Breaking In

New Orleans’ USFL team at top of league

There is a house in New Orleans…”

Well, not yet. The New Orleans Breakers are in the second year of the re-launched United States Football League (USFL) and have yet to play a down in the Big Easy. For the second year in a row, they have played “home” games at Protective Stadium in Birmingham, Alabama. While unique, it’s part of the business plan for the league’s revival. The league is focused on building an initial audience through television. Last season, every team played in Birmingham. This year, roughly half of the teams are playing in their namesake city. The plan is for all teams to play home games in the city they represent.    

While locals haven’t been able to see the team in person, through the first month of the season, the Breakers are giving New Orleanians some darn good football. Through the first weekend of May, the team was on top of the standings, undefeated (4-0), and had the best offense in the league. Head Coach John DeFilippo has installed a high-power offense that might remind some of the high intensity the New Orleans Saints ran under former Head Coach Sean Payton. In that period, quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson has led the best offense in the league, averaging 384.3 yards per game — more than 40 yards per game more than their closest competitor. In just four games, running back Wes Hills is the USFL’s leading rusher and has scored eight touchdowns. On the defensive side of the ball linebacker Vontae Diggs is making a name for himself.

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As an upstart, the USFL is not a major competitor to the NFL. It has eight teams compared to 32 in the more than century-old NFL. It is not on the same economic — or talent — level as the older league. But there is a niche for professional football in the spring, and the league may have found a path to not only establishing but sustaining itself as a feeder league for NFL hopefuls.

The USFL is owned by National Spring Football League Enterprises Co, LLC, a joint venture between founder Brian Woods and Fox Corporation’s sports unit, Fox Sports in the United States. The owners have committed $150 million–$200 million over the USFL’s first three years to its operations, with plans to attract an additional $250 million from investors. Fox will air 17 regular season games and one semifinal; NBC will broadcast nine regular season games, one semifinal and the championship game; and FS1 and USA Network will broadcast seven games each.

The league is betting on television viewership and associated revenue due to the advent of legalized sports gambling, now allowed in-person in 30 states and online in 18, to raise interest in its games.

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The league has already changed its pay structure from last year when active roster players made $45,000 and practice squad players made $15,000, players received $850 per win and a $10,000 bonus for winning the championship. This year, pay has increased to $5,350 per week from $4,500 per week ($2,500 for inactive players), $150 a week toward 401K contributions, and a $400 per week housing stipend. That’s quite a difference from NFL players’ 2022 minimum salary of $750,000.

While the league wants teams to play in their namesake cities next season, there is no word on where the Breakers will call home when they “move” to NOLA. In 1984 — their lone season in New Orleans — they played in the Louisiana Superdome and averaged 30,557 fans per game. While the cavernous Dome provides a great NFL experience, it would seem advantageous for the team to work out a lease with Tulane University to play in the cozier confines of Yulman Stadium. Another option would be to renovate the former Zephyr Stadium, which would benefit the NOLA Gold of Major League Rugby.

It will be interesting to see how the league continues to go this spring and into the next year. In ’84, they rushed out to a 5-0 record, only to finish 8-10. If the league survives, and the Breakers continue to win, the team will have a following. Now they just need a place to play.

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Chris Price is an award-winning journalist and public relations principal. When he’s not writing, he’s avid about music, the outdoors, and Saints, Ole Miss and Chelsea football.

 

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