Huyghue Is In A New Huddle

By Gene Frenette
Updated: October 21, 2007

JACKSONVILLE — Michael Huyghue wasn’t looking for a new challenge. The former Jaguars executive had enough on his plate as a player agent, building his Jacksonville-based Axcess Sports and Entertainment agency since 2001 and trying to expand his client base.

But when a Wall Street investor approached him in July to help analyze the viability of a new professional football league, Huyghue was intrigued.

One thing led to another, and Huyghue finds himself as commissioner of the United Football League. It’s an eight-team league that plans to start playing games on Friday nights in August 2008, with plans to stock rosters with mostly low-round NFL draft picks and other players struggling to retain NFL jobs.

“This is a big decision because it’s leaving a lot of safety nets of things I have,” said Huyghue, who served as the Jaguars’ senior vice president of football operations from 1994-2001. “I’ve spoken to a lot of [NFL general managers] who say we can sustain a league with quality players.

“It’s a tremendous challenge. I was inspired by talking to a lot of NFL colleagues who think this can work. I feel the plan we have is a good one.”

Huyghue, who has left Axcess Sports, is setting up a temporary office in the EverBank building on Riverside Avenue until he makes the full-time move to New York. He’s convinced the UFL will succeed despite a history of similar leagues — the World Football League, USFL and, most recently, the XFL — failing because of crumbling finances.

“We’re going to control spending,” Huyghue said. “Secondly, we’re going to bring in NFL-caliber players, not overpriced ones.

“We have people involved from the inside that have seen how the NFL and other leagues have operated. They’ve seen what works and what doesn’t.”

The UFL’s start-up formula includes the following proposals:

– Eight teams located in big cities without NFL franchises, with Las Vegas, Mexico City and Los Angeles considered front-line favorites. Other possible locations include Orlando; San Antonio; Columbus, Ohio; Louisville, Ky.; Sacramento, Calif.; Memphis, Tenn.; Birmingham, Ala.; and Raleigh-Durham, N.C.

– Team salary caps of about $20 million (the NFL cap is currently $109 million), with the top 10 players on each franchise making an average of $1 million per year and the salaries among those remaining on the 50-man roster spread out accordingly.

– A draft would be held in February or March among college players who declare themselves eligible for the UFL, but doing so does not exclude them from being available for the NFL Draft in late April.

– A 14-game season that begins in August, with playoffs concluding before the holidays.

– Television revenue will be a necessary component for the league’s survival, but administrators are trying to build a foundation that is not dependent on TV money in the first three years.

The bulk of the UFL’s target pool of players will be second-day NFL draft picks, as well as free agents attracted by the better odds of making a UFL roster instead of trying to battle tougher competition in an NFL training camp.

Each year, about 900 players are waived before the start of an NFL season, many of whom Huyghue believes will be anxious to keep playing rather than pursuing jobs in the real world.

As an example, former Jaguars cornerback and Huyghue client Dee Webb is still without a job, and he’s not eligible for an NFL practice squad because he participated in too many plays in 2006.

The UFL is counting on hundreds of unemployed ex-NFL players who would jump at the chance to still be paid decent money to stay in the game.

“Only 40 percent of the [NFL] seventh-round draft picks made a roster this year,” Huyghue said. “If you look at a practice-squad player that makes $4,000 a week and he isn’t playing. Well, coming to our league for a $50,000 contract will have some appeal.

“It’s not like the NFL is doing a bad job, but they can only hold so many roster spots. We know enough success stories of guys that were sixth-round draft picks and became an NFL star.

“This is a win-win for everybody. If players come into our league for two years and then go to the NFL, it’d be a tacit approval that the UFL is a viable league.”

This won’t be Huyghue’s first go-round with a new football venture.

As a former NFL labor-relations counsel, he helped put together teams in 1987 that crossed the picket line to replace striking NFL players. In 1991, he served as GM of the World League’s Birmingham Fire and later served as general counsel for the league.

He came to the Jaguars when Jacksonville was an expansion NFL franchise, then left to start his own sports agency, with football players as the main clients.

“The most fun I’ve had in my career was in start-up situations,” said Huyghue. “The UFL is another thing along those lines.

“No one is going to replace the NFL, but I think there’s a need and niche for this kind of league that can have a functional relationship with the NFL.”