Pro football is one of the few professional sports and possibly the only one that lacks a true minor league system or framework. Aside from short-lived partnerships with the Continental Football League in the 1960s and NFL Europe in the 1990s and 2000s, this was always the reality.
For this reason, the IFL and XFL’s continued partnership is fascinating. In October, the leagues announced a partnership in which IFL teams had the opportunity to receive the rights to players released by XFL teams. Both leagues also shared game film as part of the agreement. In essence, this makes the IFL a quasi-minor league for the XFL.
Last week, the XFL and IFL took their partnership to another level, announcing an IFL to XFL combine during the weekend of the IFL Championship in Las Vegas. This agreement works twofold to make the IFL Championship more of an event and gives the XFL a near-monopoly on the best talent in the Indoor Football circuit.
This move continues the strong momentum of the IFL as it comes months after CBS Sports Network agreed to air the IFL Championship for the next three seasons, far distancing it from its competitors in Champions Indoor Football, the National Arena League, and resurrected Arena Football League.
The USFL is in a tenuous situation in the intense “Spring War” of professional football. Last year, despite having a successful first seasont, the USFL saw multiple star players jump to the XFL. This year, the XFL is quickly monopolizing talent at the indoor football level.
The USFL should take a page from the XFL’s playbook and partner with an indoor or arena football league. The two best remaining options on the circuit are the Champions Indoor Football (CIF) and National Arena League (NAL). The CIF has eight teams centered in the Midwest and Rocky Mountains and the NAL has five teams in Texas and the Southeast.
The USFL and whatever league it partners with benefit from a partnership. CIF and the NAL have all their teams in markets and states without USFL hubs or teams. A partnership increases interest and TV viewership in those markets with the possibility that fans of those indoor and arena franchises may soon see their beloved players play on NBC and Fox. A partnership with the NAL may lure viewers from XFL cities as the league having teams in Orlando and San Antonio through the same effect mentioned above.
While the CIF is stable due to its tight geographic footprint, the NAL benefits greatly from a partnership. The most publicity the media gave the league was during the Albany Empire fiasco with Antonio Brown, which ultimately ended with the league reducing its membership to five teams. Added marketability may buy the league more time as expansion candidates remain a mystery.
Finally, the USFL’s most maligned TV partner, USA, also benefits. As cord-cutting accelerates the decline of cable, USA has a bleak outlook, as they essentially are a sports network, producing only one scripted show and airing Premier League Soccer and WWE alongside USFL games.
A partnership between the USFL and a 50-yard league could give the USA more reason to take a chance like CBS Sports Network and air either the CIF or NAL championship. The USFL gets free promotion from branding that labels the NAL or CIF as a de-facto developmental league and the NAL and CIF reach new levels of exposure. USA gets better advertising revenue from having live content to air on a Saturday night.
While the NAL or CIF make for worthy partner leagues for the USFL, the highest risk-reward partnership comes from an agreement with the Arena Football League. The Arena Football League tentatively returns in 2024. While the CIF and NAL have the luxury of multiple seasons under their belt, the Arena Football League has name-brand recognition.
Due to network TV deals in the past, the Arena Football League arguably has more notoriety for football fans than the Indoor Football League. A partnership with the Arena Football League wages an all-out war with the XFL while possibly getting ahead of them in receiving indoor talent. It is possible that the Arena Football League’s long history and familiarity with casual sports fans nets them a more attractive and lucrative media deal than the Indoor Football League, causing players to jump to the rejuvenated league.
Unfortunately, the XFL is a step ahead of the USFL in creating a network for recruiting emerging talent. However, their response may allow them to catch up to or not surpass the XFL in the Spring Football War depending on which league they partner with.
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