The young United Football League (UFL) states as its mission:
“To fulfill the needs of football fans in major markets currently under-served by professional football by providing a high quality traditional football league comprised of world class professional football players. The UFL will serve its communities with pride, dedication and passion, and uphold a leadership role in the development of football worldwide. The UFL will provide every fan with an affordable, accessible, exciting and entertaining game experience.”
Beginning in 2009, the league began with four teams and added a fifth in 2010. The league will build slowly by securing markets not in the mainstream of the NFL. It is an interesting vision. One that sounds like it was built from experience.
The first football league to challenge the NFL since the AFL/NFL merger arrived in 1974 and would be gone by 1975. The World Football League (WFL) made a splash by being able to hire away NFL stars including the Dolphins’ Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick, and Paul Warfield. They were soon joined by Ken Stabler and Darryl Lamonica, formerly of the Oakland Raiders. The WFL played its 20 game schedule in the late summer and early fall, it was not a good product. Ownership problems plagued the league from the start. While the WFL did have some stars, it had no major TV contract. It lacked the national exposure and the monies needed from a TV contract to survive.
In 1983, a second league would arrive which in some circles was seen as having a better chance to succeed. In the wake of the NFL Strike in 1982, the coast-to-coast connection of cable television, and a country in love with football, the United States Football League was given a better chance to succeed than the WFL ever could have hoped. The main reason was it was a spring league and TV contract worth $20 million over two years with ABC. The league also struck a cable deal with ESPN. Originally the league was to have 12 teams in markets and a draft built on local universities rather than any college in the contract. The league had some stars too – very young ones in fact.
The USFL arrived in a controversial signing of Herschel Walker and some highly known owners like Burt Reynolds. The first year received mixed results. Some franchises (New Jersey, Tampa Bay, Oakland, and Tampa Bay) drew well and others did not (Boston, Washington, and LA). The first season culminated with the Michigan Panthers defeating the Philadelphia Stars.
In 1984, the Donald arrived. Yes, that Donald, Donald Trump. He bought the New Jersey Generals and made more news than his team. The USFL signed Mike Rozier out of Nebraska – the second consecutive Heisman Trophy winner. Jim Kelly of the Houston Gamblers was quite the gunslinger as was future Super Bowl MVP Doug Williams and Steve Young of the LA Express. However, by the end of the second season in 1984, ownership problems and low attendance began to sprout. San Antonio, Chicago, and Washington were not even drawing 10,000 a game while southern markets were booming in Jacksonville and Tampa Bay.
The USFL also had the run and shoot, the 2 point conversion, instant replay, playoff celebrations. It had great coaches who would go on to great NFL careers including Marv Levy and Jim Mora, and some not so great NFL careers like Steve Spurrier. The league announced it was going to go to fall schedule in the 1985. Trump brought in Doug Flutie – the third straight Heisman Trophy winner to sign with the league.
However, the fall of 1985 would be a disaster. The powerful Philadelphia, a team many considered capable playing in the NFL, moved to Baltimore. Attendance outside of the south sagged. BY 1986, the USFL was done playing.
The USFL’s only hope in 1986 was to sue to the NFL in an anti-trust suit. The USFL won the court case. But the USFL only got $1.00 in damages which exploded to $3.76 under anti-trust laws and interest. The check has yet to be cashed. In 1989, a judge ruled the NFL had to pay the USFL’s legal fees of over $5 million.
To many, the league’s collapse and the blame for it lays squarely on the feet of Trump. Burt Reynolds, co-owner of the Tampa Bay bandits, thought of Trump of a man out to get his NL franchise by publicizing himself as much as possible. In watching ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary, Small Potatoes, Trump’s role as a self-promotion man is clearly seen. His ego is clearly seen as being bigger than all the other owners. The problem, as Trump saw it, was the other owners were not going to be around much longer as their franchises were not financially viable. Trump was right. The league was $160 million in debt. The move to the fall killed the USFL in ratings, attendance, and coverage. However, Burt Reynolds was also right. Trump was, and is, the ultimate self promotion machine. But then again, who else had the money to compete with the other league – no one. This lack of patience in the USFL was its ultimate undoing. It wanted to be a big league and it wanted it over night.
After the USFL it would be almost another ten years before a rival league appeared in the US. The Canadian Football League would expand into US markets in the early to mid 1990s without much success and was gone back to Canada by 1998. In 2011, a new USFL is supposed to appear as a spring league but no more news has been given than a website as newusfl.com.
In the end, the USFL changed the NFL after its collapse. Spread offenses would first go to the NCAA but finally make their way to the NFL in the 1990s and 2000s. The USFL increased the NFL salary landscape in the mid 80s as the players played off one league against the other to get a better salary.
The NFL’s average salary in 1983 was $152,800. A year later, after the USFL began paying fat salaries and creating a bidding war with the NFL, the average salary was $225,600, an increase of 47.6 percent — the largest jump in the league’s history.
The two point conversion and instant replay that debuted in the USFL would both arrive in the NFL in the 1990s. Jim Kelly, Steve Young, Doug Williams, and Bobby Herbert all made the leap to the NFL along with Herschel Walker, Sam Mills, Reggie White and many others.The NFL would expand into the south in the 1990s with the Jaguars and Panthers based on the USFL experience.