Don't Call It a Comeback: USFL's Return Could Cause Trouble for the NFL

JC De La TorreAnalyst IIIJanuary 26, 2010

It's in the dark recesses of memory in the ownership corridors of the NFL. It's talked about in hushed tones, like a child whispering to Momma about the boogieman that's going to get them. It could derail the apple cart, ruin their golden goose, and release the League's stranglehold on the marketplace.

It's the United States Football League. The USFL...a league that nearly forced the NFL into a merger in the mid '80s.

There's a movement to resurrect it from the dead to begin play in 2011 with 10-12 teams, and 2011 just coincidentally happens the offseason that the NFL plans on locking out its players in a collective bargaining dispute.

The emergence of the USFL could provide the players some leverage in their war with the owners. At the same time, it could legitimize the league, allowing it to succeed where so many other summer leagues have failed.

Imagine, if you will, Dree Brews suiting up for the Los Angeles Express and Peyton Manning leading the charge for the Michigan Panthers. Imagine Chris Johnson blistering down the sidelines for the Birmingham Stallions, Ronnie Brown in the red and black of the Tampa Bay Bandits, and Donovan McNabb bringing a championship to Philadelphia with the Philadelphia Stars.

It could happen, folks.

The USFL was the model league for all future NFL alternatives, taking the NFL head on, battling tooth and nail for players with the big bad behemoth. It was David going against Goliath and consistently winning.

The USFL was the brainchild of David Dixon, a New Orleans antiques dealer, who had been instrumental in bringing the New Orleans Saints to town. In 1965, he envisioned football as a possible spring and summer sport.

After studying other failed leagues for 15 years, he formed a blueprint for the prospective league's operations, which included early television exposure, heavy promotion in home markets, and owners willing to absorb years of losses that he felt would be inevitable until the league found its feet. He also assembled a list of prospective franchises located in markets attractive to a potential television partner.

Dixon signed up 12 cities, including nine where there already were NFL teams. They quickly reached an over-the-air television deal with ABC Sports and a cable deal with then-fledgling ESPN.

The deals yielded roughly $13 million in 1983 and $16 million in 1984, including $9 million per year from ABC. ABC had options for the 1985 season at $14 million and 1986 at $18 million.

At first the USFL competed with the older, more established National Football League by following the Dixon plan and trying not to compete directly with it, primarily by playing its games on a March-June schedule, but also having slightly different rules and a salary cap.

Although the Dixon plan called for a $1.8 million salary cap in anticipation of slow growth, several teams exceeded it in the pursuit of stars.

Ironically, the league's biggest splash—the signing of Herschel Walker—has been considered to have foreshadowed the league's demise.

Teams began to spend feverishly trying to gain more talent and legitimacy as a quality alternative to the NFL.

Donald Trump led the charge, leading to the eventual abolishment of the league's salary cap and championing a move to a fall schedule to challenge the NFL directly.

Of course, the move never happened as teams went bankrupt before they were able to compete and franchises moved and folded.

In another effort to keep themselves afloat while at the same time attacking the more established National Football League, the USFL filed an anti-trust lawsuit against the older league, claiming it had established a monopoly with respect to television broadcasting rights and, in some cases, to access of stadium venues.

The USFL claimed that the NFL had bullied ABC, CBS, and NBC into not televising USFL games in the fall. It also claimed that the NFL had a specific plan to eliminate the USFL.

The league sought damages of $567 million, which would have been tripled to $1.7 billion under anti-trust law. It also hoped to void the NFL's contracts with the three major networks.

To exact a resolution, the USFL proposed two remedies: Either force the NFL to negotiate new television contracts with only two networks or force the NFL to split into two competing 14-team leagues, each limited to a contract with one major network.

The case went to trial in the spring of 1986 and lasted 42 days. On July 29, a six-person jury handed down a verdict that, while technically a victory for the USFL, in fact devastated the league.

The jury declared the NFL a "duly adjudicated illegal monopoly" and found that the NFL had willfully acquired and maintained monopoly status through predatory tactics.

The jury rejected the USFL's other claims. It also found that the USFL had changed its strategy to a more risky goal of a merger with the NFL.

In addition, the switch to a fall schedule caused the loss of several major markets. It also claimed that it was established that Donald Trump, owner of the New Jersey Generals, specifically wanted to force a merger knowing that the majority of teams would be eliminated.

Probably the most damning result was that the jury found that the NFL did not attempt to force the USFL off television. In essence, the jury felt that while the USFL was harmed by the NFL's de facto monopolization of pro football in the United States, most of its problems were due to its own mismanagement.

It awarded the USFL only one dollar in nominal damages, which was tripled under antitrust law to three dollars, essentially bankrupting the league.

Before you knew it, the USFL was gone. Collectively, owners lost $163 million dollars.

After the demise of the league, several other leagues sprouted up to try and replace the void left by the USFL.

Only the Arena League had any measure of success, lasting 22 seasons before finally folding in 2008.

The World League of American Football was founded in 1990 with the support of the NFL, but eventually folded in 1993.

It would be relaunched in '95 as NFLE (National Football League Europe), playing exclusively in Europe and lasting about 12 years before closing its doors for good in 2007.

The XFL was founded in 2001 by World Wrestling Entertainment's Vince McMahon. It folded after one season.

The United Football League debuted in 2009, beginning with just four teams competing directly against the NFL. It did poorly financially but confirmed it would return for a second season.

The new USFL will build upon the lessons learned from the failed experiments of the XFL and World League, not to mention the overspending zealous of the old USFL.

It's believed to already have lined up television contracts with the ESPN family of networks, including ABC, and plans on bringing back many of the old franchise nicknames to allow for familiarity.

Michael Dwyer, the founder and president of the new league, believes this new USFL will be "NFL friendly."

It could, however, become an ugly bargaining chip if the NFL owners do decide to go forward with a lockout of the players in 2011.

The presence of the USFL would enable the players to earn a paycheck, albeit not as impressive as what they'd make in the NFL, and allow them to stay in competitive shape, similar to when the NHL players were fleeing to play in Europe and Russia during their lock out.

Further, it would give the USFL some credible ground to stand on talent-wise, re-establishing the brand of competitive summer football, and allow it to rebuild a fanbase.

You know the NFL doesn't want this league to see the light of day, especially in trying labor times. It could upset the distinct advantage they have over the players while strengthening a new competitor that has the name recognition from challenging them in the past.

There's been a lot of questions and confusion concerning the new USFL and it remains to be seen whether the league will ever step foot on a field.

Dates for revealing names, locations, and other information has been missed.

In a statement made in November on their official Web site, the league remains dedicated to playing in 2011 with 10-12 teams.

"We have a strong sense of history and believe that the marketplace has demonstrated the desire to have 'spring football'," Dwyer said in the statement. "The USFL had a strong connection with many of its fans and we hope to re-ignite that passion and pick up where the others left off."

If they can get their act together, the USFL could be a significant fly in the ointment of the NFL's collective bargaining with their players.

Portions of the Wikipedia article on the USFL were used in this article. Please note that while a great source, Wikipedia is not always the most reliable place for accurate information. I have fact checked what was written here with other sources to confirm its accuracy.


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