Spring Breakers

Spring football has returned to New Orleans — with a quirky business model
Illustration by Paddy Mills
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.

The New Orleans Breakers know how to make a splash. When the football team kicked off their inaugural United States Football League (USFL) season in the Crescent City in 1984, they did so via a parachutist jumping from the rafters of the Louisiana Superdome to deliver the game ball to the playing field.

Seen as a rival to the then-hapless New Orleans Saints — whose then-owner, John Mecom Jr., wanted to sell or move the NFL team — the Breakers raced out to a 5-0 start. Unfortunately, the team finished 8-10 in what would be their lone season in the Big Easy.

The team enjoyed locals’ support, averaging 30,557 fans per game, but when the USFL decided to move their season from the spring to the fall, in direct competition with the NFL, the Breakers didn’t think they could directly compete with the Saints and packed up and relocated to Portland.

Nearly 40 years after their first incarnation, the New Orleans Breakers are back as part of the new USFL, launched on April 16.

The new league has drawn some familiar names to its ranks. Brian Woods is the league’s president. Former Dallas Cowboys full back and television color commentator Daryl Johnston is the executive vice president of football operations, and Mike Pereira — who grew to prominence as FOX’s go-to reviewer of officials’ questionable calls during its broadcasts of NFL games — is head of officiating. Larry Fedora, who was head coach at the universities of North Carolina and Southern Mississippi, will lead the Breakers.

Due to an interesting business model that took a page from the book of the COVID-19 precaution plan, local fans will likely only see the team play on television this year. While the club carries New Orleans in its name, the team will not play a down in the Crescent City this year. The USFL has decided to focus on getting its footing through broadcasting. All eight of the league’s teams will be based in Birmingham, Alabama — home of the league’s headquarters – for the 10-week regular season this year, playing at either Protective Stadium or Legion Field, with two rounds of postseason action scheduled for Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio, in a setup similar to the National Basketball Association’s 2020 “COVID bubble” season when all games were played in Orlando, Florida.

If the league survives — recent spring launches including the Xtreme Football League (XFL) and the Alliance of American Football (AAF) folded during or after their inaugural seasons — it wants half the teams to play in their home cities in 2023 (with four remaining in Birmingham) and all eight to play in their designated cities in 2024.

Games will be broadcast on Fox — an owner in the league that has reportedly committed as much as $200 million to the league’s operations over three years and is looking to add an additional $250 million from investors — along with NBC, FS1 and USA, with some contests streamed on NBC’s Peacock app. The league’s opening game was broadcast by Fox and NBC, marking the first simulcast of the same football game by networks not owned by the same company since Super Bowl I in 1967.

While ticket sales are important to any team’s success, this year admission is just $10 per person, with children aged 15 and under admitted for free.

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

Player salaries will be limited to $45,000 for each team’s 38 active roster players (53 in the NFL), $15,000 for each team’s seven practice squad players (14 in the NFL), and $600 weekly during training camp. Players will also receive win bonuses of $850 per win and $10,000 for winning the championship. That’s quite a difference from NFL players’ 2021 minimum salary of $660,000.

To differentiate itself from the NFL, the USFL has instituted some unique rules, just a couple include the allowance of two forward passes behind the line of scrimmage — similar to the XFL in 2020 — and three options for point(s) after touchdown. Teams can go for a 1-point PAT kick or drop-kick from the 15-yard line (same as the NFL), try a 2-point conversion from the 2-yard line (also same as the NFL), or attempt a 3-point conversion from the 10-yard line (same as the XFL in 2001 and 2020).

The biggest conversion in question, however, is can Saints fans be converted into Saints AND Breakers fans?

For that, we’ll just have to wait and see how things play out.