Unites States Football League
The United States Football League (USFL) was a
professional football league that played three seasons between 1983 and
1985. In the process, the National Football League had its greatest
competitor since the 1960s version of the American Football League.
The USFL was the brainchild of David Dixon, a New Orleans entrepreneur
partly responsible for getting the Superdome built who in the 1960s
envisioned football as a possible spring and summer sport. In the early
1980s, Dixon gathered a group of owners from twelve cities and announced
the league's launch on May 11, 1982, to begin play in 1983.
Two primary reasons why USFL investors believed their league could work
were that the burgeoning cable TV market needed more spring sports
programming and that the NFL had labor troubles. The league was actually
able to announce a $20M TV contract with ABC on May 26, 1982 despite not
having any players signed to contracts. They later signed a deal with ESPN
to broadcast games ABC was not interested in.
While no teams folded during any season of the USFL, it was a
close call in many cases, and some franchises folded before or after a
season's play. The league experienced a great deal of franchise
instability, relocation, and closure:
- During the 1983-1984 off-season:
- During the 1984-1985 off-season:
- The Breakers
moved a second time, this time to Portland, Oregon.
- The owner of the Los
Angeles Express franchise went bankrupt, abandoning his
franchise and putting the league's television contract with ABC in
- Upon the league's announcement that they would begin play in the
fall of 1986, the league champion Philadelphia
Stars announced they would relocate to Baltimore, Maryland for
- The league's 1983 champion Michigan
Panthers would merge with the Oakland
Invaders, as team owner Alfred Taubman did not wish to compete
head-to-head with the NFL's Detroit Lions in the fall of 1986.
- The Washington
Federals were relocated to Orlando, Florida where they would
become the Orlando Renegades.
- The Arizona
Wranglers would merge with the Oklahoma
Outlaws, forming the Arizona Outlaws. The Outlaws had
originally intended to merge with the Oakland
Invaders, but an agreement between their owners couldn't be
- The Pittsburgh
Maulers, owned by billionaire shopping mall magnate Edward J.
DeBartolo Sr. folded; and
- The Chicago
Blitz also folded. Eddie Einhorn was granted a new franchise
for Chicago, but it was repeatedly announced that the team Einhorn
had purchased was not the Blitz.
Competition vs. NFL
At first the USFL competed with the older, more established National
Football League by trying not to compete directly with it, primarily by
playing its games on a March-June schedule but also having different
playing rules, most notably:
- The two-point conversion (since adopted by the NFL, in 1994).
- For the 1985 season, a method of challenging officials' rulings on
the field via instant replay (using a system that is almost identical
to that used by the NFL today).
Initially the league was viewed as innovative and a minor challenger to
the establishment NFL thanks to its willingness to sign marquee talent
such as Herschel Walker, Doug Flutie, Mike Rozier, Reggie White, Jim
Kelly, Steve Young and other young stars of the day. With attendance
falling off quickly after week one, the NFL and others took them less
seriously as a challenger.
The USFL had two college drafts. The first was a territorial draft,
where teams could select players from one of five colleges that were
deemed to be in the team's region. The second was like the usual NFL draft
with teams selecting from all other eligible and available college
With the territorial draft, local college fan favorites would end up
play for the local USFL team. John Ralston said, "By coming to the
USFL we can guarantee him (John Elway) San Francisco. In the NFL he could
wind up in Buffalo, as O.J. Simpson did." (At the time, what would
become the Oakland franchise was across the bay in San Francisco.)
Both drafts were held months in advance of the NFL draft, given the
league a head start in tempting players to choose the new league. Redskins
GM thought the NFL was putting itself at a competitive disadvantage for no
reason and suggested the league's draft be moved up to January. It never
happened and the vast majority of top college players opted to at least
wait to see where NFL teams drafted them and most signed with the older
Spring vs. Fall
In 1984, the league began discussing the possibility of competing
head-to-head with the NFL by playing its games in the fall beginning in
1986. Despite the protests of many "old guard" owners within the
league, who wanted to stay with the original plan of playing football in
the spring months, the voices of New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump
and others would eventually prevail. On October 18, 1984, the league's
owners voted to begin playing a fall season in 1986. However, the USFL
would never play a fall game.
USFL v. NFL
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.
Each NFL franchise was named as a co-defendant, with the exception of
the then-Los Angeles Raiders; Raiders owner Al Davis was a major witness
for the USFL and was a long time enemy of NFL officials, especially
commissioner Pete Rosell. Howard
Cosell was also a key witness for the USFL.
The case went to trial in the spring of 1986, and while the USFL won
the battle—the court held that the NFL was a "duly adjudicated
illegal monopoly"—it lost the war. The jury, unsure of how to
proceed awarding damages and thinking the judge was empowered to award a
greater amount, awarded the USFL nominal damages of $1.00, trebled under
anti-trust law to $3.00.
Almost immediately upon announcement of the verdict, the USFL announced
that it was suspending operations for the 1986 season, effectively marking
the end of the USFL's existence. Players signed to contracts were free to
sign with NFL (or other professional teams) immediately. Indeed, the NFL
had held a draft in 1984 for teams to acquire the rights to USFL players,
in the event of the league (or teams in the league) folding.
Despite the post-trial statements of several jurors indicating that
they wished to award much greater sums to the USFL (one juror alone stated
a $100 million award, trebled to $300 million, was what he thought
appropriate), the USFL's appeal was rejected by the U.S. Court of Appeals
for the 2nd Circuit in 1988. However, due to a provision of antitrust law
which allows an "injured" party in an antitrust action to
recover its attorney fees and costs of litigation, the USFL was awarded
over $5.5 million in attorney fees and $62,220.92 in court costs. That
award was appealed by the NFL; it was affirmed on appeal and ultimately
allowed to stand by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1990, long after the USFL
had ceased operations.
Though the NFL would be loath to admit it during the remainder of the
1980s and 1990s, it is widely acknowledged that the USFL had a dramatic
impact on the National Football League both on the field and off.
Almost all of the USFL's on-field innovations were eventually adopted
by the older league, and a multitude of star players would go on to very
successful careers in the NFL.
The NFL would also eventually have franchises in some of the markets
where the USFL proved fertile or renewed interest in the game, including
Arizona (the St. Louis Cardinals moving there in 1988), Baltimore (after
Art Modell moved his Cleveland Browns there to become the Baltimore Ravens
in 1996), Jacksonville (the Jacksonville Jaguars being awarded as an
expansion franchise for the 1995 season), and Tennessee (the Houston
Oilers, before making Nashville their permanent home, spent a year in
Prior to the jury award in USFL v. NFL, the league had planned
to go forward with a 1986 season
comprising eight teams, divided into a "Liberty Division" and an
The 1986 championship game was to have been played in Jacksonville,
Florida on February 1, 1987.
1983: Kelvin Bryant, RB, Philadelphia Stars
1984: Jim Kelly, QB, Houston Gamblers
1985: Herschel Walker, RB, New Jersey Generals
View all major award winners and All-League teams
- Chester R. "Chet" Simmons (1983-1984; resigned under
pressure from owners)
- Harry L. Usher (1984-1989; league ceased operations)
- Rushing Attempts: 1143 Herschel Walker
- Rushing Yards: 5562 Herschel Walker
- Rushing Touchdowns: 55 Herschel Walker
- Receiving Catches: 234 Jim Smith
- Receiving Yards: 3685 Jim Smith
- Receiving Touchdowns: 31 Jim Smith
- Passing Attempts: 1352 John Reaves
- Passing Completions: 766 John Reaves
- Passing Yards: 10,039 Bobby Hebert
- Passing Touchdowns: 83 Jim Kelly
- Passing Interceptions: 57 Bobby Hebert
$1 League: The Rise and Fall of the USFL by Jim Byrne
The Sporting News Official USFL Guide and Register, 1984
Sporting News Official USFL Guide and Register, 1985
USFL Media Guides (each team published one each year)
Kickoff Magazine (published by league; 9 issues per year + playoffs; sold at
The Sporting News (regular coverage + special "preview"
These and many other USFL items can be found at
eBay - check our links on the far right of this page!