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Three Years and $3: The Story of the USFL

By Patrick Mondout

The United States Football League (USFL) was a spring/summer professional football league that attempted to take on the National Football League from 1983-1986. The league featured many future NFL stars, such as Herschel Walker and Steve Young, but was ultimately guilty - at least in the minds of paying customers - of not being the NFL.

At a glance...
LEAGUE FACTS
Established 1982
Commissioners Chet Simmons (1983-84)
Harry Usher (1985-86)
FRANCHISES
Arizona Wranglers/Outlaws
Baltimore Stars
Birmingham Stallions
Boston Breakers
Chicago Blitz
Denver Gold
Houston Gamblers
Jacksonville Bulls
Los Angeles Express
Memphis Showboats
Michigan Panthers
New Jersey Generals
New Orleans Breakers
Oakland Invaders
Oklahoma Outlaws
Orlando Renegades
Philadelphia Stars
Pittsburgh Maulers 
Portland Breakers
San Antonio Gunslingers 
Tampa Bay Bandits 
Washington Federals 
CHAMPIONS
1983  Michigan Panthers
1984  Philadelphia Stars
1985  Baltimore Stars
#1 DRAFT PICKS
1983 Dan Marino QB Pitt.
1984 Mike Rozier RB Nebraska
1985 Doug Flutie QB Boston College
MVPs
1983 Kelvin Bryant RB Stars
1984 Jim Kelly QB Gamblers
1985 Herschel Walker RB Generals
COACH OF THE YEAR
1983 Dick Coury Boston Breakers
1984 Jim Mora Philadelphia Stars
1985 Rollie Dotsch, Birmingham
BEST ATTENDANCE PER GAME
1983 Denver Gold   41,736
1984 Jacksonville Bulls   46,730
1985 Tampa Bay Bandits 45,220

See also: 1983 USFL Standings, 1984 USFL Standings, 1985 USFL Standings

The league was rumored to be in the works for several months, but was formally announced on March 11, 1982. The league also announced that teams from New York, Chicago, Detroit, Boston, San Francisco, Birmingham, Los Angeles, Tampa Bay and Philadelphia (plus three other cities, later said to be Houston, San Diego and Phoenix) would start play in March of 1983 and play a championship game the following July 4th, and that its first commissioner would be current president of ESPN, Chet Simmons.

In contrast to the near-pyramid scheme that was the World Football League (WFL) a decade earlier, there was not an entry fee as such in the USFL. Owners merely had to post  $1.5M lines of credit and were told to expect $1M in losses the first year and up to $4M in losses over the first three years. They were also warned about overspending on players - advice that would soon be ignored at their peril, especially by George Allen in Chicago.

The league brought about many innovations - some of which came from other pro leagues (such as the ill-fated WFL) or even the NCAA - including the two point conversion and instant replay. Those who invested in franchises saw the labor trouble in the NFL (the older league had a strike that led to the cancellation of nearly half the 1982 season) as an opportunity to introduce a new brand of football. With traditional TV outlets looking for more spring sports programming and the relatively new ESPN cable network looking for more professional sports programming of any type, the league seemed to have picked a good year to debut.

A decision five years earlier by the NCAA proved helpful for the new league as well. Starting in January of 1978, college teams were allowed to "redshirt" freshmen. This had the effect of making the 1983 draft class the deepest in history (more on the '83 NFL draft and why this was the case is here).

Unlike the WHA, which signed Bobby Hull to huge contract, or the WFL, which tried to sign Joe Namath and other big name NFL stars, USFL franchises decided to focus on signing college stars rather than trying to pry the likes of Joe Montana or Walter Payton away from NFL franchises. The few "name" stars were almost all at the ends of the careers and few had much of an impact.

The USFL made an immediate splash with the signing of Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker, who was not yet eligible for the NFL draft, just prior to the inaugural 1983 season. The Los Angeles Express made the big signing of the 1984 season by inking BYU's QB Steve Young to a 10-year, $40M contract, but also scored when Heisman Trophy winner Mike Rozier signed with Pittsburgh. Continuing a trend, 1985 Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie - who was projected to be the #1 overall pick in the NFL draft - instead signed with Donald Trump and the New Jersey Generals.

Despite all the young stars the league had, many football fans just couldn't be bothered to watch the league in the spring and summer and the league was spending money on salaries far faster than it was taking it in. Many in the league believed the NFL had an unfair advantage with exclusive deals with publicly-financed stadiums and with most TV networks unwilling to even negotiate with them.

Wanted $1.32B, Had to Settle for $3

League officials decided to sue the the NFL under antitrust laws and won. Unfortunately for the league, the jury suggested that they could not determine how much monetary damage - if any - had been done by the NFL and awarded a single dollar in damages, which was automatically tripled (under antitrust law) to $3. By the time the NFL wrote the check, compounded interest brought the total to a whopping $3.76. A former league official still has the uncashed check. League officials later collected some $6M in court costs, but it had long since abandoned football.

It is easy to suggest - as I am about to do - that the league might have succeeded with a different gameplan, but it is impossible to know. The league had a loyal following and was much more popular and far less of a joke than the WFL had been in the Super70s. If the league had been content to leave big cities that didn't care for it earlier (Los Angeles and Chicago), show some fiscal responsibility and stick to a spring/summer schedule, they probably could have gone on indefinitely and might still exist today. ABC officials had stated in 1984 that they would have gone on indefinitely on the same terms with the profitable TV deal it had with the league. But most of the owners were shooting for something bigger. They wanted first to be merged into the lucrative NFL with its big money guarantees with TV contracts and later would have been content with half a billion in a settlement with the league. They got neither nor left themselves with any options when they decided to cancel the 1986 season.

Perhaps the final chapter in the story was written in early 2006, when one of the last two active former USFL players in the NFL, Doug Flutie, retired. Only punter Sean Landeta - assuming he returns for a 22nd year - remains from USFL rosters.

Learn more about the league here or learn more about individual teams below:



USFL Bibliography
Books:
The $1 League: The Rise and Fall of the USFL by Jim Byrne
The Sporting News Official USFL Guide and Register, 1984
The Sporting News Official USFL Guide and Register, 1985
USFL Media Guides (each team published one each year)

Magazines:
Kickoff Magazine (published by league; 9 issues per year + playoffs; sold at games)
The Sporting News (regular coverage + special "preview" inserts)

These and many other USFL items can be found at eBay - check our links on the far right of this page!


Share Your Memories!

We have a USFL Forum! Our sites have always been by you and about you. If you check our TV Forums or our Technology & Science forums, you'll find literally thousands of messages from fans of 1970s TV shows, survivors of hurricanes or aircraft accidents, etc. from all over the world sharing their memories, asking questions, making comments. Our baseball section is new, but don't let that stop you from sharing your memories of USFL games you saw, now-forgotten stadiums, etc. Of course you can also ask questions, post trivia, or just read what others are saying.

--Patrick Mondout



 


While Dan Marino was setting passing records in Miami for the Dolphins, former University of Miami QB Jim Kelly was throwing for 5219 yards and 44 TDs in the Houston Gamblers 'Run and Shoot' offense.

Photo by Michael Ponzini, 2006 Super70s.com


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