By Steve Keating
May 3 (Reuters) - The Alliance of American Football (AAF) lasted eight weeks, an XFL reboot ceased operation after just five, but The Spring League (TSL) - a league that does not pay players - will kick off a fifth season this week with a new media rights deal with FOX.
For decades, gridiron interlopers have looked on longingly at the National Football League, which last month finalised a $105 billion media rights deal, seeking to cash in on the America's sporting obsession.
Many have tried for a slice of the NFL pie, most recently the XFL and AAF, both of which flared out in spectacular fashion not after years of effort but weeks.
While the XFL and AAF arrived with a bang and exited with a thud the TSL, a shoe-string league that has no player payroll, was securing a toe-hold.
"We have definitely found the secret sauce in terms of operating a professional football league," TSL founder and Chief Executive Brian Woods told Reuters. "Our business model is different."
Not only does the TSL not pay its players, the league charges a $2,000 fee for the opportunity to get on the field.
The fee is waived for anyone with NFL experience or who has been to an NFL training camp, but no one on the field gets paid.
Before COVID-19 forced sport leagues into bubbles without fans the TSL was already operating from hub cities and has no aching interest in attracting paying customers.
"Nothing in our current financial forecast is indicative of a league that is going to be shutting down any time soon," said Woods. "Now we have a very big media partner in FOX and they have given us the exposure we really needed to put this league at the next level."
Woods describes the league as a "made for TV product." But even before FOX arrived on the scene the TSL had long since torn up the "how to build a sports league" blueprint.
Historically, the life blood of any professional sport enterprise has been the paying fans.
Leagues and teams invest years building a fan base that provides the cornerstone to financial solvency.
The TSL has two divisions of four teams - the Alphas, Aviators, Conquerors and Linemen in the North, with the Blues, Jousters, Generals and Sea Lions settled in the South.
None will have any affiliation with a city beyond the hub to which they are assigned, either Houston or Indianapolis.
No fans in the seats? No problem.
Because the TSL has no player payroll, no travel costs and reduced overhead by playing out of centralized locations, the penny-pinching league was able to turn a profit in its third year.
"Everything we approached from a business standpoint has to be very disciplined," said Woods. "We try to eliminate costs we don't think are necessary.
"What are the higher costs associated with your traditional sports league, what makes a lot of the these (startup leagues) close their doors in rapid fashion?
"For us, we looked at where can we cut and still have a very good product to put on the field," Woods explained.
With FOX on board, Woods says expansion plans are being explored but the league will not be rushed.
Some day, the TSL may mature into a more familiar form, a league with franchises and fans. For now, it will continue to take baby steps while avoiding the financial landmines that have blown up other gridiron startups.
"We have plans for growth and FOX is behind a lot of that," said Woods. "They want to see us morph into something bigger."
TSL detractors complain that it is not a league at all but rather a dressed up pay-to-play development program. A showcase for players, coaches and even officials looking to catch the eye of NFL scouts.
FOX views it differently.
TSL will have a 24-game regular season, which starts on Thursday, packed into a six-week window and crown a champion on June 19, with FOX broadcasting every game.
"We saw other leagues come and go. The idea was it would be slow growth, "Woods said. "Either you are growing a business or you are in slow motion liquidation." (Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Bill Berkrot)