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 Will Birmingham join the United National Gridiron League?

 
  

May 2008

  
         
    United National Football League logoA new spring league, the United National Football League, could join the All American Football League and the United Football League in calling Birmingham home in 2009. The UNFL is scheduled to begin play in January 2009 with a minimum of eight teams, including one based in the state of Alabama.

"We're working with Joe Cribbs on Alabama (franchise) prospects. We're going to put teams in locations that can grab the biggest fan base. Alabamians love football and the state deserves pro football," UNFL co-founder Marvin Tomlin said. Cribbs, a Birmingham resident and former player for the USFL's Birmingham Stallions, was hired as the league's commissioner last week. Cribbs was most recently president of the AAFL's Team Alabama franchise before being let go when the league postponed their first season to 2009. "They were very upfront with me about their intentions. They were willing to make (long-term) assurances to me. I would not have jumped back into this unless I felt it was really viable. I think, from everything they've laid out, this one will work," Cribbs said.

Tomlin said Birmingham is the most likely destination for the Alabama franchise, but he didn't rule out locating a franchise in Mobile or Huntsville. One thing the league has ruled out is playing at 60,000-seat Legion Field. The league would like their teams to play at smaller facilities. Tomlin said a possibility would be Hoover's Regions Park, which seats 15,000 for football. "I'd rather have people not able to get in the game than have to play in a half-full stadium," said Tomlin. The league's goal is to average between 15,000 and 30,000 fans a game. Like the AAFL had planned to do, the UNFL will try to obtain leases to play in college stadiums that are sitting dormant and have a built in fan base nearby. "We want to grab that college crowd because most of these players will be right out of college. We want to have a college community support their professional franchise,” Tomlin said.

The UNFL plans to play a ten game season in January through April, bridging the gap between the Super Bowl and the National Football League's draft, which previously had been football-free. This timeframe was chosen in an effort to provide its players maximum exposure prior to the NFL Draft.

Each of the teams will have a 60-man roster that will be comprised of a maximum of 40 I-A players, allowing for a minimum of 20 players from I-AA programs or below to be evaluated. Tomlin said the UNFL will be a development league for players who go undrafted by the NFL or wish to improve their draft status immediately after concluding college careers. To limit costs, no player would be paid more than anyone else ($1,000 a week) and salaries would come from the league office, with money generated by franchise fees initially. Interestingly, players would have to move on after two years in the UNFL. "If you're not getting tryouts or contracts by then, it's time you start thinking about getting a real job," said John Pace, the UNFL's Director of Football Operations. Players would also be ineligible once they sign with another professional team.

Pace and Tomlin began thinking about forming a new league in 2006 when two small-school players they represented went undrafted by the NFL.

The league hopes to have twenty-two charter teams ready to play next year but could begin play with as few as eight. Two Texas franchises have already been sold and teams are being negotiated in Kansas and New York. "We want to build a brand regionally first and then take it nationally," Tomlin said. Its business model centers on selling franchises and buying a franchise costs $1.5 million. Tomlin expects tickets to sell for about $11 a game.

Cribbs says the UNFL has no intentions of taking on the football giant known as the NFL. "This league is not trying to compete with the NFL. It's trying to complement the NFL. This is a true developmental league. It's not a destination or a last-stop league. We want this to be affordable for fans who crave more football," said Cribbs.

Tomlin, who played briefly in the Canadian Football League, and league President Ben Eison are New Haven, Connecticut businessmen who are providing the funding for the league.

The league also claims it has spoken to the NFL Network, ESPN and Fox Sports about broadcasting games.

Tomlin says the league will try to establish itself as a Triple-A version of the NFL with the long-term goal of partnering with the established league to help develop talent. "We'll prove we're different. Most of the reasons why other leagues failed is because they tried to compete with NFL markets. We can't compete against the NFL financially. I tell everyone that there’s one professional football league, and that’s the National Football League,” Tomlin said.

  
         
  

June 2008

  
         
    United National Gridiron LeagueThe United National Football League announces they will change their name to the United National Gridiron League.

According to league Commissioner Joe Cribbs, the UNFL has proactively opted to eliminate any confusion by changing the league name to allow building of an independent brand identity.

Cribbs says that after discussions with key constituencies, they felt that the old name was creating some confusion within the sports community with their name.

While there is no direct tie to a single parent professional league, the league's goal is to provide opportunities for our players to succeed in all professional leagues like the NFL, AFL, CFL, etc.

"We have identified and addressed this issue early enough that it will have no impact on the business. This move is in the best interest of the future of the Gridiron League," Cribbs said.

Cribbs went on to say that "Gridiron is an international term that is used to describe American football and nationally it conjures up memories of iconic players and games from the past. Our players were inspired by those men and aspire to be like them. The players in the UNGL will be playing for their futures; playing every down like it could be there last. It's a tribute to football's rich history and limitless future."

In the coming weeks, the UNGL plans to announce the locations and ownerships of the eight inaugural franchises.

The league maintains it will kickoff on January 25, 2009.

  
         
  

January 2009

  
         
    The United National Gridiron League announces that Birmingham will have a team in their new league. Other cities joining Birmingham will be Dallas (TX), Miami (FL), Shreveport LA), Columbus (GA), Akron (OH), Winston-Salem (NC), and Norfolk (VA). Teams will most likely be named after the states they are located in. Birmingham's team is rumored to be named the Alabama Dragons.

Woody Widenhofer, formerly Vanderbilt's head coach and the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator, will serve as head coach. Former Troy University Athletic Director, Jimmy Williams, is Birmingham's General Manager.

Williams believes the league's financing becomes official on Monday. "We've been moving right ahead like we're 99 percent sure it's going to happen," Williams said.

League Commissioner Joe Cribbs said that although Legion Field is too large, the league is currently trying to obtain permission to use it for the first year. "Then we'll evaluate whether to move or not. We want to keep the team in Alabama. We think Legion Field is a larger venue than we need at this point," Cribbs said. According to Melvin Miller, the director of Birmingham's parks and recreation department, the city wants to have the team in Birmingham and playing in Legion Field.

Cribbs said the UNGL is structured to avoid some of the other pitfalls that have doomed other leagues. "We have built our league with the intent of operating at a cost structure that will make it successful. We're not dependent on getting a television contract," Cribbs said.

Another huge cost is health benefits for the players. "We have accounted for cost items like that, unlike the AAFL," Cribbs said.

Players will be limited in how long they can play in the UNGL. "It's basically designed to move them on to the next level, or let them know they need to pursue another career," Cribbs said. An online draft is set to run today and tomorrow.

Widenhofer had his greatest success as the defensive coordinator for the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers where he won four Super Bowls. Widenhofer has also been a head coach at the University of Missouri, Vanderbilt University and the United States Football League's Oklahoma Outlaws. Widenhofer stepped down as New Mexico State University's defensive coordinator after the 2007 season and thought he had retired for good. But after being away from coaching for a year, Widenhofer wanted to return to coaching. "I told my wife I was gonna start looking around, and then I got this call from Johnny (Williams) and it was perfect. I want to help these guys to be evaluated one more time to get in the National Football League. We're in Birmingham, Alabama. We're at Legion Field. What more can you want?" Widenhofer said.

"If we get 10,000 to 20,000 fans (a game), the league will be more than happy. We're not here to compete against the NFL. It's going to be what the Birmingham Barons do for Major League Baseball. That's why I was willing to participate, because there's a need for it and it's got a chance to survive," Williams said.

  
         
    Alabama Dragons logoGeneral Manager Johnny Williams says the logo and nickname for team Alabama hasn't been decided but that the original logo and nickname will have to be changed because they were too similar to another team in the area.

The rumor is the team will be known as the Alabama Dragons and will feature green and orange colors.

Most believe that Williams is referring to the University of Alabama in Birmingham, which uses a dragon for its mascot and green and gold for its colors.

  
         
    The United National Gridiron League announces that they have not secured the necessary funding as they had hoped and that there is a good possibility the opening week could be pushed back slightly.

Cribbs, however, is optimistic the funding will be worked out. "I have not seen anything that would indicate to me at this point that we're not going to play," Cribbs said. If the delay happens, Cribbs doesn't think it will be more than a week or two at most. "I realize when we had the (online) draft, everybody's expectations went up. In fact, we're very much in control of what we want to do. If we want to move the start date back, it's not a problem. All we have to do is have our season completed by the NFL draft," Cribbs said.

Some of the players drafted by the league, such as team Alabama's Larry McSwain of UAB, are still waiting on more information. "Everybody is skeptical about it. You just don't know. It sounds like a legit league, just with the people who are gonna be involved in it," McSwain said.

UNGL President, and league co-founder, Ben Eison says investors are moving forward and they should know more within 48 hours.

  
         
    Nick Saraceni, the UNGL's Executive Vice President for Football Operations, says investors are still working on the details and that he is confident the league will open its inaugural season as scheduled.

“We have not pushed back our start date yet. I’m very, very optimistic that we’ll get our dealings done soon, and I think we should be ready to play on Feb. 8,” Saraceni said.

At this point, players will simply report later than the league originally had hoped. While no official dates for training camp have been set, the end of January is now expected. The first planned date would have had players reporting this weekend.

“Out of respect for the guys who were drafted, we may wait a little while longer and ask them to report in maybe one or two weeks. We don’t want to tell them to come here when everything isn’t finished yet. Realistically, that should give them about two or three weeks to practice before the first game,” Saraceni said.

The UNGL has also renamed teams and created new logos for them after the original lineup was leaked out before the league was ready. “Apparently, someone put some information like names and logos out on the Internet prematurely when we had planned to do a huge media release of it all later. After it leaked out, we went back to the drawing board,”  Saraceni said.
  
         
    The UNGL announces that they will postpone their inaugural debut from February 8th until March 22nd. A reduced schedule is also being considered.

The league's primary investor withdrew the financial commitment, which leaves the league scrambling to line up other investors.

"We are very disappointed considering we had everything in place from team rosters to coaches, general managers and stadiums. We will, however, use this time period to engage previous investors as well as entertain new ones," said Marvin Tomlin, the UNGL's co-founder and CEO.

Woody Widenhofer, team Alabama's head coach, said he is more encouraged than ever there will be a league. "I think they learned a little bit of a lesson and they're doing it right. Make sure you have the money in the bank before we get started," Widenhofer said.

  
         
  

March 2009

  
         
    Marvin Tomlin, CEO of the UNGL, releases a statement saying the UNGL will delay the kickoff of their inaugural season to May 3, 2009.

According to Tomlin, the UNGL's "investor groups" have asked the league to delay the start date.

Tomlin states that May 3rd will be the "official start date and also the final postponement."

A league schedule is promised to be published on March 27th.

  
         
  

April 2009

  
         
    After multiple delays, the United National Gridiron League has finally postponed their inaugural season to 2010.

In an e-mail to players attributed to UNGL CEO Marvin Tomlin, the reason given was their difficulty in obtaining the necessary financing.

Joe Cribbs said he technically remains the UNGL commissioner and would possibly remain for the 2010 season.

  
         
  

July 2009

  
         
    Alabama Blackbirds logoAt the same time the United National Gridiron League announced it will hold its first ever regional mini camp, the league also released two team names, colors and logos in preparation for its 2010 inaugural season.

The Alabama Blackbirds and Miami Scorchers will be two of eight teams to take the field with other teams to be announced soon in Texas, Ohio, Louisiana, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.

“It is exciting to finally be in a position to begin to announce our teams to everyone. We believe the UNGL will serve pro football, especially the NFL, as a much needed developmental league similar to the other major sports leagues. We are committed to creating opportunities for players and providing a high level of competition where everything counts and players are playing for their futures,” said Marvin Tomlin, UNGL co-founder.

It is not clear if the Blackbirds will be based in Birmingham.

  
         
    In an announcement for the UNGL's third team, the Ohio Marauders, the league states the Alabama Blackbirds will be based in Birmingham.

The Marauders will be based in the Akron/Cleveland area.

  
         
  

March 2010

  
         
    The UNGL announces that they are cancelling the 2010 season and suspending operations.

According to the press release, league representatives were unable to secure proper funding.

  
         
 
 

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Last Update: June 23, 2010