WORTH THE GAMBLE?

How Texans fans could have something new and different to root for

How Texans fans could have something new and different to root for
The USFL will return in 2022. Photo by Stephen Dunn/Allsport/Getty Images

Are you ready for some football, lots of it, possibly too much of it, next spring?

Last week the United States Football League, last seen filling the air with long passes and gadget plays between 1983 and 1985, announced plans to relaunch with "at least eight" teams starting next March. Meanwhile the XFL's scheduled return in 2022 is on hold while the league discusses a possible merger with the Canadian Football League.

Houston's chances of landing a USFL team are decent to a lock bet. The Houston Gamblers were a USFL expansion team in 1983-84 and introduced the run-and-shoot offense to pro football. Jim Kelly was the star quarterback. Since the USFL owns the rights to all of its original team names, and Houston has several available stadiums and a growing population, it makes sense for the USFL to double-down on the Gamblers.

Still the USFL is a longshot for long-term success. Since 1960, more than a dozen upstart football leagues have tried and failed to gain a foothold on the American sporting public. Spanish philosopher George Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson put it this way, "In the spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love" – not run-pass options and quarterback sacks.

Here's just a partial list of football leagues that tried to compete or co-exist with the mighty National Football League: Alliance of American Football (2019), Continental Football League (1965-69), Indoor Football League (1999-2001), Professional Indoor Football League (1998), United Football League (2009-12), World Football League (1974-75), XFL (2001), and XFL (2020).

Everything in its place, and football's place might be limited to fall through the Super Bowl in winter. While it's true that the mighty NFL's grip on America may be slipping just a little (attendance hit a 15-year low in 2019, TV ratings were down 7 percent last year), the "shield" still is the most popular sports league by far. Nothing compares.

In 2002, Playboy ran a pictorial, "The Women of Enron," and the magazine's top brass came to Houston for a big publicity blowout. I asked one of Playboy's executives, "is the Internet hurting killing Playboy? I've heard there's free porn on the Internet."

The executive said, "Yes, our sales are down. We like to put it this way, we've fallen all the way to No. 1."

That's the NFL, still the 1.

The USFL's announcement last week did not mention where its "at least 8" teams would be based, who would coach the teams, who would play, in which stadiums or much of anything else. The league did release a promotional video with Doug Flutie, a former USFL star, promising, "The USFL is back. See you in 2022. It's football. It is real football. It's pro football at the highest level. It's just being played in the spring."

While the original USFL was loaded with moneybag owners and could afford to lure coveted NFL prospects like Herschel Walker, Steve Young, Jim Kelly and Reggie White, this new incarnation won't have deep pockets. Teams will not have individual owners, the league will own all the franchises.

The USFL has a TV contract with Fox, which also has a financial stake in the new league. But having a TV deal doesn't guarantee success. The Alliance of American Football had hundreds of millions of dollars invested and TV contracts with CBS, TNT and the NFL Network and barely made it through eight games of its inaugural season in 2019 before declaring bankruptcy. The XFL partnered with NBC for its one-and-done season in 2001. Two decades later, XFL 2.0 games aired on Fox and ESPN and still the league landed in bankruptcy halfway through its season.

Maybe it's just that America is suffering from football fatigue. Depending on your monthly cable bill, you can watch 20 college football games on Saturdays. Last year there were 44 bowl games and five all-star games. Teams with losing records, for Heaven's sake, earn a bowl bid now. Last year, Mississippi State finished its regular season with a 3-7 record and was invited to the Armed Forces Bowl. And won!

Granted 2020 was a weird pandemic year. But other teams with losing records have played in a bowl game since 2015, like Hawaii, North Texas, Nebraska, Minnesota and San Jose State.

With the right cable package, fans can watch every NFL football game all season long – that's 333 games including pre-season, regular season, post-season and the waning Pro Bowl. The NFL is expanding its regular season schedule to 17 games next season. Is more too much?

Flutie promised the USFL would provide football at the "highest level." Some might say that the NFL isn't even doing that. Where will the USFL find those highest-level quarterbacks? Quick, who played quarterback for Denver last year? For Cincinnati after Joe Burrow went down with an injury? For San Francisco after Jimmy Garrapolo was hurt?

For Houston this year? Where is Mitchell Trubisky?

One hope for USFL success lies in gambling, which never goes out of season. Bettors need the action, and it doesn't stop after the Super Bowl. It doesn't matter who's playing. One year I was in Las Vegas during an NFL strike. I bet $100 on the Hamilton Tiger-Cats to cover against I don't remember. I couldn't name one player on the Tiger-Cats then, now or ever. And I won!

Here's something that isn't helping. With social media critically important for sports leagues and teams to stay connected with fans, the USFL does not own usfl.com or theusfl.com. Then again, if you click on whitehouse.com, you won't find the First Family's residence, but rather a gambling site. On second thought, that sounds about right.

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Astros on the hunt. Composite Getty Image.

With the Astros' surge from 10 games out of first place to within two games of Seattle, catching and going past the Mariners has naturally become the top objective. It's no given to happen but it's right there. In the final series ahead of the All-Star break, while the Mariners are in the midst of four games with the lowly Angels, the last two World Series champions renew (un)pleasantries at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros enter the weekend five games ahead of the Rangers. They lead the season series with the reigning champs four wins to three. While the Astros can't quite finish off the Arlingtonians by sweeping them in this three game set, shoving them eight games back (even further back of Seattle and the current Wild Card teams) and clinching the tiebreaker would seem close to a death blow. Taking two out of three would be fine for the Astros. If the Rangers win the series, they are clearly still in the American League West and Wild Card races coming out of the All-Star break.

Last year the Rangers had the best offense in the AL. So far in 2024 they rank a mediocre eighth in runs per game. Nathaniel Lowe is the lone Ranger (get it?!?) regular playing as well as he did last season. Corey Seager has been fine but not at the MVP runner-up level of last year. Marcus Semien is notably down, as is 2023 ALCS Astros-obliterater Adolis Garcia. Stud 2023 rookie Josh Jung has been out with a broken wrist since ex-Astro Phil Maton hit him with a pitch in the fourth game of this season, though fill-in third baseman Josh Smith has been the Rangers' best player. 21-year-old late season phenom Evan Carter largely stunk the first two months this season and has been out since late May with a back injury. Repeating is hard, never harder than it is now. Hence no Major League Baseball has done it since the Yankees won three straight World Series 1998-2000.

Chasing down the Division at a crazy clip

From the abyss of their 7-19 start, the Astros sweep over the Marlins clinched a winning record at the break with them at 49-44. Heading into the Texas matchup the Astros have won at a .627 clip since they were 7-19. A full season of .627 ball wins 101 games. If the Astros win at a .627 rate the rest of the way they'll finish with 92 wins, almost certainly enough to secure a postseason slot and likely enough to win the West. Expecting .627 the rest of the way is ambitious.

With it fairly clear that Lance McCullers is highly unlikely to contribute anything after his latest recovery setback, and Luis Garcia a major question mark, what Justin Verlander has left in 2024 grows more important. With the way the Astros often dissemble or poorly forecast when discussing injuries, for all we know Verlander could be cooked. Inside three weeks to the trade deadline, General Manager Dana Brown can't be thinking a back end of the rotation comprised of Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss should be good enough. The Astros have 66 games to play after the All-Star break, including separate stretches with games on 18 and 16 consecutive days.

All-Star MIAs

Viewership for Tuesday's All-Star game at Globe Life Field in Arlington will be pretty, pretty, pretty low in Houston. One, All-Star Game ratings are pitiful every year compared to where they used to be. Two, the Astros could be down to zero representatives at Tuesday's showcase. Kyle Tucker was rightfully named a reserve but had no shot at playing as he continues the loooong recovery from a bone bruise (or worse) suffered June 3. Being named an All-Star for a ninth time was enough for Jose Altuve. He opts out of spending unnecessary time in Texas Rangers territory citing a sore wrist. This despite Altuve playing four games in a row since sitting out the day after he was plunked and highly likely to play in all three games versus the Rangers this weekend. Yordan Alvarez exiting Wednesday's rout of the Marlins with hip discomfort and then missing Thursday's game seem clear reasons for him to skip, though he has indicated thus far he intends to take part. Yordan is the most essential lineup component to the Astros' hopes of making an eighth straight playoff appearance.

Ronel Blanco should have made the American League squad on performance, but pretty obviously his 10 game illegal substance use suspension was held against him. As it works out, Blanco will pitch Sunday in the last game before the break which would render him unavailable for the All-Star Game anyway. Blanco is eligible to pitch, but given the career high-shattering innings workload Blanco is headed for, no way the Astros want him on the mound Tuesday. Just last year the Astros kept Framber Valdez from pitching in the game.

While waiting, and waiting, and waiting on Tucker's return, the Astros have also been waiting on Chas McCormick to get back to something even faintly resembling the hitter he was last year. McCormick routinely looks lost at the plate. He has four hits (all singles) in his last 32 at bats with his season OPS pitiful at .572. During the break the Astros should seriously weigh sending McCormick to AAA Sugar Land and giving Pedro Leon a try in a job share with Joey Loperfido.

*Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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