Colin C. Rhodes: COLUMN: A recap of spring football and how we got the United Football League

Apr. 2—This Easter weekend, you might have turned on the TV and tuned it to the local FOX station or ESPN and saw football on your screen. This was the United Football League, kicking off the 2024 spring football season.

You might be thinking, "The United Football League? Wasn't there the United States Football League and the XFL last year?" Yes, there were, in fact, two separate spring football leagues in 2023.

During the "offseason," the USFL and the XFL merged and became the UFL. And for the hardcore football fans out there, it has no relation to the UFL from the early 2010s.

This UFL features eight teams, four in the USFL Conference and four in the XFL Conference. Three of the teams are from the USFL, and five are from the XFL. Technically, it's four from each league, but the Houston Gamblers of the USFL rebranded into the Houston Roughnecks of the XFL but kept the coaching staff of the Gamblers.

At this point, you're probably confused about the state of spring football. As someone who's followed it since the Alliance of American Football in 2019, I'm going to summarize the last six years of spring football to help you understand how we got the UFL.

In 2018, Vince McMahon, the owner of WWE and founder of the original XFL from 2001, announced he's bringing back the XFL to play in 2020. Around the same time, Charlie Ebersol, son of former NBC executive and 2001 XFL co-founder Dick Ebersol, announced he's creating a new spring football league to play in 2019: The Alliance of American Football.

The AAF, or The Alliance, featured eight teams — Orlando Apollos, Atlanta Legends, Memphis Express, Birmingham Iron, Arizona Hotshots, Salt Lake Stallions, San Diego Fleet and San Antonio Commanders.

The Alliance featured no kickoff, an onside attempt of fourth and 12 and two-point conversions only after touchdowns. Starting the season right after Super Bowl LIII, the league folded after eight weeks of its season, with Orlando leading with a 7-1 record.

The reason for folding? Money. Turns out, a major financial backer backed out before the season, and Ebersol kept quiet about it so the league would play. Carolina Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon bought the league midseason and folded it in a power move. That's a gross oversimplification, but I'm trying to be brief.

The Alliance of American Football filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy and was never heard from again. Except for a couple of random tweets months later from two of the teams, no one knows why that happened.

With no competition for the 2020 season, the XFL returned with eight teams of its own — Houston Roughnecks, Tampa Bay Vipers, New York Guardians, DC Defenders, St. Louis Battlehawks, Seattle Dragons, Los Angeles Wildcats and Dallas Renegades.

The XFL proved very popular. It featured new rules like the double forward pass, one, two and three-point attempts after touchdowns that involved no kicking and the kickoff format that the NFL just approved a few months ago.

The league kicked off right after Super Bowl LIV, but like all things in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic shut it down. The XFL played for five weeks with Houston leading with a 5-0 record. The XFL filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and was sold to Dwayne Johnson, Dany Garcia and RedBird Capital in August of 2020.

While the pandemic raged into 2021, spring football didn't die. The Spring League, a developmental league which had been around since 2017, struck up TV rights with FOX to broadcast its season in Indianapolis and Houston. It finished its season, with the Linemen winning the Mega Bowl.

The Spring League owner, Brian Woods, put away the developmental league after that season and partnered with FOX to resurrect the United States Football League, the first ever spring football league that played from 1983 to 1985.

The new USFL, like the Alliance and XFL, featured an eight-team format. Like The Spring League, it played all its games in a hub location — Birmingham, Ala. It resurrected teams from the old USFL to play in this league, kicking off in late spring of 2022.

The teams featured were the Birmingham Stallions, Tampa Bay Bandits, New Orleans Breakers, Houston Gamblers, Pittsburgh Maulers, New Jersey Generals, Philadelphia Stars and Michigan Panthers. The Stallions beat the Stars in the championship game, played at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, for the first completed pro spring football season in 21 years.

The XFL was supposed to come back in 2022, but ownership postponed the return season to 2023 after a failed attempt to partner with the Canadian Football League. After an extra year of waiting, however, the XFL kicked off after Super Bowl LVII to start the 2023 spring football season.

The 2023 XFL brought back the Roughnecks, Defenders, Battlehawks and Dragons (now called the Sea Dragons). The Vipers moved to Las Vegas, the Guardians to Orlando and the Renegades to Arlington, Texas. The XFL introduced a new team, the San Antonio Brahmas.

Both the USFL and XFL played seasons in 2023, with the USFL starting later than the XFL. In the USFL, Tampa Bay became the Memphis Showboats. Arlington won the XFL championship, and Birmingham won back-to-back titles in the USFL.

Everyone knew at this point that a merger between the two leagues was likely to happen, and fans received the news of an intent to merge in September. The official announcement came months later, and the name for the resulting league came in December — The United Football League.

The UFL features the Roughnecks, Stallions, Panthers and Showboats in the USFL Conference and the Renegades, Battlehawks, Defenders and Brahmas in the XFL Conference. Players from the teams that didn't survive the merger were dispersed via draft to the rest of the league.

And that's how we got to where we are in 2024 with the UFL. The league will play out its 10-week season before two weeks of playoffs to determine the winner in June. If all goes well, spring football could be here to stay.

Reach Colin C. Rhodes at 304-367-2548