CFL Pass

Remembering the USFL, part I: The possibilities of spring football

March 6 marks the anniversary of the inaugural games of the United States Football League, also known as The Greatest Sports Thing Of All-Time, in 1983. This most noble attempt at bringing quality springtime professional football ultimately died a valiant but ignoble death. Joe Pritchard looks back fondly at the USFL, quite the anomaly in North American sports history

“Mitchell in the shotgun. 3rd and 5, Toronto up 5 with under a minute to go. Snap back to Mitchell, has time, fires into the end zone, touchdown! Oh my, what a way to punctuate a beautiful July day, and the—”

Hold that thought for a moment.

If you’ve been listening to the Rouge White and Blue CFL podcast lately (and you should be!), you’ll notice that we’ve made mention of spring football from time to time, between mentions of the startup Major League Football to the XFL to just openly pining for spring football. I would say that most under the age of 40 equate spring football with the bombast of the XFL or the distant feeling of NFL Europe, and may even remember the first incarnation of the World League of American Football, which became NFL Europe. They’d remember no-name players, half empty (or almost completely empty) stadiums, and a sense that these leagues were just placeholders on the calendar until the “big boys” of the NFL returned in September.

Those football fanatics over 40, though, may remember a different feeling when it comes to spring football. They remember a league that took the football world by storm in the early 1980s, signing college stars and NFL veterans alike, and causing a ruckus when they dared to sign a college player before his full eligibility expired. They also remember the logos, the transient franchises, and ultimately, the failed gamble to try to go head to head with the NFL in the fall and the anti-trust case that rocked the football world.

They remember the USFL.

In brief: What was the USFL?
The USFL started as an idea to play football in the spring while staying away from direct confrontation with the NFL. The league started with a TV deal with ABC and a very young ESPN to broadcast games nationally, and while it wasn’t NFL TV money (the NFL teams at the time were making around five times the amount that USFL teams were making), it could have been a decent starting point.

The issue, however, was that there was no real enforcement power to keep teams from literally spending themselves to death. The new owners were all (well, almost all, a few stuck to the initial plan) too excited to play with their new toys that they went ahead and raided the NFL draft class months before the NFL Draft was to begin, and made massive headlines when they signed the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, Herschel Walker. This caused a massive stir, as not only was Walker a highly sought-after talent, he was also, in the eyes of the NFL and NCAA, untouchable since he still had one year of NCAA eligibility left. In those days, underclassmen just didn’t sign with the pros.

The Walker deal opened the door for other such signings, and helped create the opportunity for underclassmen to sign with the NFL in the near future.

The spending on players didn’t end with the beginning of the season. When one team, the Michigan Panthers, got off to a slow start due to issues with the offensive line, they (almost literally) signed half of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offensive line and proceeded to win the league championship. This came at great financial cost, and Panthers owner A. Alfred Taubman was quoted as saying a year later that “The way to make a small fortune was to start with a large fortune and buy a professional football team. You’ll have a small fortune before you know it!”

Expansion was always in the USFL’s plans, and when the losses for the 1983 season were becoming apparent early in the year, the league started selling franchises to most anyone with a pulse and a few million dollars to throw around. Some of the original owners tapped out as well and sold their teams to minimize their financial damage.

One of these sales would change the course of the league (and much more) forever when the New Jersey Generals, one of the league’s flagship franchises, was sold to Donald Trump: This was Trump’s formal entrance into the world of tabloids, gossip columns, and front pages, as he found he enjoyed the attention he would get for, say, signing a former NFL player to a large contract, as opposed to being ignored for his multi-million dollar real estate deals.

Trump was never a fan of the spring concept, and also raised the stakes on his fellow USFL franchise owners by throwing money around like a sailor on shore leave, signing guys like former NFL MVP quarterback Brian Sipe, among others, on top of already having to deal with Herschel Walker’s large salary.

The Generals improved by eight wins over the league’s 18-game schedule, going from 6-12 in 1983 to 14-4 in ‘84, but were unable to overcome the Philadelphia Stars, led by future NFL GM Carl Peterson in the front office and future NFL head coach Jim Mora, who had much more success in the playoffs in the USFL than he ever would in the NFL.

The 1984 USFL season saw the addition of six expansion teams to the initial 12 that had kicked off in 1983 plus the additional oddity of the George Allen-led veteran-laden Chicago Blitz team quite literally traded to Arizona so that owner/Phoenix resident Dr. Ted Diethrich could own a team close to home. Following the season, team owners took stock in their situation. They were at odds with ABC over the lack of blackout restrictions, which the owners believed harmed attendance at their home games, as well as what they perceived to be a lack of financial support from ABC, which was really more overspending than anything else.

Given that they were already in direct competition with the NFL for talent, USFL management decided the problem lay in the fact that there wasn’t much TV money to be had in the spring, and that the TV networks wanted to spend money on football in the fall. The owners, spearheaded by Trump, also decided to take on the NFL directly, making the public declaration in August of 1984 that the 1986 USFL season would be played in the fall, the two option years ABC had for the spring be damned.

As you can imagine, this caused another round of absolute chaos. The USFL went from 18 teams in 1984 to 14 in 1985, with two teams (the Pittsburgh Maulers and Chicago Blitz) folding outright and two sets of teams (the Michigan Panthers and Oakland Invaders; Arizona Wranglers and Oklahoma Outlaws) merging to create one team. Other teams had to move from stadiums shared with NFL teams to new, smaller cities to avoid stadium conflicts in the fall season. As the chaos was in motion, USFL management also announced their intention to sue the NFL on anti-trust grounds, claiming the NFL’s deal with all three major networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) in the US at that time was at the root of the USFL’s problems in getting a TV deal for the fall. ABC’s offer of a four-year extension for the spring for a total of $175 million was casually brushed off.

Uncertainty and embarrassment hovered over the 1985 USFL season, what with the reduced amount of extant teams and the massive financial issues the league and its teams were facing. The Los Angeles Express, a franchise heavily involved in the huge rise in salaries in 1984, was cast adrift by ownership prior to the 1985 season due to a massive financial losses and owner William Oldenburg’s own personal financial problems, and was a millstone around the league’s neck for the whole season.

By mid-season, the Express wasn’t even allowed to sign players to minimum salary deals as injury replacements, and their final home game was moved out of the massive (and usually quite empty) LA Coliseum to a tiny college field at Pierce College in the San Fernando Valley as an poorly executed experiment to find the team a new home.

Meanwhile, San Antonio Gunslingers players were literally racing to the bank after receiving their paychecks due to the high probability that many would bounce. [Gunslingers QB Rick Neuheisel’s story on this is probably the single funniest story in Small Potatoes, the 2009 ESPN documentary on the USFL –Ed.]

Even formerly successful teams like the Denver Gold faced the wrath of their fans, who had supported them very well in the previous two springs. Denver fans were Broncos fans first, and the Gold’s best season was virtually ignored in their own market.

Things got so bad that seeding for the USFL playoffs was determined based on which of the teams that had qualified for the playoffs would likely draw the most fans! The league limped to the end of their third season, and at this point was forced to go all-in on the anti-trust suit against the NFL. By the time the trial started in the summer of 1986, only eight teams remained from the 18 that had taken the field just two seasons before in ‘84, and even a victory and a large cash award would have likely meant the merger of a few of the stronger teams into the NFL, with the weaker teams paid off to quietly go away.

The USFL actually won their trial against the NFL, with the latter declared a monopoly, but the USFL’s legal team was unable to prove that the damages the league was seeking (which would have been tripled under anti-trust law to somewhere in the $1.3 billion range) were justified. The court blamed USFL problems on abandoning its original business plan and, further, blamed the league for its own mismanagement, including the attempt to compete head-to-head with the NFL. The league would eventually get their court costs paid on appeal, but it wouldn’t be nearly enough, and the league suspended operations in August of 1986, never to return to the field.

Next time…
I know I promised brevity, and it may not look like I kept that promise, but I haven’t even mentioned talented players like Jim Kelly, Reggie White, Steve Young, and other future stars of pro football north and south of the border who got their start in the league, as well as a myriad of stories about the teams themselves, and how they dealt with the changes, as well as some of the innovations the league made to the game, but those are stories for another time and place.

There’s one question I’m sure you’re asking. What does all this have to do with the CFL? I mean, this *is* a CFL website, right? I’m glad you asked. Come back to CFLpass tomorrow for part two, featuring the USFL’s connections to and impact on the CFL.

– written by Joe Pritchard