VIRGINIA BEACH ——In a previous life, Virginia Destroyers owner Bill Mayer was a business professor and dean of the University of Maryland school of business.
What would Mayer, the business academic, advise students and colleagues about the viability of the United Football League?
He believes the answer to both questions is yes, which is why he chose to remain an active partner with the UFL. It's also why the former owner of the league's defunct Hartford Colonials signed on with the Destroyers.
"There should be an alternative or a complementary league to the NFL in a lot of cities that are very big," Mayer said. "This is a big metropolitan area. There's no reason that this area shouldn't have a serious professional football team. But it won't be because the Washington Redskins move here."
Mayer talked not only UFL survival, but expansion, in his third trip to Hampton Roads in recent weeks. The first trip was to get a feel for the area and decide whether to become the principal owner for the Destroyers, the UFL's Southside-based start-up franchise.
The second time was to meet and get to know the Destroyers' coaches and football personnel. This trip was to meet with sponsors and local business people, in advance of the team's season opener next week and the home opener Sept. 24 at the Virginia Beach Sportsplex.
"It feels good to have somebody who's got a vested interest in the team on board, instead of just the league," said John Castleberry, the team's vice president of marketing and sales. "He's our owner. He wants this team to win. He's somebody we can talk to about our needs and our goals."
Plenty would quibble with Mayer's assessment of the UFL as a solid business model, given that the league lost approximately $100 million in its first two years and nearly folded due to financial troubles.
But Mayer, a genial, 71-year-old New York investment banker and original partner with the league, said that projected losses this season are a fraction of what they were the first two years. Next year's losses, he said, are projected to be less than this year.
"We already have a path to take this year's loss down to a level which I would call sustainable for a very long period," Mayer said Wednesday, standing alongside the Destroyers' practice fields at the Princess Anne Athletic Complex.
"Yes, I want to be cash positive," he said. "Yes, I want to make money. So you should never invest in a business where the losses are increasing. If the losses are decreasing, the real question is as a business matter, do you see light at the end of this particular tunnel?"
Mayer said one mistake the league made in its original planning phases was to assume that it would have a TV contract that would provide revenue by now.
"Sooner or later, it will come and when it comes, we immediately go profitable," he said. "But it might not happen for two or three years. So as a business professor/dean, I would say, how are you going to survive? Well, I'm going to survive if I get my losses down to a point where I say, I can live with that. That's my answer and I'm sticking to it."
Mayer said that a four- or five-team league isn't sustainable, but the UFL's retrenchment permits expansion to as many as 10-12 teams in the next several years.
"We didn't want to go from five (teams) to four," he said. "We wanted to go from five to six. We couldn't really attract somebody to put in a new team when your losses are increasing. The first thing you have to do is get your house in order. So we took a step back to get our house in order. Once we get our house in order, which I think we have, then next year we can start growing again."
The UFL is Mayer's second venture into professional sports ownership. He was an investor in Major League Soccer's D.C. United franchise, but said that he hated the business model and after five years bailed.
But he believes in the UFL's cost-containment model, and that the league fills a competitive and talent void between college football and the NFL. More than 100 UFL players have made NFL rosters in the past two years, an indicator that a short-season fall professional league has value for NFL teams as they enter the latter stages of their seasons.
The UFL, he said, also provides a viable football option for cities and metropolitan areas that will never have the NFL — places such as Salt Lake City, San Antonio, Birmingham and Hampton Roads.
"There are 12-15 cities in the U.S.," he said, "where we could provide a product that's probably 85 percent of the NFL for a fraction of the cost. There's no reason we shouldn't be successful."