Football’s new game in town

October 8, 2010, 11:00 AM UTC

It has five teams, big time owners like Bill Hambrecht and Tim Armstrong, and even its first sold-out game. Welcome to the UFL.

By William D. Cohan

Are you ready for some more football?

Welcome to the United Football League, or UFL, now playing its second eight-game season in five smaller cities around the country. If you haven’t heard of it, maybe you know some of the names behind it: Mark Cuban, billionaire founder of HDNet. Zach Nelson, CEO of NetSuite (N). Tim Armstrong, CEO of AOL (AOL) (recently spun off from the parent of Fortune’s publisher, Time Warner (TWX)). Quarterbacking the effort is Bill Hambrecht, co-founder of Hambrecht & Quist, the San Francisco-based investment-banking boutique he sold to Chase (JPM) in 1999 for $1.35 billion.


Bill Hambrecht, Wall Street maverick and one of the owners of the United Football League, in Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas


Together the group is hoping to deliver professional football to cities not served by the NFL, give not-quite-ready-for-primetime players a chance to show their stuff, and make a little money for themselves in the process. In the four years since Hambrecht and Armstrong cooked up the idea, they’ve built a league of five teams. There’s the Sacramento (formerly San Francisco) Mountain Lions; the Las Vegas Locomotives; the Omaha Nighthawks; the Florida Tuskers, who play in Orlando; and the Hartford Colonials, who began life as the New York Sentinels.

UFL teams play everywhere from Sacramento’s Hornet Stadium, which seats 21,195, to the 70,000-seat Citrus Bowl in Orlando. By contrast, the new Meadowlands stadium holds 83,000. But the UFL is not your grandfather’s upstart football league — nor does its braintrust plan to make the same mistakes its predecessors did in their long-forgotten challenges to the supremacy of the NFL; the USFL survived four seasons, and the XFL lasted one. (There are other leagues: The Canadian Football League operates successfully, while the Arena Football League played for 22 seasons before suspending operations last year.)

The UFL is built on two somewhat contradictory pillars, one of which tries to disrupt the NFL’s business model while the other seems to celebrate it. The first gives football fans in non-NFL cities the chance to watch professional-caliber games at an affordable price: $40, for instance, gets you a ticket to all four Omaha home games. “This is cheaper than a movie,” says NetSuite’s Zach Nelson, Nebraska native and principal owner of the Nighthawks. As Michael Huyghue, the UFL’s commissioner and a former senior vice president of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, puts it, “We offer 80% of the value for 20% of the cost.” In a recessionary climate that’s an effective sell: In Omaha, of the 24,000 seats available in Rosenblatt Stadium, 12,000 have been sold to season-ticket holders.

The UFL’s other central tenet is to offer NFL aspirants and onetime stars the chance to showcase their talent rather than floundering on the bench of an NFL team. For Jeff Garcia, the former NFL Pro Bowl quarterback who played one game for the Philadelphia Eagles last year, the UFL has given him a new lease on his professional life: At age 40, he is Omaha’s starting quarterback this season. “I still have so much to offer to the game,” Garcia says. Soon after we talked he led the Nighthawks to a 27-26 win over Hartford in the sold-out season opener.

Hambrecht, a former minority owner of the Oakland USFL team, has long thought the NFL was ripe for disruption. A Wall Street innovator who in 2004 held the first so-called auction IPO — letting the market, rather than Wall Street underwriters, set the price for Google (GOOG) shares — Hambrecht first had the idea for a new league in 1996. After NFL teams in L.A. and Houston left for St. Louis and Nashville, much smaller television markets, Hambrecht realized it was because the owners, having to split TV revenue with the league no matter where they were based, were instead going after the best stadium deals.

After the Google IPO, Hambrecht shared his idea for a new league with Armstrong, then a freshly wealthy Google executive who’d also worked at ESPN. Armstrong signed on as a partner, and Hambrecht created the Las Vegas team.

The league’s other owners are NetSuite’s Nelson; William Mayer, a former First Boston investment banker, in Hartford; and venture capitalist Paul Pelosi, the owner of the Sacramento team (and, yes, the husband of the Speaker of the House). The majority of the Florida Tuskers is now owned by the league after the Tampa Bay Rays sold its stake earlier this year. Mark Cuban came onboard in April, investing $5 million in the league for a 5% stake.

For a 50% ownership stake in their teams, the five owners invested $10 million and agreed to cover first-year operating losses of another $10 million (and any additional losses thereafter). In return, the teams get to keep all revenue generated from ticket, concession, and merchandise sales. Anything over $10 million a year flows to profits and boosts franchise value. The league owns the other half of each team, lends management expertise, and tries to lure advertisers to TV time the UFL rents from NESN, HDNet, and Versus. But a real TV contract isn’t in the cards until the UFL attracts buzz — and a measurable audience. As Cuban puts it, “We’ve got to put butts in the seats.”

The endgame for these owners is either to conduct auction IPOs of their individual teams (through Hambrecht, of course) or to sell the entire league — the NFL being the likeliest buyer. (The NFL declined to comment for this story.) But Hambrecht is not too wild about that idea. “If we ever had to sell to the NFL,” he says, “we’d stop being disruptive and stop being irreverent.”