USFL Shrinks, but Still Has a Large Problem : It’s Not Lack of Money or Quality of Its Players, It’s Convincing Television That There Are Fans
As the United States Football League begins its third season this month, it has a new symbol, Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie.
At 5-9 3/4, Flutie is a scaled-down quarterback. And the USFL has become a scaled-down league:
--It has shrunk from 18 to 14 teams.
--It has quit raiding the National Football League for players.
--It has signed no new big-name draft choices, with the exception of Flutie from Boston College.
--It has dropped all pretensions of being a nationwide league and has become largely a sun-belt league, with three franchises in Florida, for example, and none in the Midwest.
--It has abandoned some of the country’s largest markets, such as Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit and Washington.
--It has happily settled in a number of minor-league cities, such as Portland, Orlando, Memphis and San Antonio.
--And, otherwise, it is consolidating its resources to make a run at the NFL in 1986, when, its leaders insist, the USFL will give up its spring format and emerge as a competing fall league.
But will it survive until 1986?
Some people think so. Most of them are USFL people. No NFL executive would comment publicly on the USFL, citing the lawsuit the USFL has filed against it as the reason.
The USFL’s most successful owner, John Bassett of the Tampa Bay Bandits, sees an interminable future for what he calls the checkbook league.
“We’ll be all right as long as we keep writing checks, although (as a business method) that’s a pain in the neck,” Bassett said.
For those who work and play in the USFL, it apparently isn’t too painful.
“Our owners are the strength of this league,” said John Ralston, president of the Portland Breakers. “Most of them treat it as seed money when they lose $1 million to $1 1/2 million a year.”
Actually, they lost a bit more than that. The USFL’s franchise holders set the all-time American one-year record for sports leagues in 1984 when they dropped an estimated $65 million. Some say it was $75 million.
In any event, the franchise holders could obviously afford those losses. Still, the owners have decided not to throw any new money at new players, with, possibly, an isolated instance or two. They have voted not to expand. They have determined that this is the time for the USFL to retrench and down-size.
“The USFL has gone back to its original concept,” said Leigh Steinberg, an agent who represents players in both leagues. “You’ll remember, the USFL began in 1983 with a philosophy of hiring mostly journeyman players with only a few box-office types. They soon got away from that idea, and in 1984 the USFL spent a lot of money for a lot of players. This year, they’re back to Square 1.”
The USFL’s 1984 expansion from 12 teams to 18 also is viewed as a mistake.
“We should have stayed at 12,” said Ralston, who coached one of the charter clubs, Oakland, before moving to Portland. “The league was too ambitious last year--adding too many teams and spending too much for player salaries. This year you can say the USFL is back on track.”
But will it last?
“I’m still impressed with the basic stability of this league,” former Commissioner Chet Simmons said.
Said Steinberg: “I don’t see the USFL collapsing ever. It may be in a merger someday . . . but this is the most successful new league we’ve had in this country in any sport.”
It is also a fact that the USFL can’t compare with the NFL.
“The USFL shouldn’t be judged with the NFL,” Steinberg said. “It is meaningless to compare USFL attendances and TV ratings with the NFL’s. The NFL is the most successful league in the history of man. By any other test, the USFL has done really well. There are great players on every club. The USFL is the league that keeps signing the Heisman Trophy winners. USFL attendances are higher than the AFL’s. Its TV ratings are good by comparison with everything but NFL ratings. And its consolidations this year weren’t a defeat. They’ve made the USFL stronger.”
Relatively stronger, that is. The USFL is still not a strong, vibrant league. It may never be. And, there remains the question of whether the public wants a second pro football league, regardless of what season it plays in.
When Los Angeles lawyer Harry L. Usher, 45, was named the USFL’s new commissioner two weeks ago, some said he was was brought in to save the league. Others have speculated that he would be trying to force a merger with the NFL.
Asked if he feels like a savior, Usher, who formally took command Friday, said: “Well, I’m not here to arrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.”
He views the job as a personal challenge.
“And I’m attracted to that,” he said at his office in New York. “I love the idea that I can make a difference.”
It was only last summer that Usher made a difference in the staging of the Olympic Games as Peter Ueberroth’s deputy on the organizing committee.
Many believe Usher is properly placed as a commissioner.
“The USFL couldn’t have found a better candidate,” said lawyer Ed Hookstratten, who knew Usher in Hollywood. “He’s dedicated, hard, hard-working and creative.”
It is said that Usher’s scenario, on which he has not commented, is broken down into three parts:
--To keep the USFL afloat indefinitely with at least 12 franchises.
--To eventually merge four USFL teams into the NFL.
--To succeed Pete Rozelle when the NFL commissioner retires seven years from now.
The nation’s newest commissioner already is making about half of Rozelle’s $1 million-a-year salary. And he already has similar powers.
“I wanted the authority to do away with all committees,” Usher said, “the TV committee, budget committee, and so forth. And we’ve done that. The owners are the positive thing about this league. And now it’s just the owners and me--no intermediary.”
Simmons, meanwhile, is in temporary retirement
“I’m just relaxing at this point,” he said from his home in Connecticut. “I’m enjoying my free time.”
Simmons’ departure was abrupt, but today he sounds neither bitter nor critical.
“I haven’t a complaint in the world,” he said. “My position is that I’m available for consultation (with the USFL) at any time.”
The financial community has resumed interest in the USFL since the league’s all-day meeting last week, when two weak franchises were propped up.
These are the L.A. Express, which has been taken over by the league, and the Houston Gamblers, who got a USFL financial pledge of support.
Is this a sign that the USFL is cracking up?
“No, I see it as a positive sign,” said Don Klosterman, president of the Express. “These are probably the USFL’s best two young teams. The action underscores the importance to the league of (these) markets and teams.”
In New York, owner Donald Trump of the New Jersey Generals said the USFL had anticipated and is prepared for such emergencies.
“We have a war chest of $20 million in the bank,” Trump said. “We (USFL owners) funded it with $1 1/2 million apiece.”
Jay Roulier, the third multimillionaire to operate the Express in three years, returned to Houston as a one-third owner of the Gamblers. He had balked at cash investments for marketing and public relations here when season-ticket sales stalled at 6,000. The Express had sold 19,000 the first year and 10,000 last year.
Elsewhere in the USFL, season ticket sales are mixed--down a bit at Jacksonville, up some at Tampa, double last year’s at San Antonio and projected to be 20,000 at Portland.
Average USFL attendance was 24,824 in 1983 and 27,126 last season. It is expected to reach 30,000 this year, when TV ratings may be off (from 6.0 and 5.7 in 1983 and ’84) because the USFL has moved into smaller markets.
Fiscally, the Express is the USFL’s problem child. There are two schools of thought:
--A USFL team can’t make good in the L.A. area. It faces too much competition here.
--Like any other L.A. sports team, the Express will succeed if it establishes itself and wins.
Steinberg, who supports the second view, said:
“UCLA basketball tickets can’t be bought when they win and can’t be sold when they lose. The Raiders range from 90,000 to 34,000, win or lose. Al Davis had it right. If you’re hot in L.A., L.A. wants you. The Express only had Steve Young half the year last year. If they start fast and keep winning, they’ll draw.”
Otherwise, it is the personal wealth of most USFL club owners that leads many neutral observers to bank on the league’s survivability.
As a group, they are wealthier than the NFL’s owners or probably any others who have ever held sports teams.
Big money is represented by the construction and property managers who own the champion Baltimore Stars (Myles Tanenbaum), Oakland Invaders (Alfred Taubman), and Generals (Trump).
Southern cotton bankrolled pro football’s biggest off-season spender this year, William Dunavant of the Memphis Showboats.
Bassett is a land developer. So are Clinton Manges of the San Antonio Gunslingers and Portland’s Joseph Canizaro.
The Birmingham Stallions are controlled by financier Marvin Warner, a 1970s U.S. ambassador to Switzerland.
The USFL’s owners aren’t all billionaires who spend extravagantly. But, as one of them said: “This league will last as long as (we) have the will to fund it.”
Some 83 million U.S. households have phones, 84 million have televisions.
This is the fact that underlies the biggest fight in football this year--the USFL’s fight for network television exposure in the fall of 1986.
“The future of any league is linked with television,” Klosterman said. “And there are more football fans in the fall months-- when there are more TV sets in operation.”
This is also the view of New Jersey owner Trump, the New Yorker who persuaded the league to discard the spring-summer schedule that is being played for the final time this year.
But so far, Trump has been unable to persuade television. The three major networks are unanimously resisting the USFL’s autumn designs.
CBS and NBC executives say the fall season already is saturated with football. The other network, ABC, says it prefers to keep its spring ties with the USFL.
This attitude has prompted the USFL to conclude that the networks have joined with the NFL to perpetuate a profitable monopoly.
To force a change, the USFL has filed a $1.3 billion antitrust suit against the NFL.
The suit is, in effect, a bargaining tool. If one of the three networks signs a contract with the USFL for the fall of 1986, the league will have to drop its suit.
Asked about all this, Trump said: “I can’t comment on lawsuits except to say that when you’re fighting against a monopoly, nothing is easy. I’ll also say this: we’re going to be victorious (in the lawsuit) within the next year and a half.”
The USFL considers its present spring contract unacceptable because ABC is paying the USFL only $15.5 million this year, with a 1985 spring option for $18 million.
The $15.5 million is about what the NFL will make from television in 1985 per club.
It is believed that each USFL team needs between $8 million and $10 million from television to be successful. If the USFL could get that money in the spring it probably wouldn’t have considered the switch to the fall.
The NFL, considering still another antitrust suit, is maintaining a low profile this winter. Asked about the USFL action, Rozelle said: “It’s baseless.”
Despite the young league’s decision to move to the fall, a majority of USFL owners always have favored a spring schedule. Using hard-sell methods at league meetings, Trump rammed the change through.
“We don’t enjoy it (the fall concept) much,” Bassett said in Tampa.
Asked if the USFL might reconsider and linger as a spring league, Bassett said:
“Anything is possible, but we’re not counting on it.”
The Portland Breakers, who also prefer spring games, are also resigned to a fall schedule. Said Ralston:
“Obviously, that’s the time to maximize your TV income.”
This is what the USFL’s antitrust fight is all about.
Is there too much fall football now? Television critics think so, the USFL thinks not.
“Saturation is in the eye of the beholder,” a USFL official said. “If you don’t want to look at football games, don’t look. Don’t complain about it, just tune in something else. But if you want to look at a USFL game in the fall, you should have that chance.”
A recent Justice Department ruling has cleared Saturday, a traditional college football day, for the pros, and the USFL is also considering Thursday night and Sunday night games.
But even the USFL concedes that most of the fall interest will be in the NFL.
There will also be interest in college games. The new league just wants the right to offer its wares in the same marketplace.
“The competitive way is the U.S. way,” Usher said. “It’s unfair to have a monopolistic entity like the NFL monopolizing all three networks.”
Nobody in the NFL will talk about it, but its current position is believed to be this:
--If the USFL changes to a fall season with a network-television contract, the NFL will move into the void and launch a spring league itself.
--This will be a training league for players, coaches and others.
--Teams will be placed in the many smaller American cities that have shown enthusiasm for pro football during the USFL era.
--Such a league would make it unlikely that future promoters could challenge the NFL with a spring schedule. The NFL doesn’t want another USFL.
--Meanwhile, the NFL will continue to oppose the new league. If the USFL survives, the NFL will find it cheaper someday to merge than fight--at which stage some USFL clubs will be merged into an enlarged NFL.
For fans, the key point is that organized pro football in the spring months, in some form, is probably here to stay, whether it is put on by the USFL or some other group.
The best quarterbacks to join the pro football ranks in the last three years are Dan Marino, Steve Young, Jim Kelly, John Elway and Tony Eason. Two of the five--Young and Kelly--are in the USFL. What’s more, they will meet on opening day. When Kelly comes into the Coliseum with the Houston Gamblers against the Express on Sunday, Feb. 24, Young will be starting his first full season as a $40-million quarterback.
Young was the right man in the right place at the right time. He couldn’t get as valuable a contract this winter in the USFL’s new scaled-down era.
But he and Kelly and Doug Flutie and Herschel Walker and Kelvin Bryant are examples of what the USFL was designed to be in the first place--a league with a handful of name stars on each club combined with lower-paid, lower-round draft choices and free agents whose quality would be upgraded each year.
“I’d estimate that 35 (of the 50) players on a typical USFL club are in the $30,000-to-$70,000 salary bracket,” said Steinberg, who represents many of them. “The USFL can make it if it sticks to this policy.”
As put together by Klosterman, the Express isn’t typical of its league. There is possibly more good young talent on the Express than any other pro club today in any league--including an estimated 15 players who, if the USFL hadn’t signed them last year, might have been drafted by the NFL on the first or second round.
A free-spending owner, Bill Oldenburg, gave Klosterman the chance to recruit a dream team. And one reason the league decided last week to support the Express financially is that it doesn’t want to break up a good thing.
There are, however, similar good things on most USFL clubs--quarterback Doug Williams and receiver Trumaine Johnson at Arizona; quarterback Chuck Fusina and halfback Kelvin Bryant on the champion Stars; halfback Joe Cribbs at Birmingham; quarterback Vince Evans on Coach Mouse Davis’ first team at Denver; quarterbacks Brian Sipe and Doug Flutie with halfback Herschel Walker at New Jersey; quarterbacks Bobby Hebert and Fred Besana with receiver Anthony Carter at Oakland; halfback Gary Anderson at Tampa, and numerous others.
In three years of building, the USFL has become a league with many box-office types and many good leaders. It has been paddling furiously, and this year, resting on its oars, it may have a winner in place.
What it has yet to demonstrate is that the nation cares.