USFL President Daryl 'Moose' Johnston looks on as photographers get set to take the Birmingham Stallions team photo during Media Day for the USFL Championship.
Canton, Ohio - As is the case across the professional sports world, once the end of the year is upon a league and a large contingent of those who cover the league is in one setting, a wide-ranging, 100,000-foot view of the league is provided by the man or woman in charge. When it comes to the USFL, that task falls on the shoulders of League President and former NFL Fullback Daryl 'Moose' Johnston. The former Dallas Cowboy has a unique perspective this weekend, as former Cowboys teammate Ray Horton leads the North Division Champion Pittsburgh Maulers into Saturday's Championship. He also spoke glowingly of last year's Championship head coach Skip Holtz and what a man such as he brings to the league in terms of personality and likeability.
Johnston dove into hot-button topics such as sticking with the 'Hubs' format as opposed to teams playing in their location-specific cities or states. He spoke of the pros and cons of having the system as it currently stands versus last season when all eight teams called Birmingham home. He spoke about the "Crawl, Walk, Run" approach he feels the league office is built on and how he wants the leagues teams to play, with them hitting their prime performance in the waning weeks of the season and riding that wave of momentum to Championship Saturday, like Ray Horton's Pittsburgh Maulers have done (5-6 overall, but currently riding a 3 game win streak).
The President of the League discussed how when they settled on 4 hubs versus the 2 he had envisioned (one for the 4 teams of the south and one for the 4 in the north) there were moments of panic that they were skipping the walk stage and transitioning to the run before they may have been ready. Overall he seems rather pleased with where the League stands on the eve of the final game of year number 2, a monumental year when you look at the recent history of "Spring" Leagues for football that have been 1 and done, including the Alliance of American Football, which Johnston was a General Manager for the San Antonio Commanders.
While it's full steam ahead to prepare for year 3 after the conclusion of this weekend, there are questions on the table for the League to figure out, hopefully, sooner rather than later. Currently, Fox shares the TV rights for the league with NBC, which pays to broadcast about half of the league's games on their platforms of NBC, USA, and Peacock, including this season's Championship game. It has been widely reported that NBC is hoping to bring back NBA coverage to their network, which would likely translate to a cease of their coverage and funding, that the USFL currently has on their balance sheet. Another topic is league attendance, especially in Canton, where the Hub features two teams like the other 3 hubs, but unlike their brethren, do not have a "home" team, with their organizations being Pittsburgh and New Jersey.
With this in mind, I asked Moose about the prospect of a Canton or Ohio-branded team to try to draw more interest from fans here in Northeast Ohio. Here is what he had to say about fans in Northeast Ohio and the prospect of rooting for a football team in black and yellow.
The biggest thing is, whatever role Canton plays for our league, it has to play some role. When I was told we were going to do our playoffs in Canton in Year 1, I was blown away. I knew that would be a very unique experience for our players. We spent a week and a half up here. We had Jimmy Johnson come and speak, and we toured the (Football Hall of Fame &) Museum. I was shocked at how many of our players and coaches had never been to the Hall of Fame prior to last year's playoffs/championship. That shows the uniqueness of it and how special Canton, Ohio is. For me, it will always be a part of what we are doing in the USFL. The expansion into a hub this year was an opportunity for us to continue to grow that relationship and we knew it would be challenging.
I'm the same as you, Pittsburgh may be close geographically, but that's all it is. That doesn't mean we are going to get a bunch of people to come here from Pittsburgh here to come cheer for the Maulers or we're going to get a bunch of people from Ohio to cheer for a team from Pennsylvania. I'm from Western New York, I know how Buffalo, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh all battle. It's the Bills, Browns, and Steelers and they don't like each other. So I'm very familiar with that dynamic that happens in the Rust Belt. I knew it was going to be a challenge coming to Canton and supporting a team from Pennsylvania. The big thing is, we know it's easier to cheer for that team when they have your city or state on the front of their jersey. I want everyone who has been a USFL Supporter at this Hub to know that we have heard their voices and we will continue to work to make sure that Canton plays a role in what the USFL is doing, it's just a matter of finding out what that role will be.
While it's great to hear that Canton has a special place in the league's vision, it may be another year or two, if ever, that we have the opportunity to display civic pride for teams that call Canton home. In the press release when it was announced that the Canton Hub is taking deposits on 2024 season tickets, it was vaguely stated that the deposit was for team(s) that will play in Canton next year. The waters surrounding that are murky, and Daryl Johnston isn't ready to clear that puddle up anytime soon.
Here are the videos of both teams' Press availabilities, including the MVP announcement around the 46-minute mark in the Stallions clip.