Jaime Cuadra has a new dream for an old league. A San Diego businessman who loves football, the 53-year-old Cuadra is in the midst of reviving the US Football League, which in the early 1980s took dead aim at the NFL, lost millions, won three bucks in a courtroom brawl over the NFL’s monopoly, and ultimately shut its doors the way virtually all pro football ventures do when they are something other than the NFL.
But that blend of history and harsh pigskin reality is not stopping Cuadra. He and his USFL partners, including Fred Biletnikoff’s son, have concocted a business plan meant to make nice with Big Football. They say the last thing they want to do is compete with Roger Goodell and that giant space currently driven and dominated by NFL Inc.
“That’s just not smart,’’ said Cuadra, speaking by phone from his EndZone Sports Management office overlooking Balboa Park. “That’s the 800-pound gorilla there. I mean, we realize who we are, and we realize who they are, and hopefully we’ll have a cooperative relationship with them as opposed to an antagonistic relationship.’’
With a plan to start play in spring 2014 with eight teams — ideally one in Hartford as the New England entry — the new USFL aspires to be the league that keeps players engaged in the game with the hope that they one day graduate to the NFL (think Triple A NFL).
To keep them playing, the new league will pay them all about the same, upward of $2,500 per game, or some $30,000-$35,000 per year, over a 14-game schedule. The USFL will write all the contracts, cut all the paychecks, out of league headquarters.
“We’re looking at kids who may have been drafted [by the NFL] in the seventh or sixth round and may have fallen off,’’ said Cuadra. “We are looking at guys who are coming out of junior college and aren’t really college-eligible players as far as academics. We’ll be giving them all an opportunity to continue.
“Part of our tag line is, ‘Keeping the Dream Alive.’ We want to keep that dream alive for some of these guys.’’
So this isn’t going to be Jim Kelly’s big-cash USFL. Nor will it be the USFL that encouraged George Matthews to plunk down his money to fund the Boston Breakers, who hit the road after one year for New Orleans, followed later by an escape to Portland.
The original USFL had nearly as many franchise handoffs as its teams had deep outs in the playbooks. Donald Trump lost big money (and a few strands of hair) in the league, which barely achieved apprentice status compared with Boss Football.
“We want to have our own identity,’’ said Cuadra, who purports to have made his money in a number of ventures, including bluefin tuna farming in Mexico and Croatia. “We want to be a quality product on the field.
“But ultimately we want [the NFL] to see us pretty much like they used to use NFL Europe — a place where they could look for players who needed a year or two more experience on the field.’’
The new USFL initially hoped to start play this spring, but Cuadra noted that that plan was probably overly ambitious, part of the fever that came immediately after EndZone acquired the USFL name some 18 months ago.
Now, with a large real estate developer aboard, the league is about to finalize paperwork with its first five franchises, some to be based in new stadia the league will build at a cost as high as $500 million each. Each stadium will have a seating capacity of about 25,000, and in most cases will be part of a larger real estate plan that includes commercial space.
Cuadra was reluctant to name charter cities, but said, “There are markets right now in . . . Southern California, Texas, Louisiana, Alabama . . . and we are very, very far along with a team in Ohio.’’
He also said a team in Hartford, which he hopes is aboard for the inaugural season, could play at Rentschler Field, the 40,000-seat state-owned facility where the University of Connecticut plays.
Not every city is targeted for the larger real estate design and Cuadra said the master plan calls for all teams to be sold to individual investors.
“It is not an expensive proposition to own, when you consider sports in general,’’ he said. “We have been able to make it affordable. We just want to make it sustainable.’’
Price of ownership is $1 million per team, the kind of jingle that spills from the pockets of hedge fund managers each night in their man-caves. Let’s not forget, one of them, John Henry, put together a group that paid $700 million for the Red Sox in 2002.
Other than that seed money, USFL owners must prove they have another $6.5 million in ready cash to run the team each year.
“That’s really not a lot,’’ said Cuadra, who was born in Nicaragua and came to the US six months later when his family moved to San Francisco. “We really feel that we’ve nailed it down.’’
Ideally, said Cuadra, the USFL will evolve in three or four years to a 16-team league, playing almost exclusively in cities absent NFL or Major League Baseball clubs. Cuadra wouldn’t be specific, but cities such as Birmingham, Memphis, Oklahoma City, Austin, Omaha, and others are the league’s primary targets, offering population density and less competition for the sporting dollar.
“The home run for us would be a 16-team league that had NFL teams that utilized those teams as a place to allocate players to and that the NFL would be partnered with us in doing that,’’ said Cuadra. “And that we also would be a training ground for rules and different technologies that the NFL might later adopt. That would be our home run.’’
Coming next spring, to a city near you (maybe), the all-new, redesigned, humble-in-spirit but big-in-ambition USFL. Led by a guy who maintains giant pools of bluefin tuna in Mexico and Croatia, ostensibly to stock Japanese supermarkets and sushi bars.
“You put 130 tons of bluefin tuna in the pens,’’ said Cuadra, describing his day job. “And they basically become NASCAR fish, doing left turns all day long. You feed them sardines and anchovies and they get nice and fat, and the time comes — October through March — you harvest them and send them to Japan.’’
The lead predators in the bluefin business, he said, are seals. A rolling sea can lift a pen, allowing seals to enter, months of work and capital wiped out in the seals’ serendipitous buffet.
“A fascinating business,’’ said the man who hopes to swim safely alongside the NFL. “It really is.’’