COLUMN: Pro football is back in ‘Bama

This weekend marked the debut of the United States Football League and the return of professional football in the State of Alabama and the “new” league made a big first impression.

While this version of the USFL is new, the USFL was easily the most successful non-NFL professional football league since the merger of the AFL and NFL in the 1960s. Ever since the original USFL closed up shop in 1986, spring football leagues have tried and failed numerous times and with them almost always Alabama gets a team.

Even before the USFL, Alabama has had a number of attempts at professional football teams. There was the Alabama Hawks of the Continental Football League in the 1960s, the successful Birmingham Americans/Vulcans of the World Football League in the 1970s, the original Stallions of the 1980s, the Birmingham Barracudas of the Canadian Football League and Birmingham Fire of the World League of American Football (the precursor of NFL Europe) in the 1990s, both the Alabama Steel Dogs and Vipers of the Arena Football League and Birmingham Bolts of the XFL in the 2000s and the Birmingham Iron of the Alliance of American Football in 2019.

Football is king in Alabama and, for the most part, college football has always been king of football here. While both the original Stallions and the Americans/Vulcans of the WFL were extremely successful, in both on-field performance and attendance, the stigma of the numerous league failures has left the impression that professional football simply can’t work here.

Spring football has been an experiment that has been attempted to varying degrees of success and failure since the 1970s and almost every time Alabama has had a team in one of those leagues. Ever since I was a child, I heard the stories of the Birmingham Vulcans and Stallions and wanted a pro team here to root for. The few times we’ve had those teams in my lifetime, have been frustrating at best.

The Bolts of the XFL were an awful team, which led to paltry attendance in the original XFL’s lone season. The Steel Dogs and Vipers of the AFL were fun but short lived. The Iron had one of the best attendance averages of the AAF and also qualified for the playoffs before the inaugural season was ended prematurely. I’ve always felt that spring football can work, especially in states like Alabama, due to the lack of competition with the NFL and college football. I even won an award for my column titled “A spring football league can work” going into the beginning of the AAF. Yes, I won an award for a column talking about how spring football can work a few months before that league died. The irony is not lost on me.

Maybe I am a glutton for punishment but I still think it can work and the debut of the USFL this weekend I think backed that up. While the USFL reportedly sold 30,000 tickets to the opening game between the Stallions and Generals, official attendance was just under 20,000. It was almost remarkable considered the ugly weather that the entire state – especially in Birmingham – had all day long Saturday. The crowd and atmosphere at the game felt different than that of the atmosphere at the beginning of AAF. I don’t know what it was but there seemed to be real excitement and possibly even hope for this new league to succeed.

Then on Sunday, things were much different. Attendance for the two games scheduled on Sunday at Protective Stadium paled in comparison to the first game. The seats looked nearly empty and while rainy weather – and the fact that it was Easter – certainly didn’t help, that sort of attendance could continue to be a problem.

Attendance will certainly be the thing to watch, not just for the Stallions. This league will be different than any other, at least in the first year, as every single regular season game will be played in Birmingham. The USFL is doing a “hub” type of experiment with all staff, players and coaches living and playing in one city for the entire season. The decision was stated to partly be based on the uncertainty of what the state of the country would look like due to COVID-19 when the plans for the USLF began to unfold and partly to save money in a crucial first season.

It’s unquestionable that having 10 weeks of football games in Birmingham will be huge for the city and the surrounding area’s economy, but can attendance remain solid throughout that time? Even if the Stallions can retain the fan base as the weeks go on, how many people will show up for the Michigan Panthers taking on the New Jersey Generals or the Tampa Bay Bandits playing the Philadelphia Stars? It’s a hard sell for fans of other teams in other states to make the trip to Alabama to see a team that has never actually played, at least not this new version.

A way the USFL is looking to entice fans is with extremely affordable ticket prices. General admission tickets at games are $10 and a ticket is good for every game played that day. If three games are being played on a Saturday at Protective Stadium, then your general admission ticket is good for all three games. That sort of family-friend pricing is definitely a breath of fresh air in a time where most major college football teams and professional football leagues have priced families out of taking trips to see games.

Another way to entice fans is simply having good football. Birmingham’s debut win over the Generals was certainly a step in the right direction there with an exciting game between two teams that seemed to both play a good game. As the season goes on teams should also get better. As I said before, I still think this can work. If it doesn’t, though, this may very well be the last time this state ever gets a professional football team.