The New York Times Fifth Down football blog asked over the weekend whether the NFL should worry at all about the upstart UFL, which begins play with four teams this fall.
At face value, it's a laughable question. The National Football League is the Goliath of the sports world. The USFL tried and failed to compete with Goliath. The XFL, too. Even with some brand-name coaches like Jim Fassel and Dennis Green, it is highly unlikely the UFL will be any different.
Especially going up against Goliath in-season, playing a schedule that starts in October and ends at Thanksgiving.
Therein, however, lies the one reason I would truly be concerned about the UFL if I was NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Or, a general manager of any of the NFL's 32 teams. At least in the short term.
NFL teams will set their 53-man rosters before the season opens in early September. They will then fill out eight-man practice squads, and general managers will keep lists of 'street' free agents so that holes on depleted rosters can be filled as the inevitable injuries ravage NFL teams.
That's where the UFL comes in. How many of these players who would usually have no place else to go, choose a UFL roster spot over an NFL practice squad? Also, those top-of-the-list 'street' free agents are likely to be occupying some of the 200 or so UFL roster spots.
Potentially, that is a talent drain on NFL rosters and could impact the quality of the product.
Now, I will be honest. I don't know if players on UFL contracts can leave their teams mid-stream to join an NFL squad if they have an offer. The Times reports that UFL players will be paid on a per-game basis. If so, that might lessen my concern about the NFL product being watered down.
Also, who knows? It could end up benefiting the NFL, much like a minor-league system. The UFL season will end 12 weeks through the NFL season, roughly the time when general managers are beginning to reach into the streets to find players to fill rosters. It might work out that some UFL players, in game-shape from just having concluded a season, can contribute more to an NFL team than guys who have been out of work for several months.
I think it is something worth keeping an eye on. It also makes me want to renew my ongoing call for the NFL to abolish the Injured Reserve system in favor of a baseball-style disabled list. The league can't afford to have quality players physically able to play at the end of a season unable to simply because their roster spot could not be protected for a few weeks.