, whose more than 20 years of experience includes executive tenures with NFL teams and several influential NFL executive committees. With this firepower, one scenario sees the NFL taking a wait-and-see attitude and eventually forming a working, developmental relationship with the UFL.
But the UFL itself is taking anything but a wait-and-see attitude. The four teams that will play in the "Premiere Season" beginning Oct. 8 and running through the title game on Nov. 27 (at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas) each have head coaches with NFL experience: California Redwoods Dennis Green, Florida Tuskers Jim Hasslet, New York Sentinels Ted Cottrell and the Las Vegas Locomotives Jim Fassel. Los Angeles already has been tapped as a primary expansion market for 2010. The UFL has TV deals with Versus, which will telecast weekly games and the championship game; and HDNet, founded by Mark Cuban and Philip Garvin, which will air five UFL games. Combined, the UFL has the potential to reach nearly 90 million homes.
Online ticker broker StubHub has signed on as a "foundation partner" of the league. In the first of what is certain to be many non-traditional UFL marketing moves, StubHub's logo will be prominently displayed on the front-center bumper of the Florida Tuskers' helmet where the manufacturer's name usually appears (Riddell will move to the back of the UFL helmet). Other marketing partners include ANC Sports (on-field LED rotational signage) and GameWear (the official supplier of uniforms and practicewear).
Frank Vuono, the UFL's COO, brings to the table a resume that includes more than 30 years of experience, including co-founder/partner of prominent sports marketing firm 16W Marketing and vp-licensing for NFL Properties for about a decade until 1993. Vuono spoke with NYSportsJournalism.com about the UFL's plans.
NYSportsJournalism.com: You are a smart guy. What convinced you that the UFL would succeed?
Frank Vuono: It was a combination of things. The founder and original owner behind the UFL is Bill Hambrecht. I met him and saw that he had a good vision. And he's a fellow Princetonian. So those are good things. He's realistic about what this league can accomplish in the short term. Beyond that, one part of his plan is to take the teams public, which I think is a helluva an idea. He has a lot of ideas. Once I listened to him, and after I told him I thought he was totally crazy, he turned out to be a convincing guy.
NYSJ: Did it seem crazy to you to put the UFL season right in the middle of the NFL season?
Vuono: It is crazy. It's absolutely nuts. But at the time we got started [in 2007] the economic environment wasn't what it is now. No one in their right mind should try to do this in the economic environment we have been living with for the past year. But things are a little bit better now, we are coming out of it, And, actually, the economy has done some good things for us. But back to your question, [UFL commissioner] Mike Huyghue is a terrific guy whom I've known for 20 years. We were at the NFL together and I have a lot of respect for him. He was the guy who called me first and convinced me that I should even listen to him and that he wasn't drunk. We have great people at the top; we've put a great team together. These are all good factors. But the bottom line was, What was the product going to be? With all my working knowledge of what goes on talent-wise in the NFL, I absolutely knew that there were a ton of folks who had the ability to play pro football who were not playing pro football for one reason or another. There are a lot of reasons for that. And when you look at the head coaches [of the four teams] and their coaching staffs, there is no doubt that we are serious and that we are going to play at a very high level.
NYSJ: There has been a lot of criticism about what the UFL is and what it can be in the pro football landscape. How do you address that?
Vuono: People always want to slot you someplace, and they keep slotting us as a developmental league. But I don't think our players and coaches are looking at the UFL that way. Certainly our players want to get back into the NFL because that's where the big money is and that's where the limelight is. But no one is going to have any reservations about the level of talent that we will have on the field. In short order, I really believe that we will be able to compete with the lower echelon of NFL teams. We know the talent that is out there, so that was heartening to me.
NYSJ: One key goal of the UFL is to be in markets that do not have NFL teams. So is this, in effect, NFL expansion without the NFL brand or permission?
Vuono: I know more than most about the inner workings [of the NFL]. When you look at the landscape, the NFL plays in 27 of the nation's top 50 markets, and if you asked the people in the other 23 markets if they would like to have NFL football, they would say, Absolutely. The economics are that the owners in the NFL are not incentivized to divvy up the pie any more than they already have. They are not going to be starting any new teams in the near future. So when you combine all these factors it's a pretty convincing case for giving us a shot.
NYSJ: Other leagues that have tried to take on the NFL have come and gone. The Arena Football League suspended play this year due to economics and other factors. Has that influenced the UFL's strategy?
Vuono: As much as I liked the people in the Arena Football League, we are talking apples and oranges. We are playing at the NFL-level. But if there is a positive at all [to the AFL's situation] it has to do with the disposable income that people have and what they spend on entertainment and what they allocate out of their budgets for entertainment. If that helps us, so be it. But we didn't change, alter or digress from any of our plans because of what happened to the AFL.
NYSJ: What do you say to potential marketing partners that would convince them to put their dollars into the UFL?
Vuono: We have a pretty convincing sales pitch. I know a lot about what goes on, and the average fan doesn't realize that the pictures of the NFL games and the way they receive the games has been dictated by the business that the NFL does with the networks. From an advertiser's standpoint, if you are a league sponsor, you can't be protected by the league during the broadcasts. (Editor's note: Coors Light, for example, is the official beer sponsor of the NFL but deals signed by Anheuser-Busch with CBS, Fox and NBC give A-B national alcohol category exclusivity during Super Bowl broadcasts through 2012.) There are a lot of nuances to that. No corporations other than those that make the equipment for the players are allowed on the field during NFL broadcasts. Nothing is allowed within camera's eye because of the networks that pay billions of dollars to the NFL. They have to sell their advertising time. So there is not a collaborative effort.
NYSJ: How will the UFL change that?
Vuono: In our case, we are going to integrate our sponsors, who are also our advertisers, into the game. We will have exclusives in categories so that they can't be ambushed. We will have LED sideline scoreboards that will have our advertisers on them during the entire game. They will be in camera's eye. We will look to do cut-ins for product placement . We have a totally blank slate. We have a totally different model. I come from selling sponsorships for a living so we are going to look at this from a sponsor's point of view. We are going to over-deliver in terms of exclusivity, exposure and integration into our games. I'm excited about that. We are going to have some quality advertisers.
"There is obviously demand for top-level professional football. That is what the UFL hopes to be someday, an equal of the NFL, if not more." — Mark Cuban
NYSJ: When you talk about exclusive categories, do you foresee filling the key traditional marketing slots: energy drinks, telecom, fast-food, credit cards, airlines?
Vuono: Yes, I think so. Some of those come on board a little slower but you will be surprised ultimately by our lineup of sponsors. We are bringing them in the house as we speak and there will be announcements over the next couple of weeks. We will have high-end, substantial partners.
NYSJ: As part of the deal with StubHub, they will get placement on the front-center bumper of the Florida Tuskers' helmets. Will other teams have sponsor logos on their helmets and do you have other plans for non-traditional marketing?
Vuono: I have had that one in my pocket for 16 years, ever since I left the NFL! I did the Riddell deal which protected the company and kept them as the official helmet in the NFL for a long time. (Riddell has been the official helmet of the NFL since 1989. The company, which merged its holdings with Easton Sports in 2006 to form Easton-Bell Sports, signed a deal with the NFL in August extending its NFL alliance through 2014.) We actually charted it to the second on the average on how much exposure that space on the helmet gets [during telecasts]. It is a very, very valuable piece of real estate. When I was with the NFL, I wrote all of the uniform-advertising codes that are still used in terms of what can be exposed and how big those marks can be. I helped create the "uniform police" in the NFL to enforce those rules. I know the rules. And I know we don't have to live by those rules.
NYSJ: You could potentially sell space on the helmets of all four teams.
Vuono: Every one of our teams will have a marketing partner logo on their helmets.
NYSJ: What other marketing surprises will you pull out of your pocket?
Vuono: We are looking for a presenting sponsor for the whole season. If we don't get it done for this season we will get it done for next season. That [logo] will be on the uniforms. We are officially calling this the "Premiere" season but would potentially add "presented by" if a sponsorship deal is signed.
NYSJ: Are you also looking for a presenting sponsor for the championship game?
NYSJ: We have been talking about national deals, but how are you approaching this in the local markets?
Vuono: We are not selling anything locally. Not yet. Not even for stadium signage. We will get to that. But the teams haven't been practicing in their [home stadiums] and don't yet have local offices. Everything is being overseen nationally. (The UFL has headquarters in New York and Rutherford, N.J., and offices in San Francisco and Jacksonville, Fla.) We will get to local activation in Year Two.
NYSJ: What has been the UFL's biggest challenge regarding the current economy?
Vuono: Everyone is looking for a great return. But we can over-deliver on what a sponsor will get by tying in with us by going with assumptions that are very humble. We are talking peanuts compared to what it takes to advertise on an NFL game or be an NFL sponsor. So, all things considered, I think we are a helluva bargain. Frankly, what happened in this economy is that people are holding their money closer to their vest. They are not spending it year-round. They are spending on a month-to-month basis. They are telling their sports marketing agencies, "Here's what we have for this month. What can you get me?" It's almost like no one is making an upfront buy with the networks. They are making a scatter buy or a Friday afternoon buy. In that case, it's good for us because we are a real value. So that's been a positive. Also, I have been able to surround myself with real quality people who otherwise might have been occupied or engaged with other things if the economy was better. So we have a lot of talent who are able to lend us their expertise as a result of the economy.
NYSJ: The UFL is thinking in non-traditional terms, but do you see marketers also doing that to get more ROI?
Vuono: Absolutely. Innovation is born out of desperation. There is no question that we are trying to be innovative and we are looking for people who are willing to try something new. People have to be creative. I like that. When times were good, most of the salespeople were just order takers. The good salespeople are the ones who are left standing and getting the last dollars. That's okay. When you have a reputation for delivering value and you have a Rolodex of people who have relied on you for never BS-ing them and always delivering on what you say you are going to do, that's the people they want to do business with right now. They can't afford the BS.
NYSJ: How involved do you expect Mark Cuban to become?
Vuono: He's been great. He lent his name to the league. We felt that he would be a potential owner. But he hasn't shied away from allowing us to say that he is associated with us. He is not technically an owner but HDNet is doing a great job of putting our teams on. We also have Versus as our national TV partner, and they allowed us to go and do the deal with Mark Cuban. He has been very responsive. And ultimately we are very hopeful that this works out well and he comes on board as an owner.
NYSJ: Are you working to sell ad time during the Versus telecasts?
Vuono: It's a priority. We are doing all the production work and programming for Versus. We have a relationship with Versus where we have exclusive categories, and that's really what we're talking about.
NYSJ: So now we fast-foward to the end of November and the first UFL season is over and the championship game has ended. What are your thoughts about what has happened and what will happen looking ahead?
Vuono: Ideally, we will have completed a great run and proved that the quality of our product was what we said it would be, with great athletes playing high-quality football. And everything comes off as a first-class production and nobody looks at it and says, "The UFL is not NFL-quality football and not NFL-quality production." And then we get two more owners in the house and we expand to six teams next year. And ultimately I'm able to get more help so I'm not working as hard as I am right now.