If you’re a fan of alternative football leagues, you don’t have to wait until the XFL returns in 2022 to get your off-brand gridiron jollies.
Next Tuesday in San Antonio The Spring League hosts a tripleheader at the Alamodome. The Alphas meet the Blues at noon, EDT; the Aviators take on the Jousters at 4 p.m.; and at 8 p.m. the Conquerors square off with the Generals. The nightcap will be televised live on Fox Sports 1. In all, the network will broadcast seven Tuesday or Wednesday night games through November 18, with a championship game set for Thanksgiving week.
“As we’ve said time and time again, FOX is football,” Mark Silverman, President of National Networks for FOX Sports, said in a press release. “We’re excited to add TSL to our already robust football programming lineup complementing our NFL and college football coverage. We believe in TSL’s mission as a developmental league and we are excited to grow with them in partnership over the coming years.”
The multi-year TV deal includes an option for the network to make a minority equity investment in TSL.
I really want to cheer for the Aviators. Their logo is stylish, and it gets extra points for featuring Howard Hughes wearing a bomber hat and goggles. And this is the young, dashing Howard Hughes, not the old, reclusive Howard Hughes who watched “Ice Station Zebra” over and over again.
However, I’ll call the Generals “my” team. They’re the only squad that has a former UAB player (wideout Andre Wilson) on the roster, and as an alum that carries a lot of weight. Plus they have two players hailing from South Carolina (the state I live in) two more players from Alabama (my home state) and two players each from North Carolina and Georgia, which are my neighbor states.
I kinda feel like I owe them my allegiance.
TSL is in its fourth year but casual football fans might not be familiar with it. Although it has ‘league” in its name it mostly serves as an extended-stay scouting combine, allowing players to get game reps in hopes of moving on to the National Football League, Canadian Football League and, more recently, the XFL. According to its website, 141 TSL veterans have signed with NFL or CFL teams. It’s also been the home to high-profile second, third and final chance projects like Johnny Manziel and Greg Hardy.
Last year it partnered with the XFL to test rule innovations, so it serves as a proving ground for more than just players. Three TSL squads played a combined five games this spring before being halted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
But while the coronavirus has led to “bubble” formats for other leagues and other sports, TSL was already ahead of the curve. It’s a one-stop shop, so playing games at a single site is the way to go. Since its debut in 2017 Austin, Texas, and White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, have served as hubs.
This fall it’s the Alamodome, and with the CFL forced to cancel its 2020 season and the rebooted XFL having to shut down at the halfway mark, TSL finds itself with enough quality talent to field six teams.
“Given the reduction in roster sizes heading into NFL training camps this year and the cancellation of the CFL season, it was critical to accelerate our league expansion and provide additional development opportunities for players this fall,” The Spring League CEO Brian Woods said. “We also wanted to seize the opportunity to play TSL games when America traditionally watches football. Our plan will be to return to the spring season in 2021.”
I’m curious about how this one-off fall season impacts TSL in the future. I doubt FOX has any real ratings expectations for early week, short-season football in late October/early November, but it could give the network an idea of how to present the product next spring.
And keep in mind that TSL players aren’t earning salaries; they pay a registration fee of $2,100 and compensation comes only in the form of food and housing.
So instead of a play-for-pay league it’s actually pay-to-play (with three hots and a cot). If they stick to that model then continuing to have no ties to cities and competing at a central location makes perfect sense.
But if it decides to try to be something more – whether that’s an affiliated feeder system to the NFL or possibly an equal partner with the third iteration of the XFL – then you’re looking at cities and stadiums and player payrolls and all the pitfalls that come with them. Woods is already familiar with such a scenario; he was commissioner of the Fall Experimental Football League (FXFL), which was a minor league hoping to hitch its wagon to the NFL as a farm system. That circuit played two limited seasons in 2014-15 but suspended operations in 2016, leading Woods to segue to TSL.
So, is there any kind of appetite for glorified practice games wrapped in a bubble? I have no clue. With NFL and college football in full swing and grid competition available Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays, people might prefer to Netflix and chill on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
But it’s there if you want it. And regardless of its future, I’ll give The Spring League credit for providing off-brand football fans an unexpected present.