About the USFL
Organized in the early 1980's, the United States Football League was the first top-level professional football league to play a spring/summer season schedule, doing so from 1983 to 1985. While not competing directly with the far more established National Football League, the USFL nevertheless would provide the NFL with its strongest competition since the American Football League of the 1960's. Through aggressive marketing, key player acquisitions and lavish spending, the USFL initially appeared as if it would buck the odds and become a permanent fixture in the American sports scene.
Almost as quickly as it arrived on that scene however, it disappeared, victimized by ownership rifts, franchise shifts, excessive spending in pursuit of player talent, and an inability to maintain the original plan on which the league had been founded. Less than two years after playing its first game for example, the USFL announced its intention to take on the more established NFL head-on, with a fall season schedule beginning in 1986. In doing this, they may just as well have announced their own demise - after a spring 1985 season, the USFL would shutter its doors, its teams never to take the field again.
David Dixon, Founder
Sometimes for a business venture to succeed, it requires being in the right place, at the right time, with the right product, and with the right people bringing it to fruition. By the time of the USFL's launch announcement on May 11, 1982, founder David Dixon felt he had each of these four things firmly in place. Unfortunately, over thre years time, each of these elements would be tossed aside, one by one.
Dixon was a Louisiana antique dealer who believed America's appetite for professional football was insatiable. But he wasn't your typical dealer of kick-knacks and old furniture pieces. Dixon brought some measure of credibility with his idea, having been involved in pro football since the 1960's. David Dixon had been instrumental in the founding of the NFL's New Orleans Saints, as well as with the construction of the Louisiana Superdome, so while some thought his concept "crackpot" in nature, Dixon's track record game him credibility beyond others who might have had a similar vision.
Originally conceived in 1965, Dixon would work on the USFL concept for 17 years, during which he would closely follow the paths of two other pro football leagues that had come and gone: the American Football League of the 1960's, which waged war head-to-head with the establishment NFL and finally joined it on equal terms; and the World Football League of the 1970's, which attempted to wage war with the NFL but did so by trying to take down battleships with spitballs.
The study in contrasts between the AFL was striking, and it was one from which David Dixon learned a great deal:
- The AFL was well financed from its outset, with owners willing to take financial losses over the long haul in their effort to establish their teams in their market, and the league in the national landscape. The WFL was poorly planned from inception, with owners unable to take financial hits and hoping to get in, find new ownesrhip, and get out, turning a buck in the process.
- The AFL placed most of its teams in markets where the NFL didn't have a presence but should have had they not been so reticent to expand. In 1974 alone meanwhile the WFL would have franchises in such urban centers as Shreveport, Louisiana.
- The AFL landed a network television deal to provide its teams with modest revenue but a level of instant national credibility. The WFL didn't, and seemed to lose credibility almost daily from its inception.
Drafting the USFL Blueprint
Simply put, the AFL was well planned while the WFL wasn't, and David Dixon took notice. His blueprint for the league's operations was now taking shape:
- A spring/summer schedule, allowing USFL teams to play in NFL cities, as there would be no direct competition between them for fan interest or facility dates.
- An inaugural season comprised of 8 to 12 teams, based as much as possible in markets that would attract a television partner: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, the Bay Area in California, Florida, Washington, the deep south.
- Recruiting a television partner that offered at least modest revenue for broadcasting rights, but who was willing to treat the product as identical to the NFL in its level of promotion and in-game production value.
- Teams exercising sound financial management through disciplined spending on player salaries, avoiding temptation to sign high-cost NFL free agents in favor of signing rookies and developing its own talent.
- Identifying team owners with more than sufficient financial resources to operate their clubs, and willing to absorb losses of up to $ 1 million a year for several years in anticipation of long-term success.
Dixon's USFL concept was an innovative one for its time, with the league and its television partners innovating many advances in the game we now see as commonplace:
- Playing games from March to July, for example, planted a seed in NFL circles that football could be a year-round sport, later spawning the WLAF and NFL Europe; a spirit that lives on in the form of its 24/7 programming channel, the NFL Network.
- Use of instant replay by game officials to review plays and potentially revise rulings. The NFL's "challenge flag" system of today is directly taken from the USFL's 1983 rule book.
- Adding the two-point conversion attempt as an option after touchdowns. Adopted by the NCAA in the 1950's and used by the AFL of the 1960's, the USFL revived the play. The NFL would not embrace this scoring enhancement until 1994.
- Permitting live television cameras on sidelines during games, including interviewing players who weren't involved in the action on the field. The NFL still hasn't adopted the latter.
- Implementing a territorial player draft, giving teams exclusive rights to locally based talent and giving them local "drawing cards" that would help attract fans.
Dixon's blueprint also called for USFL teams to play 20 regular season games between March and July (roughly once every 5 days) - an element which owners would ultimately reduce to 18 games played over a traditional, 18 week schedule.
Pro football in 1980 was surging in popularity, and Dixon felt the time was finally right to launch his concept, by now named the United States Football League. Commissioning a survey on the subject of spring pro football by Frank Magid Associates, the results were what Dixon wanted: there was, per the study, "substiantial support to the prospects for the USFL - at the gate and in delivering television viewers to audiences to advertisers." The report added that "in the fact of a long-standing reality (the existing NFL), the idea of the USFL does very well."
Armed with what became known in league circles as the "Magid Study" and the blueprint he'd formulated for the league's operations, David Dixon began to recruit both franchisees and football operations men. The first would be former Denver Bronco and Stanford University head coach John Ralston, whom Dixon hired as the USFL's first full-time employee. Respected in football circles, Ralston brought further credibility to presentations made to potential franchise owners, answering many of the "nuts and bolts" football operations questions that would be asked.
"Dixon and the Dynamite Dozen"
Over 1981 and early 1982, the question of how many teams there would be, and who would own them, began to take shape:
- A Birmingham franchise would be awarded to former United States Ambassador Marvin Warner.
- In Boston, a team would be operated by a partnership of George Matthews and former New England Patriots wide receiver Randy Vataha.
- Chicago's USFL entry would be owned by renown Arizona-based cardiologist Dr. Ted Diethrich ("Arizona-based" would become important later).
- The Denver franchise was awarded to local real estate developer Ron Blanding.
- In Detroit, billionaire real estate and shopping magnate mogul A. Alfred Taubman was Dixon's man.
- A Florida franchise would go to John Bassett, who a decade earlier had operated the WFL's Memphis Southmen. Bassett's franchise territory initially included the whole state.
- For Los Angeles, the USFL had tapped another real estate developer, Alex Spanos.
- The New York franchise would be held by Oklahoma oil gazillionaire J. Walter Duncan.
- In the Oakland/San Francisco market, the USFL would be represented with a franchise owned by partners Tad Taube and Jim Joseph.
- A Philadelphia USFL entry would be headed by another real estate scion, Myles Tanenbaum.
- San Diego would be represented by partners and cable television pioneers Bill Daniels and Alan Harmon.
- Washington's USFL team would be owned by well known local attorney Berl Bernhard.
Dixon also held a "13th" franchise for himself - payment for his work in organizing the league - but desiring to serve as the USFL's shepherd in its maiden season, he would opt to keep his team inactive for 1983. But before the league would play its first game, the lineup of team owners began breaking apart:
- Alex Spanos would be first to withdraw from the ranks of USFL owners, eschewing the Los Angeles franchise in favor of buying a minority interest in the NFL's San Diego Chargers. He'd eventually buy the rest of that franchise and in 2017 would relocate it... to Los Angeles.
- To have a league presence in the nation's second largest TV market, the Bay Area team's (later known as the Oakland Invaders) owners, Jim Joseph and Tad Taube, came up with a solution which the other owners approved: they'd flip a coin, with the winner taking over in Los Angeles and the loser staying put. Joseph won the toss and L.A. was his... for now.
- Bill Daniels and Alan Harmon, co-owners in San Diego, were surprisingly denied permission to lease Jack Murphy Stadium for home games. Having these cable TV moguls operating a franchise in the nation's second largest television market rather than San Diego made sense, so the league persuaded Jim Joseph to give up the Los Angeles market.
- Jim Joseph, having began his USFL journey as a part-owner in his home area of San Francisco only to take full ownership of a Los Angeles franchise, would be on the move again - this time to Phoenix, Arizona, a city on the grow but not one Dixon had in his initial plans. It wasn't optimal, but Joseph nonetheless remained committed to the concept of spring football, so he went along.
In September 1981, the owners named Detroit minority owner and former judge Peter Spivak as interim commissioner, and retained Mike Trager, a senior partner at Robert Landau Associates, to negotiate with television networks regarding a potential USFL rights package. Trager was an excellent choice, both for his extensive background in the TV industry but also due to his relationship with Chet Simmons, who at the time was President of a fledgling Entertainment and Sports Programming Network ("ESPN"). Trager attracted interest from both ESPN and Turner Broadcasting System (TBS) on the cable side, and from both ABC and NBC among terrestrial broadcasters.
After extensive discussions with all four potential suitors, Trager ultimately recommended that the owners reach agreements with ABC and ESPN, surmising that in ABC's case the USFL would replace a stale Sunday afternoon sports lineup, and in ESPN's case Trager knew the network would treat the USFL as a cornerstone of its programming lineup, making its games a cable, spring season equivalent of the wildly popular "Monday Night Football" on ABC.
ABC and ESPN Sign On
An essential part of David Dixon's plans from the beginning, the USFL was viewed as the first "made for television" sports league, and the deals struck with ABC and ESPN almost lived up to his expectations. Each of the USFL's original 12 teams would receive a total of $ 1.1 million in television rights fees - around 70% of the $ 1.56 million Dixon had projected for first-year player salaries. The deals also significantly boosted the league's credibility; they were coming out of the gate in a better starting position than the AFL had done in 1960. If USFL teams could manage to attract the 25,000 fans per game Dixon had projected, and their owners would adhere to the spending plan Dixon prepared as part of his blueprint for the league? They'd have a real winner on their hands.
Television also would provide the start-up league with its first commissioner. Having been impressed with Chet Simmons in his negotiations with the league regarding the cable broadcast rights, once the deal was done the league asked Simmons to leave ESPN and join the USFL as its commissioner. Seeking a new professional challenge and despite having no prior experience in overseeing a professional sports venture, Simmons agreed.
But rather than applaud the deals Mike Trager had persuaded them to sign, USFL team owners almost immediately sought to renegotiate their terms, particularly where ABC was concerned. The devil was in the details, as the owners saw it. The league was required to make three games each week available for Sunday telecast (half of its 1983 schedule), and had an option, at its discretion, to broadcast either one game nationally, or two games on a regional basis. That seemed harmless enough, but the deal had no "blackout" provisions which prevented ABC from broadcasting in the cities of a game's home team; so if the Panthers played host to the Blitz and ABC wanted to air the game as it's national (only) game for that week, people in Detroit didn't need to come out to the Pontiac Silverdome and watch the home team - they could do so free, in their living rooms.
Another complication was ABC's right to alter the league schedule itself, a forerunner of sorts to modern "flex scheduling" in the NFL. If for example the Express were to play a late season home game with playoff implications in Los Angeles against Boston with a 4:00 p.m. start time, ABC was entitled to reschedule the game to a 1:00 p.m. start to accommodate an expected larger east coast television audience. The owners also felt Trager had sold the USFL's terrestrial rights to ABC cheap; a charge proved accurate in 1984 when, facing a competing bid for cable rights for the 1985-86 seasons, ESPN would bid more than double what ABC had been locked into for that two-year period.
Ironically the most problematic element of the USFL's contract with ABC was one that ABC had with the league: as part of the deal, the USFL agreed to have franchises in the three largest television markets in the United States: New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. This raised no eyebrows initially, but by the start of the 1984 season would be an issue; and for the 1985 season, this seemingly easily met requirement would cost the USFL's owners millions of dollars.
ABC meanwhile tripled their money on their 1983 investment, selling $20 million worth of commercial time for USFL telecasts before the first game was played.
The television contract so sought by Dixon, the one that should have been a lifeline for the USFL in 1983 and 1984, had by 1985 become a noose around the league's neck. And the owners having poisoned the league's relationship with ABC? By 1985 the network cared little if someone sprung the trap door on the gallows.
A Top Rate Product
Even before the league pumped up a football, the United States Football League appeared to be on a path toward comparative relativeness, if not parity, with the much older National Football League. Ralston, who would go on to be hired as the first head coach of the Oakland Invaders, would be just the first in a list of well-known "football men" to join the new league:
- Legendary head coach George Allen would be signed on as head coach of the Chicago Blitz, owning a 10% stake in the team as well. The same deal would lure former New England Patriots head coach Chuck Fairbanks to the sidelines of the New Jersey Generals.
- Revered former Denver Broncos head coach Red Miller would be hired to help the Denver Gold pan for victories.
- In Birmingham, Marvin Warner would hire well respected Pittsburgh Steelers assistant Rollie Dotsch as their head coach. Boston and Philadelphia would take similar paths, giving head coaching shots to top-flight assistants Dick Coury and Jim Mora.
- In Los Angeles, the Express would hire Hugh Campbell as head coach shortly after leading the CFL's Edmonton Eskimos to an unprecedented fifth Grey Cup championship.
In Tampa meanwhile, John Bassett would take a different approach, hiring 37 year old Steve Spurrier, a Florida college football legend who had won the 1966 Heisman Trophy before a decade-long NFL career that came to a close with the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The lineup of players signing on with USFL teams was of a much higher caliber than the WFL or the first few years of the AFL as well. By the end of the league's 1985 season, teams such as the Baltimore Stars and Oakland Invaders would have proven competitive against NFL counterparts. Veterans such as Greg Landry, John Banaszak, Stan White and Raymond Chester came on board early to lend credibility to the USFL for its launch, and the league craftily skimmed the cream off the top of college's top player talent before the NFL could draft them: hall of famers Jim Kelly, Steve Young and Reggie White would all begin their pro careers in USFL uniforms, as would three consecutive Heisman Trophy winners in Herschel Walker, Mike Rozier and Doug Flutie.
On March 6, 1983, the vision that David Dixon had in 1965 had taken root, giving birth to an entirely new concept - a professional football league that played in the spring. Had it stayed true to Dixon's original vision, it's interesting to contemplate what the United States Football League might have become. Instead, others would soon begin making their own imprint on the USFL, shoving its founder - and his vision - aside.