USFL to play games at Canton’s Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium

When Canton’s Hall of Fame Village hosted the United States Football League’s (USFL) inaugural playoffs and championship game last year, Village CEO Michael Crawford said his goal was “to make it difficult for them not to come back.”Mission accomplished — and then some.Two USFL teams, the Pittsburgh Maulers and New Jersey Generals, will practice and play home games at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium during the league’s second season, which begins on April 15. The Maulers and Generals will play their first game the following weekend, on Sunday, April 23, at Benson Stadium.Canton will also host the North Division playoff game in late June and the USFL championship game in early July.”We are back,” Daryl Johnston, the USFL’s EVP of football operations, said at a press conference in Canton on Wednesday, Jan. 25. “Thanks to a successful Season One that was capped by an incredible postseason here in Canton, the USFL is now a proven and stable brand on the professional football national stage.”Season Two is about growing our fan base by continuing to play high-quality and competitive football that fans love to watch, expanding into additional markets and strengthening our partnerships. Returning to Canton for 2023 achieves these goals.”Here are three things to know about the announcement:Canton will be a temporary home for the Maulers and Generals.Last season, the league’s eight teams played all their regular season games in Birmingham, Alabama. This year, the league will use a hub model. The Houston Gamblers and Memphis Showboats (previously the Tampa Bay Bandits) will be based in Memphis. The Birmingham Stallions and New Orleans Breakers will be based in Birmingham. The USFL has not yet announced the home site for the Philadelphia Stars and Michigan Panthers, nor has it said where teams will play in 2024.”We fully plan to move our teams into their marketplace at some time, but we have to do it in a way that’s successful for us,” Johnston said.When asked why the league didn’t just move one of the teams to Canton, Johnston talked around the question, saying the league plans to expand when it makes sense. He said one of the reasons why other spring leagues have failed — including the original USFL, which ran from 1983 to 1985 — was that they got too big, too fast.”One of the big things we’ve done is kind of move at a pace that’s smart and gives us the best opportunity to succeed,” he said.Last year, the USFL became the first spring football league to finish its season since the XFL in 2001. It will be the first to hold a second season since the original USFL.Canton will get an economic boost.Visit Canton, Stark County’s convention and visitors bureau, estimated that last year’s championship game provided a $2.5 million impact to the area, which doesn’t include media coverage. The county’s hotel occupancy was up 20% for championship Sunday, and up 13% for the three-day weekend over the year prior.”We know it made a huge impact, so when you’re adding teams and adding games, it’s exponentially more,” said Tonja Marshall, Visit Canton’s chief marketing officer.But attendance is just one part of that equation, the Village’s Crawford said. The players and coaches will be living, eating and shopping in Canton, “which really does create value, directly and indirectly,” he said. The same goes for media coverage, since USFL games are televised nationally on Fox, NBC and their affiliate networks.”The ability for Canton to have the exposure and create awareness for all the great things that are happening in our community is invaluable for us,” Crawford said. “We’re very thankful to have the opportunity to host and create that economic uplift and be able to give an even greater profile to our community.”The Village has added several attractions over the past two years and is looking to attract more visitors year-round. The USFL deal should help with tourism, while also giving more usage to Benson Stadium during a slow time of the year for football.”There’s only so many opportunities to host football games at this scale,” Marshall said. “A lot of them are in December and January, which isn’t prime time for Canton, so this opportunity is huge.”The USFL is being cautious.Outside of Birmingham Stallions games, which sometimes drew between 10,000 and 15,000 fans, attendance for the USFL’s first regular season was poor. But TV ratings matter more than butts-in-seats, and last year’s championship game did well in that regard, pulling in 1.5 million viewers (0.92 household rating). The two playoff games each drew nearly 1 million viewers.Johnston said Fox and NBC have promised good lead-ins for USFL games, including May’s Preakness on NBC.”It’s about maximizing exposure of our product on two great platforms,” Johnston said.Problem is, the USFL will have more competition this year as the eight-team XFL relaunches in February. That’s why Johnston made several references to the league’s unofficial motto “Crawl, Walk, Run.””We knew what Year 2 was going to look like and we have an idea of what the thoughts and plans are for Year 3,” Johnston said. “But for us to really be successful, we’ve got to say, ‘I’m in Year 2. I’m not worried about Year 3.’ It’s just Year 2 for us on the football side.”

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