The cancellation of Major League Football, the upstart spring league that was scheduled to begin in April 2016, upset the athletes who had made the cut. It also disappointed fans who had been looking forward to off-season football, and who had made plans to travel to see it.
The question for the sports destination world, however, became whether and how the cancellation would impact the Southwest coast of Florida, where the league was to be headquartered, and where training camps were to be held. The lack of projected income from spectator tourism, players’ hotel stays, rental of fields and other facilities stood to hurt the area.
But as it turned out, the effect on the area was actually almost negligible, according to Sean Walter, director of sports for the Bradenton Area Sports Commission.
“It’s a disappointment, obviously,” said Walter. “But it’s not a loss by any means.”
The fact that the area wasn’t economically damaged is a testament to a combination of effective planning, skillful negotiations, good communication – and even a bit of luck.
“It’s fortunate MLFB was great in their communications,” said Walter. “They communicated regularly with the hotels down here, with the private facility that was providing the fields, and with us.”
Premier Sports Campus at Lakewood Ranch, located in Bradenton, was to host training camp beginning in April, but received word shortly before athletes were to report that the league would not go forward in 2016. Organizers set 2017 as the new launch date.
But, noted Walter, a stroke of luck allowed Premier to get field use anyway. The football league had agreed to use half the fields on Premier’s campus, but shortly after cancellation, “one of Premier’s other clients expanded” to take up the shortfall.
Walter said league operators have told him they are planning to hold developmental camps in June and July; he is waiting to learn more. Many of the MLFB’s prospective players, he added, come from college backgrounds and some have played in the Canadian Football League, or in Europe. A few have played rugby and have found their skills were transferable, though they were not yet at a level where they could play against NFL athletes.
The league failed to get off the ground late in the run-up to its inaugural season after a Texas investment firm did not honor a $20 million financing deal in February, according to the local Herald Tribune. The league had since received a letter of commitment from Asian Global Capital Ltd. of Hong Kong for a $20 million equity purchase of the company's common stock and $100 million line of credit since but had not yet closed on the agreement in time for the training camp at Premier Sports Campus to start in April.
MLFB noted the lack of financing as a setback that would put players’ “safety and quality of play” in danger, and cited this as one of the reasons for cancelling the inaugural season. Players received word in late March “to put their travel plans on hold,” according to the newspaper.
“They’d like to ramp up again in 2017,” said Walter.
Back when MLFB had originally reached out to the Sports Commission, Walter noted that one of the concerns was room nights in hotels. However, the sports commission was careful to stipulate that discounted room nights would not be available since it was peak tourism season. The league agreed. In addition, the sports commission advised the league to craft policies with fair cancellation clauses.
“That was a huge stipulation for us,” said Walter, “they needed to have an effective cancellation policy for their hotels. As it turned out, it was fortunate that we pushed them on that.”
In high season, getting rooms in the area isn’t easy. Originally, according to the Herald-Tribune, Frank Murtha of the MLF had even flirted with the idea of docking a cruise ship on the Manatee River to house 800 players and coaches. Other professional sports organizations have taken advantage of housing rentals through IMG Academy or the dormitories at Pirate City.
“With workouts scheduled in February and March, peak tourism time in Southwest Florida, Murtha was having a hard time finding a hotel to accommodate the athletes and coaches who will be invited to participate in the startup professional league training at the Premier Sports Campus,” wrote Katy Bergen for the Herald-Tribune.
As the number of visitors to Southwest Florida rises – particularly for sports-related events -- hotel rooms to accommodate all the visitors are increasingly in-demand, and some organizers worry that would-be visitors will see too many “no vacancy” signs.
“Everybody knows we need more hotels,” Sharon Hillstrom, president of the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corp., told the Herald-Tribune. “This area continues to attract more visitors from a tourism standpoint.”
MLFB has definite plans for next year, said Walter.
“Everyone assumes their corporate office has shut down or gone away, but they’re still here and they’re still ramping up for the following year.”
Still, competing with established leagues is hard and MLFB will have its work cut out for it when it does begin selling tickets. It will be competing with baseball, both on the major and minor league levels, as well as the college lacrosse, baseball and softball seasons. And, of course, the NFL has the undisputed market in football. In fact, the failure of MLFB to launch this year likely did not surprise those who have seen other football leagues fail, despite organizers’ best efforts.
The United Football League (UFL) played from 2009 to 2012, mainly in markets where the NFL did not have a presence at the time. However, the small league (it had only five teams) was trying to play in the fall season, meaning it had to compete with NFL, as well as with high school and college ball.
The XFL league, founded by World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment) owner Vince McMahon, debuted in 2001 with eight teams. It was intended to be another off-season league, but failed to gain traction with audiences and ceased operations after only one season.
The United States Football League played for three seasons, 1983 through 1985 in a spring/summer format. A fourth season, to be played in a traditional autumn/winter schedule, was set to commence before the league folded. (Trivia point: one of the league’s backers was Donald Trump.)