Happy 25th, USFL! (Or What Could’ve Been)
February 25, 2008 by Jon Gonzales • Print Story •
Taking the sports page from the rung of news is a daily grand ritual. The sports world and all that goes with it creates a yearly agenda, aligning the major sports like football, basketball, baseball, and hockey so that when one major sport ends, another is in full flourish. When basketball and hockey end, baseball races take shape for its stretch run. When baseball pokishly cools, football rules.
Let's face it, the sports world flat-out reeks of insignificance every February. Cycling, motorsports, the spring training before spring training in baseball, the ego dances of NBA and NHL All-Star Weekends. Pro basketball's and hockey's "real season" doesn't begin until May, March Madness is still a month away, and football is as far away from us as it ever will be at this time of year — only a spring draft to mildly wet our beaks before September.
(...and not to mention the Sports pages are uprooted with sagacious bad news. I could read the other sections if I wanted to know about espionage or drug exploitations or court drama in the United States.)
Wish there was more football on air? Not necessarily a farm league in Europe, or even one that has a 50-yard field and checking boards.
Why not a dose of real springtime football to fill this void?
Twas over two decades ago, a visionary named David Dixon thought the same thought on how to fill this sports void.
Twenty-five years ago this spring, the United States Football League kicked off its inaugural season. This the same year that brought us Michael Jackson's Thriller, a remote control for the Betamax, "National Lampoon's Vacation," parachute pants, and, of course, the USFL. Remember?
Anyone? ... Anyone? ... Bueller?
Young Steve Young of the Los Angeles Express? Heisman Herschel Walker of the New Jersey Generals (that's right ... New Jersey, not New York )? Reggie White of the Memphis Showboats? Jim Kelly of the Houston Gamblers?
Whether you recall the short life of the United States Football League or not doesn't mean you can't attend its 25th birthday party, or anniversary, or whatnot. Although the conception of the league was in 1982, the USFL kicked off in February 1983, 25 years ago to this very month.
Cities such as Orlando, Jacksonville, Birmingham, Memphis, Tulsa, San Antonio, and Portland, which had hopelessly sought franchises in the non-expanding National Football League, found refuge in the new rival league. Big cities already hosting the NFL in the fall/winter continued the gridiron spirit in bigger markets such as Oakland, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Denver, Tampa, Washington, and Philadelphia — even using the very same stadiums.
The USFL had all the green lights to making it, unlike the World Football League, the American Football League, and (cue to snicker aloud) ... the XFL. Upstart ESPN and big-wig ABC bought television rights for the first season. The NFL had gone through its first major strike in 1982. The timing was perfect for the new league. League founder David Dixon was in the right place, at the right time, with the right product and the right people behind it.
The USFL successfully courted three consecutive Heisman Trophy winners, and future stars were being drafted right out of the most prestigious colleges and being thrown into the league that introduced the two-point conversion into professional football and even, get this, an 18-game regular season schedule. Unlike the NFL, players could wear whatever jersey numbers they wished; hence Doug Flutie's No. 22 and Anthony Carter's No. 1, but were not liberated so far as to put "He Hate Me" on a jersey.
Even the teams' nicknames and uniforms were emblematic of the cities represented. The Arizona Wranglers. The Washington Federals. The Memphis Showboats. The Oklahoma Outlaws. The San Antonio Gunslingers. The Denver Gold. The Boston Breakers (a.k.a. New Orleans Breakers, a.k.a. Portland Breakers). The year was 1983 and the USFL was on!
In the USFL's first year, 1983, the average attendance for the 12 team league was 31,000 fans (about half the NFL average), and there was something metabolically strange about real football in the spring. You could watch a game on television and notice many empty seats in the background. Even the annual USFL Championship Game, which was held at a neutral site, couldn't pack the house. Seldom did you see empty seats at NFL games 25 years ago.
Also, players' contracts forbade them to two-time with the NFL franchises since the two leagues played at different times of the year. The second year of the league brought in six expansion franchises. Unknowingly, the USFL had reached its apex in 1984. The league whittled down to 14 teams in 1985. Financial losses by the millions were commonplace for nearly all the franchises during the second and third seasons.
Under the advocacy of Generals' owner Donald Trump, the USFL decided to go toe-to-toe with the NFL by announcing its move to the fall for the 1986 season, which went against founder Dixon's formula for league success. Teams such as the Breakers moved from New Orleans to Portland, frantically relocating and merging, and knowing it was a losing proposition to directly compete with the rival NFL in the fall. Whatever credibility the league had built was all but gone. The 1983 USFL champion Michigan Panthers merged with the Oakland Invaders because they simply could not compete with the NFL Lions, and the Oakland Invaders had the city to themselves with the relocation of the NFL Raiders to Los Angeles. Eddie DeBartolo's Pittsburgh Maulers simply didn't stand a chance with the beloved Steelers in the same stadium.
The USFL had hit nothing but yellow lights. The rogue owners had deviated from the original plan for the league, and they paid dearly for it. Before the USFL could ever say "hut, hut, hike" in the fall of 1986, the USFL and the NFL took to court over anti-trust issues, in which the USFL won a measly $1 from the NFL (perhaps alluding to the 1983 comedy "Trading Places" with Eddie Murphy and Dan Akroyd). The eight teams committed to stick it out in the fall of 1986 were informed of the league's canceled season. The USFL saw red. Game over.
While the concept of spring professional football was considered odd in the early 1980s, the USFL worked initially thanks to the quality of its product and the novelty of seeing pigskin fly during months when it never had before. Had the league continued down the path it was blazing, and had a few breaks gone the USFL's way, it likely would have survived to today.