The USFL, or United States Football League, was an American professional football league that competed for three seasons. While it lost 163 million dollars in that time, it is considered to be the strongest rival league to the NFL dominance of American football since the old AFL.
In the end this is a story about a league that had a plan, failed to follow that plan and let arrogance, new brash millionaire owners, weak central leadership, and the NFL itself beat it into submission.
The USFL was the dream of a New Orleans antiques dealer David Dixon. Dixon had been instrumental in bringing the Saints into the NFL in 1965, but saw football as not only a fall sport but a sport for spring and summer as well.
Dixon spent the next 15 years studying the latest two challenges to the NFL dominance; the AFL and the World Football League. In 1980 he hired a hired a marketing agency to do a study on the feasibility of a spring and summer professional football league. The results found that such a league was viable and Dixon moved to the next step of building a new league.
Dixon signed up 12 cities, 9 of which already had a NFL franchise, for the opening USFL season of 1983. He quickly reached a TV deal with ABC sports and the then fledgling ESPN. The TV rights were sold off for 13 million in 1983, 16 million in 1984 and 1985. Each year ABC was paying 9 million of the total rate. In accordance with this ESPN President Chet Simmons was hired to be the Commissioner of the new league.
From the jump the USFL had a number of issues among stadiums and ownerships groups most located in the state of California. Since California, and Los Angeles in particular, was deemed important enough that the league had to cut several deals to maintain its presence in the Golden state.
That first year the USFL did pretty good in drawing fans in, with 12 teams operating they were able to lure 2.7 million fans out to spring and summer football. Their games averaged 25,031 fans each and were led by the Denver Gold who were able to draw in over 40 thousand fans per home game.
The new leagues now faced a decision, should it continue with the Dixon plan that called for the expansion to 16 teams in its second season, a salary cap of 1.8 million dollars, a regional draft that would keep local players with established fan bases more loyal to the USFL, or pursue a league filled with stars that could more directly compete with the NFL.
New ownership blood, most notably Donald Trump in New Jersey, Eddie Einhorn in Chicago, and J William Oldenburg convinced the league that pursing starts and spending money was the way to insure success. In many ways once the Generals were sold to Trump the die was cast on the survival of the league.
After another season of big losses by many of the teams, Trump and Einhorn convinced the other USFL owners that moving to a fall schedule to more directly compete with the NFL would lead to a merger of the two leagues and the USFL teams would be worth 70 million dollars each, the going rate for a NFL franchise.
Since loses were mounting many team were folding, and the decision by the league to move to a fall schedule was causing teams to move out of NFL dominated markets the league, after another season of loses in the millions came up with a hail mary play to save the league.
They decided to sue the NFL for violating the Sherman anti trust act claiming the NFL had an unlawful monopoly on TV contracts for American style football. They alleged that the NFL had a monopoly on TV broadcasting rights and in some cases access to stadium facilities.
The USFL also claimed that the NFL had bullied CBS, NBC, and ABC to not allow Fall USFL games onto their air. They also claimed that he NFL had conspired to ruin the Oakland Invaders and the New Jersey Generals.
The USFL sought 567 million dollars in damages, which would have been tripled by law to 1.7 billion dollars and proposed two resolutions. The first that the NFL have to renegotiate their TV deals with only two national networks, or have the NFL split into two 14 team leagues with a TV deal with one national TV network a piece.
After a 42 day trial the USFL was able to convince the Jury that the NFL was indeed an unlawful monopoly. However the jurors only awarded the new league 1 dollar in damages, which was tripled to three dollars. Also under this law the USFL was later able to get the NFL to pay back their legal and court fees a number that ended up being around six million dollars.
There are rumors that the jury incorrectly thought that the Judge could impose is own dollar amount on the award, but for all practical purposes the USFL was dead.
In the end it was the USFL owners themselves that sealed the fate of this league. They were unwilling to stick to a solid plan of expansion, unwilling to adhere to a salary cap, and in the end dreams of owning a NFL franchise and triple their initial investments led the league to make many very unwise business decisions.
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