Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Nighthawks Players Suing UFL, But Is That The End of Minor League Football in Omaha?

78 former UFL players, including former Huskers Phillip Dillard, Zac Lee, Mike Caputo, Cody Glenn, Jay Moore, and Steve Octavien, have filed suit against the UFL and the Omaha Nighthawks for wages owed from the aborted 2012 season.  When the UFL shut down last October, the plan was to resume play this spring. This lawsuit makes it pretty clear the Nighthawks won't be playing in the UFL again.  Even if this lawsuit is settled, what player would waste their time in the UFL after this?  The UFL essentially stopped breathing last October, so while it doesn't have an official "death certificate", there's no point in holding out hope that the UFL will come back.

Some will say that this is proof minor league football won't work.  I'm not sure I buy that.  The crowds the Nighthawks drew in 2010 to Rosenblatt Stadium were proof that there is a market for minor league football in Omaha.  And San Diego businessman Jaime Cuadra thinks minor league football is viable nationally.  He's resurrecting the USFL, with plans to play as a spring football league.  While the USFL talks about Omaha as a market, it's a market that lacks facilities for football in the spring.  TD Ameritrade Park was designed for baseball, and the NCAA would never allow football teams to tear up the field prior to the College World Series.  UNO's Caniglia Field is being converted to a soccer pitch, so unless the USFL wants to play at a high school field, there's no place to play in Omaha.

Dead concept for Omaha right?  That's what I had concluded.

But...not so fast.  Seems the organizers of the USFL have an idea.  The Boston Globe reports that the USFL is planning to build stadiums in some markets as part of a larger commercial development:
Now, with a large real estate developer aboard, the league is about to finalize paperwork with its first five franchises, some to be based in new stadia the league will build at a cost as high as $500 million each. Each stadium will have a seating capacity of about 25,000, and in most cases will be part of a larger real estate plan that includes commercial space.
Well, that changes things quite a bit.  If the USFL is going to build stadiums, suddenly Omaha is more viable than before.  Does this make the entire USFL concept viable?  I'm still skeptical, but if private owners are willing to make this gamble with their own money in other areas of the country, why not Omaha?

The first five franchises appear to be headed towards Southern California, Austin/San Antonio, Louisiana, Alabama, and Ohio.  Omaha is mentioned as another market the USFL is looking at along with Birmingham and Memphis.  The USFL is now talking about playing next spring, so if a stadium is going to be built, construction would have to start really soon.  That's unlikely, but maybe 2015.  The USFL has hired Jim Bailey, a former NFL executive, to run the new league.  That's football executive experience, which suggests that this might actually happen.

If private investors want to build a football stadium in the Omaha area with their own money, I view that as a good thing for Omaha.  Frankly, it would be an exciting idea if it were to happen.  I also have to say that if I had $100 million lying around, I probably wouldn't spend it on a minor league football team and a stadium. But if someone else wanted to do that, and do it without expectations of sizable support from local government, other than permitting, I'm all in favor of it.

Like I said, I'm not sure I believe in the business case nationally, but if someone is going to try to do it, Omaha has proven themselves to be the place to make it happen.

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