LOS ANGELES EXPRESS

1983-1985
Pacific Division (1983)
Pacific Division, Western Conference (1984)
Western Conference (1985)

Team Ownership
1983:  Bill Daniels and Alan Harmon
1984:  J. William Oldenburg
1985:  League Operated Franchise

Home Stadia
1983-1985:  Los Angeles Coliseum, Los Angeles, California
1985:  The Field at Pierce College, Woodland Hills, California (final game)

Regular Season Record
1983:  8-10-0
1984:  10-8-0
1985:  3-15-0

Championships
1984 Pacific Division Champions

Head Coach
1983:  Hugh Campbell (8-10-0)
1984-1985:  John Hadl (18-18-0, 1-1 in playoffs)

Los Angeles Buccaneers.
Los Angeles Dons.
Los Angeles Chargers.
Los Angeles Raiders.
Los Angeles Express.
Los Angeles Xtreme.

With the exception of the 49 year run of the Rams (who would also leave the city, only to return in 2016), the history of professional football in the City of Los Angeles has been, at best, a checkered one.  The USFL's chapter in that history would be conceived in San Diego, born in Los Angeles, and die an ignominious death, playing its final game on the field of a community college.

Cable TV Pioneers in the Nation's #2 TV Market.  What Could Go Wrong?

Alan Harmon and Bill Daniels were a pair of Denver-based moguls, pioneers in the still nascent cable television industry and precisely the kind of deep-pocketed, television savvy men David Dixon desperately wanted to join the ranks of USFL franchise owners.  With fellow founding owner Ron Blanding insisting on operating the Denver franchise, Harmon and Daniels assented to placing their franchise in San Diego - a significantly larger market Dixon thought would be perfect for the new league.

While Dixon, Harmon and Daniels thought San Diego would make a fine location for a USFL franchise, the city council of San Diego didn't share their enthusiasm for the prospect, denying the pair a lease to utilize Jack Murphy Stadium for home games and, in effect, forcing them to pick another city.

Following this rejection a new idea was put forth:  asking then-Los Angeles franchise holder Jim Joseph to move out of the market so that the league could take better advantage of Harmon and Daniels' entertainment and television connections in the nation's second largest TV market.  Joseph agreed on the condition that he could move to any other city that didn't already have a franchise planned (ultimately choosing Phoenix) and the L.A. Express were born.

Hiring five-time CFL Grey Cup champion head coach Hugh Campbell provided the Express with a bit of buzz in pro football circles, but failed to draw interest to the team in terms of ticket sales.  Using the first overall selection in the inaugural USFL college player draft to select University of Pittsburgh and future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino produced no significant interest, especially when they failed to sign him.  And when serendipity resulted in Herschel Walker and the New Jersey Generals visiting the Los Angeles Coliseum for both team's inaugural game and only 34,002 fans entered the stadium (which was capable of holding roughly 94,000), Harmon and Daniels figured it best to get off the Express after its first stop.

Now in the entertainment capital of the world, even quality entertainment options can be a hard sell; a lesson learned by the Express early on.  Over the course of the 1984 season, as the spring and summer Sundays got warmer and sunnier, the interest in watching a fairly mediocre professional football team would dwindle:

  • 22,453 would attend the Express next home game against the Washington Federals, in Week 2
  • 17,137 would pay to see the Express beat the Oakland Invaders 10-7 three weeks later
  • 13,826 would come out for a Week 14 Pacific Division showdown against the Arizona Wranglers; and
  • 11,471 would come out to see the Express run over the Denver Gold in the inaugural season finale, 21-14.

Realizing that playing in the cavernous Los Angeles Coliseum was a mistake and failing to realize all the ancillary revenue streams from the team's operation they had anticipated, Harmon and Daniels quickly came to the conclusion that they wanted out of the professional football business.  Fortunately for them, their opportunity to get out came quickly.  Unfortunately for the rest of the USFL's franchise owners, it came from a source they didn't vet to anywhere near the extent they should have - and it ultimately cost them millions.

Mr. Dynamite Blows Things All To Hell

The man who bought the team, J. William Oldenburg, was a colorful character even by USFL ownership standards.  A self-described billionaire with the nickname "Mr. Dynamite," Oldenburg proclaimed that if approved as the team's new owner, he'd appoint Wayne Newton to the team's Board of Directors.  From the outset, he was also a strong, very vocal advocate of moving the league to a fall season schedule.

Oldenburg also would sign Brigham Young rookie quarterback Steve Young to what was reported as the most lucrative contract in the history of professional football:  with a total value in excess of $40 million.  In fact the reported figure was far from what Young would ultimately receive, the bulk of the money coming in the form of an annuity payment which would have paid the quarterback through 2026. 

The Los Angeles Express play the Denver Gold in front of 90,000+ empty seats in the L.A. Coliseum on May 29, 1985.

But while Newton's singing talents and Young's signal calling were both unquestioned, their ability to help the Los Angeles Express at the turnstiles was nominal.  An Express game coupled with a post-game concert by now Express board member Wayne Newton would draw more flies than spectators, and despite Young's showing obvious signs of talent the attendance slide that had begun in 1983 continued into the 1984 season:  8,000 against Jacksonville, 10,000 and change against the Memphis Showboats, and for an exciting, triple overtime divisional playoff game against the defending USFL champion Michigan Panthers, an enthusiastic but miniscule 7,964 fans.

(L to R): Orson Welles, J. William Oldenburg, Wayne Newton.

Losing $15 million in just a year while his other business interests were also failing around him, the financial picture of "Mr. Dynamite" imploded, forcing the league office to take control over the franchise in order to avoid its imminent collapse.  Having already taken control of the Chicago Blitz and folding that franchise at the close of the 1984 season, the USFL's owners faced a dilemma:  the loss of Chicago had constituted a default in its network television contract with ABC; if the Express folded as well, ABC not only could immediately take the league off network television; they could sue for damages.  And having long before soured their relationship with ABC executives, at the suggestion of new commissioner Harry Usher the remaining team owners voted to keep the team financially afloat while a search was conducted to find a buyer.

Jay Roulier.

For a brief period it appeared as if a savior had been found in Houston Gamblers minority owner Jay Roulier, who committed to taking over the Express during the 1984-85 off-season.  But ultimately Roulier, like Oldenburg before him, would return the franchise to the league rather than bankrupt himself trying to resurrect the franchise.

A ward of the league throughout the entire 1985 season, the Express wee operated on a shoestring budget in an effort to minimize losses.  Refusing to sign new players in order to replace injured ones didn't help the team in their on-field endeavors; while off the field the league office was making embarrassing cost-cutting moves, such as firing the team's cheerleading squad (saving team owners a whopping $980 per home game).  Despite this parsimony the team would still manage to lose $6 million, along with 15 of its 18 games, one season after appearing in the USFL's Western Conference Championship Game.

But the final ignominy for the Express was yet to come.  In a final cost reduction measure as well as well as to satisfy a whim, Commissioner Usher would remove the team from the Los Angeles Coliseum for its final home game, playing it instead at tiny Pierce College in Woodland Hills, California, at a field so non-descript it was simply known as "the field" - after three years of bumpy rides, the Los Angeles Express finally reached its final stop.

The Official Timeline of Los Angeles Express
(from a corporate perspective; possibly incomplete)

  • October 12, 1982:  LA Express Football Club, Inc. organized as a California corporation.
  • January 21, 1983:  Harmon Football, Inc., representing partner Alan Harmon, is organized as a California corporation.
  • November 28, 1983:  IMI Express, Inc. organized as a California corporation for the purpose of acquiring the franchise from Harmon Football, Inc.
  • November 16, 1984:  LAEFC, Ltd. organized as a Colorado limited partnership.  General partner is Express Football Club, Inc.; limited partner is RTCL Associates.  Both are owned by Jay Roulier.
  • November 4, 1985:  LA Express Football Club, Inc. is dissolved.
  • July 30, 1986:  Harmon Football, Inc. is dissolved.
  • December 31, 2030:  No later than this date, LAEFC, Ltd. dissolved.