USFL's bizarre but maybe brilliant plan – featuring an empty Memphis stadium | Giannotto
Julianne Sigg bought the oversized red styrofoam sombrero on Amazon. She brought oversized playing cards to hold up, too. A four of spades and two of hearts.
She had flown from Colorado to Memphis for every Houston Gamblers game this USFL season to cheer on her son, tight end Clint Sigg – No. 42. Just never accessorized like this.
In a crowd of a couple hundred people inside Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium Sunday afternoon, this was enough to be celebrated as the fan of the game up on the scoreboard.
“Mom is cheering you on, 42,” the in-game host said over the public address system.
Clint Sigg, with the camera now focused on him, waved back to her from the huddle.
“Southwest Airlines game,” Houston Gamblers coach Curtis Johnson would later describe his team’s 16-10 win over the New Jersey Generals. “Friends and family.”
Count this endearing scene – so quiet a son can say hi to his mom 10 rows up in the stands – among the quirks to result from perhaps the oddest twist yet in the city’s professional football history. The return of the USFL to Memphis, and the return of the Memphis Showboats, came with a business plan featuring an additional team from Houston based out of Liberty Park at the same time.
That’s right, in case you forgot: There’s another USFL franchise representing Houston playing games here, and getting little to no promotion in Memphis because there’s also a team representing Memphis here.
It’s bizarre, but maybe brilliant if this becomes the spring football league that actually survives in Memphis for more than a season or two.
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After the USFL played all of its games in Birmingham, Alabama, last season, there are four host cities for the league’s eight teams this second season – Memphis, Birmingham, Detroit and Canton, Ohio.
So in Memphis, there’s a platoon system in place. When one team practices, the other team holds meetings. Marketing, gameday operations, and just about every non-coaching position works for both teams. Even the cheerleaders simply change their outfits depending on what team is playing.
It’s intended to keep costs down during the league’s infancy. But it’s also an indication of a larger objective, one that feels more sustainable than previous operations to roll through town pitching the next big thing in professional football.
This is, first and foremost, a television product. It’s owned by FOX Sports. The purpose is to fill programming slots on weekend afternoons in the spring. Attendance is secondary. Television ratings will determine this enterprise’s immediate future, and the ratings seem good enough, for now.
"We couldn’t be more pleased with how the community has embraced the team and the support the USFL has received from the Memphis football fans and city leaders,” said Daryl Johnston, the USFL's president of football operations, who added it "validates that we’re building something special and our choice for the USFL to return home to Memphis was the right decision.”
Over the weekend, with both the Showboats and Gamblers in action and the Bluff City Fair going on in a portion of the stadium’s parking lot, it harkened back to the previous era when the original Showboats were a short-lived craze and Libertyland was in its heyday.
The Showboats and Gamblers also happen to be the two hottest teams in the league. Houston has won four games in a row; Memphis has won three. They play one another this Sunday. It means the Gamblers will play in front of thousands instead of dozens – albeit thousands of fans rooting for the Showboats.
The league determined a year ago, when it attempted to promote games involving out-of-market teams in Birmingham, that there was no use trying to appeal to potential fans without any community affiliation. It’s why you can’t drive down I-240 without seeing a Showboats billboard and you’d have no idea the Gamblers were here.
The result is a dynamic around town in which “nobody knows who we are,” Gamblers running back Mark Thompson said. Even Johnson, a longtime NFL assistant and former Tulane coach who is also the father of former University of Memphis wide receiver Curtis Johnson III, admits "I don't know all the names yet" on the roster.
But the players, who receive a housing stipend of $400 per week in addition to their $5,450 salary, also appreciate the relative anonymity. “It’s cool being the away team all the time," Thompson noted.
So a Gamblers "home" game in Memphis is really for football purists, full of people like Cynthia Culver. She drove from Horseshoe Lake, Arkansas, to Atoka to pick up Winston White, the father of her best friend, because "we love football and we don't miss any games."
"It's amazing. You can hear the players making the calls and the trash talk on the field," added Jason Mabry, a Memphis Showboats season ticket holder who was there since Gamblers' tickets were included for free.
"I just hope it lasts," said Memphis native Reginald Williams, who enjoyed his Showboats experience so much he came back for more on Sunday. "I hope it makes it."
If the USFL does, a mostly empty Memphis stadium featuring a team from Houston that has yet to actually play or practice there might just be the deciding factor.
You can reach Commercial Appeal columnist Mark Giannotto via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @mgiannotto
This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: USFL's bizarre but maybe brilliant plan includes empty Memphis stadium