WORTH THE GAMBLE?

Here's something new and different for Texans fans to cheer for

Here's something new and different for Texans fans to cheer for
The USFL returns this weekend.Photo by Stephen Dunn/Allsport/Getty Images.

Spring has sprung in Houston, birds are chirping, we’re praying our lawnmowers start, guys are back on their bikes wearing ridiculous Spandex shorts, our cars are covered with whatever that disgusting yellow stuff is, the Astros are back and the NBA playoffs are tipping off ....

Are you ready for some football? In Houston? But really Birmingham, Alabama?

Against all odds, the resurrected United States Football League returns Saturday night, live in prime time on both NBC and Fox, with the Birmingham Stallions hosting the New Jersey Generals. It’ll be just like old times, as the Stallions and Generals were teams in the original USFL that started in 1983 and died three years later. Watch ESPN’s 30 for 30 called Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL? for the sad and frankly dumb saga.

The all-new USFL has eight teams and two conferences. The South Conference has our Houston Gamblers, New Orleans Breakers, Tampa Bay Bandits and Birmingham Stallions. The North Conference has the New Jersey Generals, Philadelphia Stars and Michigan Panthers and Pittsburgh Maulers.

“Our” Houston Gamblers? The USFL isn’t hiding it, but TV commercials promoting Saturday night’s league opener don’t mention that every team, regardless of what the front of their uniforms say, will play every game in Birmingham, Alabama – at either Protective Stadium and Legion Field.

The league and all eight teams are owned by something called the National Spring Football League Enterprises Company, LLC. … but really Fox Sports.

In other words the Houston Gamblers won’t play in Houston, won’t have local ownership, no local offices, no home stadium, no local cheerleaders, the players won’t live here and local sports anchors won’t be reporting breathlessly from the sidelines in Alabama. The Houston Gamblers have about as much connection with Texas as, you remember that commercial, picante sauce made in New Jersey. The last line of that commercial was “get a rope.” I didn’t come out of my house for three weeks.

Saturday night’s league opener will be broadcast by both NBC and Fox, the first time two networks aired the same pro football game at the same time since the 1967 Super Bowl was on CBS and NBC. All 40 USFL regular season games will air on either NBC, Fox, USA Network, FS1 or Peacock. Check your local listings each week to find the Gamblers’ game.

The Houston Gamblers head coach and general manager is Kevin Sumlin, former University of Houston and Texas A&M coach. The starting quarterback is Clayton Thorson, whose name sounds like the alter ego of a Marvel superhero. The team colors are black, red, gray, white and yellow-gold. I’m not sure if crayons have that many colors.

The Holy Bible says, “To everything there is a season” (Ecclesiastes 3.1). Is spring a season for football? So far, no. There have been several attempts by pro leagues to play a football season after the NFL’s Super Bowl – the original USFL, another USFL attempt that never got off the ground in 2010, the Alliance of American Football and two cracks by the XFL. They all flopped.

The odds are against the USFL 3.0. But as Justin Bieber and most recently The Undertaker said, never say never. Speaking of odds, Vegas has posted lines on this weekend’s USFL games. Houston is a 3-point underdog against Michigan. The game will air at 11 a.m. Sunday on NBC.

Houston also has the longest odds to win the championship, plus-700. Since there were no pre-season games and nobody really knows anything about any of the teams, I’m putting $10 on the Gamblers this week and another $10 on them to win the title. Reason: why not? Don’t forget, the Houston Roughnecks were 5-0 in the 2020 XFL season until Covid shut down the league. What does that have to do with the Gamblers' chances of winning this year? Absolutely nothing.

The USFL will have some gimmick rules: a team can go for a 3-point conversion after a touchdown, and the team scoring a touchdown can retain possession by making a first down on 4th and 12 from its own 33 yard line. If they fail to make a first down, the other team takes possession. If the other team sacks the quarterback on that do-or-die play, it gets the ball on the opponent’s 10 yard line – in the red area. I call it the “red zone,” too, but I’ve heard several NFL coaches call it the “red area.”

Active roster players will make about $45,000 for the 10-game season. Practice players will earn about $15,000. No middling quarterbacks will get $40 million a year like in the NFL. Seriously, Derek Carr, $121.5 million for three years?

The USFL won’t be a tough ticket. Adult tickets will be $10 and will come with three free tickets for kids under 15. I still don’t expect to see sold-out stadiums for the USFL. In fact, the only similarity between Houston’s team in the USFL and Houston’s team in the NFL will be half-empty stadiums.

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Will robot umps improve baseball? Composite Getty Images.

Major League Baseball could test robot umpires as part of a challenge system in spring training next year, which could lead to regular-season use in 2026.

MLB has been experimenting with the automated ball-strike system in the minor leagues since 2019 but is still working on the shape of the strike zone.

“I said at the owners meeting it is not likely that we would bring ABS to the big leagues without a spring training test. OK, so if it’s ’24 that leaves me ’25 as the year to do your spring training test if we can get these issues resolved, which would make ’26 a viable possibility,” baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said Tuesday during a meeting with the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. "But is that going to be the year? I’m not going to be flat-footed on that issue.

“We have made material progress. I think that the technology is good to a 100th of an inch. The technology in terms of the path of the ball is pluperfect.”

Triple-A ballparks have used ABS this year for the second straight season, but there is little desire to call the strike zone as the cube defined in the rule book and MLB has experimented with modifications during minor league testing.

The ABS currently calls strikes solely based on where the ball crosses the midpoint of the plate, 8.5 inches from the front and the back. The top of the strike zone was increased to 53.5% of batter height this year from 51%, and the bottom remained at 27%.

"We do have technical issues surrounding the definition of the strike zone that still need to be worked out,” Manfred said.

After splitting having the robot alone for the first three games of each series and a human with a challenge system in the final three during the first 2 1/2 months of the Triple-A season, MLB on June 25 switched to an all-challenge system in which a human umpire makes nearly all decisions.

Each team currently has three challenges in the Pacific Coast League and two in the International League. A team retains its challenge if successful, similar to the regulations for big league teams with video reviews.

“The challenge system is more likely or more supported, if you will, than the straight ABS system,” players' association head Tony Clark said earlier Tuesday at a separate session with the BBWAA. "There are those that have no interest in it at all. There are those that have concerns even with the challenge system as to how the strike zone itself is going to be considered, what that looks like, how consistent it is going to be, what happens in a world where Wi-Fi goes down in the ballpark or the tech acts up on any given night.

“We’re seeing those issues, albeit in minor league ballparks," Clark added. "We do not want to end up in a world where in a major league ballpark we end up with more questions than answers as to the integrity of that night’s game or the calls associated with it.”

Playing rules changes go before an 11-member competition committee that includes four players, an umpire and six team representatives. Ahead of the 2023 season, the committee adopted a pitch clock and restrictions on defensive shifts without support from players.

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