The UFL’s relative success can arguably be attributed to its strategy of complementing the NFL, rather than attempting to compete with the most popular sport in America. After all, besides the NCAA, the NFL has lacked a feeder system since the owners shut down NFL Europe. The UFL appeared to be on its way to filling that void.
But a clause in the UFL players’ contract may threaten the league’s complementary position to the NFL, and ultimately, the league’s success. As Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk has covered in detail, the UFL contracts include a transfer fee. Should an NFL team wish to sign a UFL player to its active roster (practice squad signings do not trigger the fee), it must pay the UFL $150,000.
Apparently players signed this contract with the knowledge that, last season, the UFL waived its transfer fees for the 43 players who signed with NFL teams. Following this season the UFL has been unwilling to waive the transfer fee, and no UFL players have been signed to the active roster of an NFL team. As a result, the UFL has received some negative publicity from its players, including Lorenzo Booker of the Hartford Colonials. Booker boycotted the Colonials final game in protest of the rule.
Here are a few observations on the transfer fee and the resulting controversy:
- UFL players are generally bound by the terms of the contracts they signed, regardless of whether the league chose not to enforce the transfer fee last season, or whether the UFL made oral assurances to the players that the fee would be waived. As a rule of law, a written contract cannot be altered by oral terms not committed to writing.
- As mentioned on Pro Football Talk, the UFL could threaten the NFL with an antitrust claim should no team add a UFL player to its active roster. Of course, the USFL prevailed over the NFL in an antitrust suit in 1986 and was awarded $1, which was trebled to $3. The league subsequently folded.
- Is the UFL’s position reflective of the labor situation in the NFL? Perhaps the UFL wants to keep its best players for next season, in case it is the only game in town. Of course, the UFL may merely be trying to recover some of its costs.
- The UFL has successfully recruited quarterbacks with NFL experience, such as J.P. Losman, Daunte Culpepper, Jeff Garcia and Hartford’s Josh McCown. If these established players find that the UFL presents a hurdle to returning to the NFL, the UFL will likely have a less talented player pool from which to draw. Established players may find it more advantageous to wait for a call from a NFL team rather than contractually obligating themselves to the UFL and its transfer fee.