This past Saturday, April 7, Johnny Manziel played in a game for the first time since 2015, taking the field for the South Team in the Spring Football League. Few football players past and present have the starpower to garner national attention for playing less than a full game in an upstart developmental football league with a better chance of folding than Kenny Rogers. But Johnny “Football” does. The only problem is that few saw him actually make his long-awaited return.
Manziel is a marketing dream. When on the field at Texas A&M, he was a freelancing magician who made unimaginable plays. Remember when he threw a touchdown after hurdling a defensive lineman against Duke? You should. Off the field at A&M, Manziel’s open affinity for letting loose on the weekend, whether right or wrong, helped endear him to the high school and college students who quoted Rod and said, “I like to party.” Even kids who did not party loved the rebel who threw up money signs after rushing for another touchdown. Of course, the former Heisman Trophy winner has not had a successful season of football since 2013, his last season at Texas A&M, but he has stayed relevant. Even after he has washed out of the NFL due to multiple off-the-field incidents, most involving alcohol, he has stayed relevant.
Over the past few years, we have seen comeback attempts from numerous players who are all but forgotten. Most, like former Heisman winner Trent Richardson, get a news blurb or two and that is all. If you are Jamarcus Russell or Vince Young, E60 might do a special on you, but no comeback attempts have come close in terms of relevance to the media firestorm that came when Manziel began tweeting #ComebackSZN. His relatability might be at an all-time high right now after going public in February about a bipolar disorder that he claims played a large part in his excessive drinking. Now sober, he is not only more relatable—he is more marketable than ever. The Spring Football League had him fall right into their laps, but they failed to fully seize the opportunity.
He has been at the center of their social media marketing campaign, a video of him riding an incumbent bike garnered nearly 500 likes on Twitter this Saturday. He has offered them a rare opportunity to be relevant that most startup football leagues never get.
Football, America’s most popular sport, needs more professional developmental leagues in the United States, but attempts to start them have not been very successful. MLB and the NHL both have stable minor leagues that let players develop. In our own community, we have the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks, a profitable and well-established independent baseball team that give players a chance to continue playing. The gimmicky Arena Football League and the less gimmicky, but still different, Canadian Football League, which limits the number of American players per roster, have both been stable. But attempts to start developmental traditional football leagues at home have not had the same solid foundation. It is clear they are needed. There are too many good football players in this country that do not have an opportunity to play the game that they love after college, but again, attempts to start them usually fall flat due to a lack of star power.
One has to look no further than the United Football League, an upstart league that formed in 2011. Former All-Pro quarterback Daunte Culpepper played in the league, but few cared and fewer watched. However, he is not Johnny Manziel.
The Spring Football League attempted to fully grab the opportunity by teaming up with Bleacher Report Live, which is Bleacher Report’s attempt to enter the world of live streaming. They have had success doing NBA games, so they were likely trusted to come through. They did not. The game was not available for streaming until late in the second quarter. Sure, people were able to catch video of Johnny Manziel’s only touchdown pass, which came in the first quarter, on Twitter and SportsCenter, but those hoping to see the return of Johnny missed it happening in real time. If leagues other than the NFL are going to succeed in this country, I am looking at you XFL and AAF, the margin for error will be very slim.
I hope the Spring League succeeds and I realize that they contracted their streaming out. It was not their fault. Nevertheless, I expect them to fold, and the gaff that we saw this weekend will not help.
It was great to see Johnny back out on the field. He looked alright, going 9-15 for 82 yards and one TD in two and a half quarters of action. His team lost 11-7 but that doesn’t matter. It was just good to see him playing again, when the website was working that is. If you want to watch him, he will be playing tonight, April 12 at 5:30 p.m. on Bleacher Report Live.