Spring has sprung in Houston, birds are chirping, we’re praying our lawnmowers start, guys are back on their bikes wearing ridiculous Spandex shorts, our cars are covered with whatever that disgusting yellow stuff is, the Houston Astros are back and the NBA playoffs are tipping off.
Are you ready for some football? In Houston? But actually and specifically: Birmingham, Alabama?
Against all odds, the resurrected United States Football League returns Saturday April 16, live in prime time on both NBC and Fox, with the Birmingham Stallions hosting the New Jersey Generals. It’ll be just like old times, as the Stallions and Generals were teams in the original USFL that started in 1983 and died three years later.
Watch ESPN’s 30 for 30 called Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL? for the sad and frankly dumb saga.
The all-new USFL has eight teams and two conferences. The South Conference has our Houston Gamblers, New Orleans Breakers, Tampa Bay Bandits and Birmingham Stallions. The North Conference has the New Jersey Generals, Philadelphia Stars, Michigan Panthers, and Pittsburgh Maulers.
“Our” Houston Gamblers? The USFL isn’t hiding it, but TV commercials promoting Saturday night’s league opener don’t mention that every team, regardless of what the front of their uniforms say, will play every game in Birmingham, Alabama — at either Protective Stadium or Legion Field.
The league and all eight teams are owned by something called the National Spring Football League Enterprises Company, LLC. — but really, Fox Sports.
In other words, the Houston Gamblers won’t play in Houston, won’t have local ownership, no local offices, no home stadium, no local cheerleaders, the players won’t live here and local sports anchors won’t be reporting breathlessly from the sidelines in Alabama.
The Houston Gamblers have about as much connection with Texas as, you remember that commercial, picante sauce made in New Jersey. The last line of that commercial was “get a rope.” I didn’t come out of my house for three weeks.
As I mentioned, Saturday night’s league opener will be broadcast by both NBC and Fox, the first time two networks aired the same pro football game at the same time since the 1967 Super Bowl was on CBS and NBC. All 40 USFL regular season games will air on either NBC, Fox, USA Network, FS1, or Peacock. Check your local listings each week to find the Gamblers’ game.
The Houston Gamblers head coach and general manager is Kevin Sumlin, former University of Houston and Texas A&M coach. The starting quarterback is Clayton Thorson, whose name sounds like the alter ego of a Marvel superhero. The team colors are black, red, gray, white and yellow-gold. (I’m not sure if crayons have that many colors.)
The Holy Bible notes, “To everything there is a season” (Ecclesiastes 3.1). Is spring a season for football? So far, no.
There have been several attempts by pro leagues to play a football season after the NFL’s Super Bowl – the original USFL, another USFL attempt that never got off the ground in 2010, the Alliance of American Football and two cracks by the XFL. They all flopped.
The odds are against the USFL 3.0. But as Justin Bieber and most recently The Undertaker said, never say never.
Speaking of odds, Vegas has posted lines on this weekend’s USFL games. Houston is a 3-point underdog against Michigan. The game will air at 11 am Sunday on NBC.
Houston also has the longest odds to win the championship, plus-700. Since there were no pre-season games and nobody really knows anything about any of the teams, I’m putting $10 on the Gamblers this week and another $10 on them to win the title.
Reason: why not? Don’t forget, the Houston Roughnecks were 5-0 in the 2020 XFL season until COVID shut down the league. What does that have to do with the Gamblers' chances of winning this year? Absolutely nothing.
The USFL will have some gimmick rules: a team can go for a 3-point conversion after a touchdown, and the team scoring a touchdown can retain possession by making a first down on 4th and 12 from its own 33 yard line.
If they fail to make a first down, the other team takes possession. If the other team sacks the quarterback on that do-or-die play, it gets the ball on the opponent’s 10 yard line – in the red area. I call it the “red zone,” too, but I’ve heard several NFL coaches call it the “red area.”
Active roster players will make about $45,000 for the 10-game season. Practice players will earn about $15,000. No middling quarterbacks will get $40 million a year like in the NFL. (Seriously, Derek Carr, $121.5 million for three years?)
The USFL won’t be a tough ticket. Adult tickets will be $10 and will come with three free tickets for kids under 15. I still don’t expect to see sold-out stadiums for the USFL.
In fact, the only similarity between Houston’s team in the USFL and Houston’s team in the NFL will be half-empty stadiums.