TIME OUT by Joe Flanagan

Nighthawks, UFL Storm Omaha With Impressive Debut

Professional football in Omaha?
A number of questions were raised when it was announced this past year that the UFL would place an expansion team in Omaha.
What was the UFL (United Football League)? What caliber of football would fans see? Would Omaha support a professional venture in Cornhusker country? Where would they play?
Basically, would this work?
If Friday’s UFL debut by the Omaha Nighthawks at Rosenblatt Stadium was any indication, the answer is a resounding yes!
Give the UFL and Omaha’s initial management team credit. Leading up to Friday, they did everything right.
A catchy team name, cool logo and flashy silver & black color scheme. Booking Rosenblatt to conclude the venerable stadium’s farewell season. Bringing back hometown hero Ahman Green, then signing well-recognized four-time NFL Pro Bowler QB Jeff Garcia. A solid marketing campaign and inexpensive ticket packages.
All great moves by a new franchise in a nearly new league. And Omaha responded. Boy, did it respond.
Over 9,000 season tickets were sold before last week. Friday’s game attendance (23,067) was the first sellout in the league’s brief one-year history. More Nighthawk apparel has already been sold than by the other four UFL venues combined.
Exceptional Start
And, finally, UFL officials couldn’t have scripted a better opening night. Seriously. A professional wrestling promoter wouldn’t have dared write this scenario.
An absolutely gorgeous fall night. Hordes of tailgaters for blocks around Rosenblatt as much as four hours prior to game time. An enthusiastic, boisterous sellout crowd. Ahman Green’s emotional entrance.
Then, to top it off, a come-from-behind drive in the final minutes, capped by Garcia’s fourth-down TD pass to former Green Bay Packer Robert Ferguson with just six seconds remaining, nearly blowing the roof off the old Rosenblatt pressbox.
Good stuff. Great fun!
The caliber of play was impressive overall. Green and Garcia are certainly not the players they were 10 years ago, but both still have something in the tank. Opposing QB Josh McCown was once a starter for Tampa Bay and both rosters were dotted with players who have spent time – long and short – in the NFL, including several with Super Bowl rings.
The hitting was hard, the tempo was crisp and the players were certainly “into it”, with some post-play scuffling and enthusiastic celebrations following touchdowns. These guys cared.
The areas differing most from NFL level seemed to be the secondaries and Omaha’s offensive line, positions that are the hardest to fill in the NFL, as well (along with QB, of course).
Staying Power?
Now that Omaha has answered the bell, the big remaining question is whether or not the UFL can survive for the long haul. We’ve seen these start-up leagues come and go before.
UFL management has already made more astute decisions than previous entities, beginning small and expanding gradually (a sixth franchise has been announced for next season). They made the prudent shift of last year’s New York team to Hartford and will focus on non-NFL markets. This seems to bode well, as Sacramento followed Omaha Saturday with the league’s second sellout.
The league has shown a willingness to spend marketing money to benefit their individual franchises and has a TV deal with HDNet and Versus. HDNet owner Mark Cuban is an investor in the league too (that can’t be a bad thing, can it?). Bringing in halftime entertainment the likes of Grammy winner Nelly also shows a willingness to entertain with a professional product.
The UFL will attempt to avoid conflicts with the established NFL and college football schedules, at least until more firmly established. Therein lies the one problem I have. I’d rather see them go to a mid-week Wednesday schedule than encroach on the traditions of Friday night high school football. Last week’s inaugural event will likely be the only time I opt for the Nighthawks in that conflict.
I originally bought season tickets for the same reason many did – love of football, curiosity, a chance to see Ahman perform live and in-person one more time.
I’ll be back.
Like most everyone in attendance, we had a blast Friday night. I’ll gladly pay reasonable prices to watch Jeff Garcia throw touchdowns to Robert Ferguson and Ahman Green fight for the final yards of his illustrious career. I trust, from this beginning, similar talent will replace them when they finally hang up the spikes for good.
There’s a new game in Omaha … in Nebraska, for that matter.
Looks to me like the Nighthawks will be a high-flying hit!