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'The NFL Beat': USFL Making NFL Inroads

First NFL minor league in the works

By Alex Dunlap, 2:50PM, Wed. May. 16, 2012

'The NFL Beat': USFL Making NFL Inroads

Jim Steeg oversaw the creation of an annual holiday that accounts for the consumption of 1.25 billion chicken wings and 30.4 million bags of chips. As a student in the lifelong class of Pro Football Hype 101, I know one thing is certain: Steeg is not just a professor; He built the school and wrote the books.

Audience growth. Brand sentiment. Brand/audience engagement. PR. These are all just other terms for hype.

New USFL Board of Advisors Chairman Jim Steeg took over as head of special events for the National Football League in 1979. Twenty-six years later, he handed off the keys to accept a position as COO for the San Diego Chargers.

He had, by then, created a monster. The Super Bowl. America's second-biggest eating holiday behind Thanksgiving. The day that recently eclipsed New Year's Eve as America's No. 1 "party throwing" holiday. The concrete standard by which NFL champions are crowned, and the abstract standard by which mega-brand advertisers and corporations are recognized in American pop culture. When Steeg has a vision, my best advice is to get out of his way or make friends with him really fast. Whatever it is he's up to, you're probably going to end up eventually wanting tickets.

Here are the facts about the new USFL: The dormant brand name was owned for many years by Michael Dwyer, who made weak annual attempts to "re-launch" the USFL as what would have likely turned into yet another cautionary tale for entities who set out to compete with the NFL for a pro football audience. We have seen these upstarts fail time and time again. Dwyer was an enigmatic league "commissioner," having reportedly tried to solicit team ownership to celebrities and other persons of interest via social media, and exploring untraditional fan-funded franchise ideas among other things.

The New USFL is now owned by End Zone Sports. By a guy who made millions of dollars operating a tuna farm. Think about that. Free, delicious tuna whenever you want it. Millions of dollars. This man knows success. Jamie Cuadra, a San Diego entrepreneur, recently bought the rights to the brand from Dwyer. His vision is simple. Create a spring professional football league that acts as an NFL minor league. A league that works with, and caters to the NFL, rather than competing against them. Upon purchase, he did what any reasonable human being would have done. He handed off the keys to Jim Steeg.

The Chronicle was able to catch up with Steeg again about the league's progress heading into what is set to be the inaugural 2013 USFL season, and there is plenty to report. "Things are moving." Steeg said, "Slowly and steadily, but things are moving … we're coming along."

I would certainly say so. The USFL Board of Advisors was this week given even further NFL credibility and seasoning with the additions of James Bailey (longtime counsel for the Browns/Ravens and author of the most famous letter ever written on NFL letterhead) and Fred Biletnikoff (Hall of Fame wide receiver and namesake of the Biletnikoff Award). Holy cow.

"I'm here to make sure the right people are in place," said Steeg, who remains the board's chairman. "Even once the league gets up and running. It isn't just about developing players [for NFL careers], its coaches, front office staff, we're going to be there every step of the way to make sure the new owners and investors are supported with knowing who to interview, who's qualified." Steeg went on, "I had a former NFL coach reach out to me just this week about possible opportunities."

Former NFL coaches aren't the only NFL types with whom Steeg has shared recent counsel. "I've probably talked to 20 players about [the USFL] in the last few weeks" Steeg said. "I was in New Orleans and spoke with Drew [Brees] about the league just this weekend. Marshall Faulk, too many to name. Not one person has told me yet that they don't love the idea."

What's not to love? A spring football league played with NFL rules, coached by aspiring future NFL coaches? That is a gold mine. My goodness. The "bubble players" that barely miss NFL rosters for whatever reason are elite talents. They were stars in college. Meaning, they were likely the best player in their county in high school, then went on to college (where everybody was the best player in their county) and were better than 95% of those guys. High level football. Players are set to be paid a substantially higher wage than Arena or Canadian League football pays, and the season will end in time for players signed by NFL franchises to report for mini camp.

"You know, when I was talking with Drew, it wasn't about investing," Steeg said. "Drew's one of my closest friends, [from their time together in San Diego] and to be honest, he knows more about the new CBA than maybe, well … anyone. We were going over how some of that stuff would effect scheduling and other issues." Steeg went on, "Of course I did ask him if he would be interested in working with the league on some level. He said, 'Put a team in Austin. Then we'll be talkin.'"

And it just might happen.

[Alex Dunlap is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America, the host of RosterWatch on 104.9FM ESPN Radio Austin, founder of Rosterwatch.com, and a featured expert contributor to the FantasyPros.com network.]

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