Locos owner committed for long haul

It wasn’t Bill Hambrecht’s idea to have his name attached to the United Football League’s championship trophy.

The league itself? He’ll take some credit for that.

The investment banker from the Bay Area who owns the Locomotives said he believes the UFL, which kicks off its second season Saturday, will do what the old United States Football League couldn’t — be fiscally responsible and ultimately carve out a niche in the American sports landscape.

“It’s a long journey,” Hambrecht said. “That’s my philosophy with the UFL. Stay patient. Build the product and grow the fan base. It took the American Football League nine or 10 years to make it. We’re committed to (the UFL) for the long haul.”

His initial investment was $2 million in 2007, when he and other wealthy businessmen decided to launch another pro football league. The idea wasn’t to compete with the NFL but rather to complement it.

“There’s a lot of very good football players out there who could play in the NFL but, for one reason or another, don’t get the chance,” said Hambrecht, a reserve tight end during his collegiate days at Princeton. “We think we’re putting a good product on the field, and the challenge is to continue to build that product while developing a larger fan base.”

When the USFL was in existence in the mid-1980s, Hambrecht was a minority investor in the Oakland Invaders. His franchise competed well on the field, did well at the turnstiles and, playing in the spring, gave football fans in the Bay Area something to watch until the 49ers began their NFL season in September.

But when Donald Trump, the owner of the New Jersey Generals, pushed to move the USFL season to the fall and take the NFL head-on, the league quickly died. Hambrecht never forgot the lesson of the USFL’s demise.

“It was learning about what not to do,” Hambrecht said. “Had we stayed with the original concept, I have no doubt the USFL would have succeeded. But Donald Trump decided he wanted to do things his own way, and it ultimately led to the end of the USFL.

“I think we have a solid business plan in place for the UFL. We’re not going to compete with the NFL. We’re our own league, and as long as we remain patient, we think it will work.”

UFL commissioner Michael Huyghue said the league lost $10 million last year, though some reports claim the losses to be as high as $30 million. The UFL also had to relocate two of its inaugural four franchises — San Francisco to Sacramento, Calif., and New York to Hartford, Conn. Hambrecht knew it would not operate in the black at the outset, but he said he believes the league can become a credible entity among American sports fans.

“This league is about good football,” he said. “Anyone who is exposed to our product can see that. It’s also affordable, and I think a lot of the markets we’re in are embracing that. Omaha has had good response. So has Sacramento. Hartford is picking up. And in Las Vegas, we’re very pleased with the early response for Saturday.”

As of Thursday, the Locos had more than 12,000 tickets distributed for Saturday’s opener against Florida at Sam Boyd Stadium.

The UFL hopes for an attendance of 20,000.

Hambrecht will be there, and he said he believes his team can continue to lead the UFL — on the field and at the gate. Las Vegas led the UFL in average attendance last year with 13,125 per home game.

“When they offered me a city, I wanted Las Vegas,” Hambrecht said. “I had seen the growth over the past two decades, and they have supported their teams in the past, even if the leagues themselves didn’t make it.

“We’ve got great players, a great coach and general manager in Jim Fassel, and a foundation has been established for long-term success. We have our own facility. We’ve stepped up our marketing efforts considerably in the community. I believe in Las Vegas, and we want to do everything we can to succeed here.”

As for the Bill Hambrecht Trophy, the man for whom it is named said the honor caught him off-guard.

“That was Michael’s idea,” he said of Huyghue. “To be honest, I was a little embarrassed. But winning the first championship was pretty special, and, as I told the players and the coaches, ‘You were the ones who won, not me.’ I’m just hoping we can do it again this November.”

Contact reporter Steve Carp at scarp@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2913.

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