When the New Jersey Generals signed Doug Flutie to a five-year contract estimated at from $5.5 million to $7.5 million, it was heralded as another chapter in the free-spending history of the United States Football League.
It was anything but. For the USFL, small is becoming big again.
As the league approaches its third season, its last in the spring before taking on the National Football League in the fall of 1986, most of its 14 teams have reverted to the league's original concept--live cheaply with a nucleus of low-priced journeymen, using one or two high-paid stars to sell tickets.
"The market has pretty much dried up," says Leigh Steinberg, the agent who last year negotiated quarterback Steve Young's $40 million contract with the Los Angeles Express. "What we're seeing is a retrenchment, a return to the original concept of the USFL."
For a league that lost an estimated $70 million last season and more than $100 million in its first two years, retrenchment is a matter of survival.
Last year at this time, the USFL had expanded from 12 teams to 18 and was grabbing big-name players by the bushel. By the time the NFL held its draft last May 1, about a third of the top 100 college prospects had been signed by the USFL and name NFL players like Joe Cribbs, Doug Williams, Brian Sipe and Gary Barbaro had jumped to the new league.
So far this season, only one of college football's top 100 has signed--Douglas Richard Flutie, quarterback, Boston College, third consecutive Heisman Trophy winner to take the USFL's money and run.
Moreover, other than Cris Collinsworth of the Cincinnati Bengals, who signed a futures contract two years ago with the Tampa Bay Bandits, no other established NFL players have jumped this year. Washington offensive lineman Mark May visited New Jersey's camp for two days last week, then re-signed with the Redskins a day later.
The retrenchment policy is likely to continue--only New Jersey, Memphis and Jacksonville have shown the inclination this year to spend the money for blue-chip players. But even their budgets are limited and more big-money acquisitions would be counter to new Commissioner Harry Usher's policy of imposing financial parity from the top in a league where the top payrolls are three times the size of the bottom.
"If you're going to have a league that's not going to go right out of sight, you have to say, 'Let's curtail some of this incentive to buy the biggest and the best all the time,' " says Usher, who succeeded Chet Simmons as the USFL's commissioner two weeks ago.
"There's a continual pull and tug between the finances of the individual clubs and the competitive aspect of the league itself," Usher says. "The league is only as strong as its weakest member and it can't allow an economic policy to develop where the wealthiest clubs can buy everyone out."
Most USFL teams say they are willing to stick with what they have.
"If we go down to a 40-man roster, it will be very difficult for (draft choices) to make the team," says John Ralston, president of the Portland (ne Boston through New Orleans) Breakers, which hasn't even contacted most of its draft choices. "We'd rather let them go into the NFL, let the NFL train them, and when the NFL cuts them, we'll get them back next spring."
Usher will have a task in equalizing team payrolls; not only are the teams unbalanced financially, so are the resources of the owners. For New Jersey's Donald Trump, builder of New York skyscrapers, a few million here or there is nothing; for other owners, whose fortunes are counted in the millions or tens of millions, a large loss is--well, a large loss.
The USFL begins its 1985 season with the top payroll teams, New Jersey and Los Angeles, spending more than $7 million on salaries, 3 1/2 times as much as the San Antonio Gunslingers, who have a $2 million payroll.
Los Angeles is a prime example of what overspending can do.
Last year, despite signing Young and 18 other prime prospects, the Express drew only 10,000 a game in the spacious Coliseum. They finished the year an estimated $18 million in debt, with owner J. William Oldenburg in deep legal and financial straits.
This year, the league is running the Express and the team is quietly divesting itself of some of those 1984 rookies, most recently running back Kevin Mack, who signed with the NFL's Cleveland Browns.
The individual salary structure is also skewed.
The USFL has four of pro football's five million-dollar-a-year players, led by Herschel Walker of the Generals (Heisman '82), whose base salary is $1.5 million, followed by Flutie, Young and Mike Rozier (Heisman '83), who recently signed with Jacksonville. Rozier's contract was bought out by the Baltimore Stars, who inherited it from the Pittsburgh Maulers.
The only NFL player in that class is quarterback Warren Moon, who signed a $1.1 million contract wit the Houston Oilers after playing out his option with Edmonton of the Canadian League. Two-time Super Bowl MVP Joe Montana gets about $850,000 a year from the San Francisco 49ers, little more than the $800,000 paid to Sipe, who was traded by New Jersey to Jacksonville to open up a spot for Flutie.
But overall, USFL salaries don't approach the NFL average of more than $200,000 a year, which was the idea all along.
"The original plan," Steinberg says, "was most players in the $30,000-$70,000 range with a few superstars on top. That mold was broken when they signed Herschel Walker and several other players the first year. Now they're going back to it."
"The median salary is below $50,000," says Doug Allen, who heads the USFL Players Association. "Those big salaries put the league average up over $50,000, but a very large number of the players in the USFL are playing for salaries in the $30,000 and $40,000 range."
Usher would like team minimums and maximums to insure that no franchise gets too strong or too weak.
"My job is bringing a sense of fiscal responsibility to each of the clubs . . . ," Usher says. "There are established leagues who perhaps don't need that. But this is a start-up situation. It doesn't have a track record."