The History of the USFL

Joshua LobdellCorrespondent IJuly 16, 2009

FEBRUARY 1985:  Quarterback Jim Kelly #12 of the Houston Gamblers scrambles during a 1985 season USFL game. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

The USFL, or United States Football League, was an American professional football league that competed for three seasons. While it lost $163 million 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 of bringing the Saints into the NFL in 1965, but saw football as not only a fall sport but a sport fro 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, nine 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 well 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, 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 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.

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