Who owns the USFL? The ambitious league’s plans to rival the NFL


People have attempted severally to loosen the NFL’s vice grip on American football. Usurping the NFL, a league that has existed in some form since 1920, is a near-impossible task, but stakeholders have always thought that a smaller competition could thrive during NFL’s spring break. 

However, creating a spectacle that could attract even a fraction of NFL viewers has proven difficult, with failed attempts dating back to 1945. 

The United States Football League (USFL) believes it has the resources to do what several others have failed: establish a football tournament to satisfy fan appetite for football during NFL’s offseason. 

Key Points

  • The USFL’s owners Fox claim to have secured enough money to keep the league running for the next two or three seasons. 
  • The USFL’s CEO, Brian Woods, has considerable experience setting up developmental American football leagues, though both of his attempts have failed. 
  • A California court denied the original USFL’s attempt to block the USFL’s first game in April 2022, but the original USFL might still emerge victorious in their trademark infringement suit. 

The USFL is owned by Fox, which plans to invest $200 million in the league

Initial reports claimed that Fox held a minority stake in the USFL. However, Fox later emerged as the league’s sole owner, with several executives of the USFL having affiliations with the media outlet. 

the USFL
Protective Stadium | Photo by Dylan Buell/USFL/Getty Images

Fox plans to invest up to $200 million into the USFL and attract around $250 million from investors. The league draws revenue of less than $10 million, so Fox’s cash input will prove essential in keeping it running. 

NBC agreed on a deal with Fox to air nine games on NBC, four on the streaming service Peacock, and eight on USA. The league’s debut game, pitting the New Jersey Generals against the Birmingham Stallions, aired on NBC and Fox, making it the first time since 2007 that a football game simulcast on over-the-air broadcast networks. 

Fox is also investing a lot of time into marketing the USFL, with the league coming up in several Fox shows, primarily on The Herd with Colin Herward. Major USFL announcements, including coaches and teams, were made on Colin’s show. 

Fox has also claimed that viewership numbers are ‘surprisingly good,’ despite massive fluctuations between game weeks. For instance, the viewership for game two was 58% lower than game one’s viewership. 

Robert Gottlieb, Fox Sports’ Executive Vice President of marketing, suggested that Fox has exceeded its targets in the viewership metric. In late April 2022, Robert tweeted:

“As many of you have pointed out, TV ratings are key to building this league. When comparing USFL viewership to a host of well-established, legacy spring sports properties… well that paints a very, very bullish picture about this league’s viability and value.”

Fox CEO Lachlan Murdoch claimed that investors have ‘effectively underwritten’ the USFL for the next couple of years. The media house has already started looking for potential owners of the franchises, with a plan to sell the teams in five to seven years. 

USFL CEO Brian Woods says making it past the first season will be a success

Brian Woods was the perfect choice for the USFL’s CEO position, given his experience in establishing football leagues. In the early 2000s, he created the Fall Experimental Football League, a minor league whose main objective was development. 

Woods launched The Spring League, another developmental league for aspiring players that began play in 2017. Brian served as CEO until the league dissolved in 2021. Fox Sports owned a stake in and the broadcasting rights to The Spring League. 

Brian Woods during the inaugural USFL game between the New Jersey Generals and Birmingham Stallions | Photo by Michael Wade/Getty Images

Brain told Al.com that making it past the first season will be a success: fans will see the USFL as a credible league worth an investment. He explained:

“The first season is everything. If you were to ask fans, what would be a sign of success for the USFL? The overwhelming response would be: ‘Just finished the season; we have seen these other leagues come and go.’”

“If we can just finish our first season, that will certainly give fans a lot more confidence in what we’re doing, as opposed to some of these other failed efforts of the past.”

The USFL plans to play its first 40 regular-season games in Birmingham, Alabama, before moving to Canton, Ohio, for the playoffs. League officials said the move happened due to scheduling conflicts with the World Games’ opening ceremonies, slated for early July 2022. 

Woods believes that holding most of the first season in Alabama will help the league save costs. He affirmed that the USFL could carve out a niche, becoming a home for players looking to prove their viability for the NFL. Woods explained:

“There’s probably close to 1,500 players in the transfer portal right now. We feel that not only can our league be a standalone, professional sports property and be dominant in the spring football space, but we also can offer players the opportunity to become a professional football player a little sooner than what might be [currently] allowed.”

The former USFL sued the new USFL for trademark infringement but couldn’t stop the league’s premiere

In early 2022, members of the defunct USFL sued the new USFL for trademark infringement. Suing as ‘The Real USFL, LLC,’ the plaintiffs alleged that the new USFL had no right to the league’s name and teams. 

They accused Fox of banking on the ‘nostalgia of the original league.’ Attorney Alex Brown said via a press release:

“Fox can’t dispute that the ‘Real USFL’ marks are recognizable and valued because they’re using them and purposefully confusing its league with the original. Rather than do the right thing, Fox has chosen to try and bully the prior owners into submission. That’s not going to happen.”

The plaintiffs won a partial victory in court: the judge ruled that The Real USFL LLC had established the likelihood of prevailing in a trademark infringement claim. Despite lapsing of the trademarks, the plaintiffs could prove ownership stemming from continuous use of the marks since 2006. 

However, the court refused to grant an injunction halting the league’s premiere in April 2022. The judge ruled that monetary compensation was the appropriate remedy for such a breach, and giving the injunctions would be highly unfair to Fox Sports. 

The first match, scheduled for 16th April 2022, hung in the balance as Judge John F. Walter delivered his decision on 14th April 2022. The ruling allowed the USFL to debut as scheduled but suggested that The Real USFL LLC would obtain monetary compensation at the end of the case. 

The case remains pending in the US District Court for the Central District of California. 

The original USFL failed by attempting to go toe to toe with the NFL

“The United States Football League in the 1980s had a very favorable review,” Brian Woods told Al.com. “Had they remained in the spring, they probably would still be here today.”

As Brian stated, the USFL started on the right foot. It attracted three Heisman trophy winners straight out of college: Doug Flutie, Mike Rozier, and Herschel Walker. Future Hall of Famers Steven Young and Reggie White made their professional debuts in the USFL.

It launched as a spring/summer league and enjoyed three successful seasons. The original USFL’s downfall started when it decided to compete with the NFL by moving games to the autumn. 

Led by the then-owner of the New Jersey Generals, Donald Trump, the USFL announced its plan. However, the scheduled move crumbled as franchises shut down for various reasons. 

The original USFL sued the NFL in an antitrust suit, claiming the NFL was an illegal monopoly. The jury declared the NFL an ‘illegal monopoly’ but stated that it didn’t interfere with the USFL’s attempts to secure television rights. 

It added that the USFL crumbled not because of the NFL’s practices but due to mismanagement inside the league. The USFL hoped that victory would secure money to revamp its operations, but the court granted it damages totaling $3.76.

Four days after the verdict, the owners voted to suspend operations. The original USFL suffered more losses in the coming years, officially dissolving in 1990.