THE USFL CHOOSES A BIGGER ROAD OVER A SMALLER CAR
The USFL's decision to switch its schedule from spring to autumn beginning in 1986 prompts a number of questions. Does the USFL really think it's strong enough to take on the NFL? How unanimous was last week's "unanimous" vote? Why were some owners shaking their heads after the league meeting?
When its third season ends next summer, the USFL could close up shop for 14 months, not to open again until the autumn of 1986. It will probably shrink from 18 teams to 12, and it will go head-to-head with both the NFL and college football. "We're ready, willing and able to compete for fans," says USFL commissioner Chet Simmons. "This puts to rest the idea that televised football has reached the saturation point."
Simmons and such owners as Donald Trump of the New Jersey Generals are placing great faith in a $700,000 market study that says the USFL has a 98% recognition factor among America's football fans, has demonstrated remarkable new-product success and could press on confidently into an autumn schedule. But in 1982 Simmons said, "Market research has shown the American public will accept a new professional football league at a different time of year." The public hasn't accepted it yet. Steve Ehrhart, who runs the USFL's Memphis Showboats, concedes, "The competition against baseball and tradition was greater than they thought."
The league's decision to play in the fall was dictated by economic problems of its own making. At its genesis the USFL planned to be a modest league offering good football at popular prices. ABC-TV's then-generous two-year, $18 million contract was more than enough to give the owners financial stability and reason to hope. But then ambitious owners began signing prizes like Herschel Walker, Mike Rozier and Steve Young to fabulous contracts. Team payrolls soared. The league priced itself out of its chosen season. It needed bigger bucks.
"What we have here is a car that got too big for the road," says John Bassett, the owner of the Tampa Bay Bandits, "so we've got to change the road. Personally, I would've gotten into a smaller car."
Some say the owners want to force a merger with the NFL, but Trump says, "I don't want a merger. What I do want is games with the NFL—challenges, more revenues. Fall is first-class." It was this vision of a greater USFL that Trump and his allies sold to their fellow owners. "A bold move," Trump calls it. "And a big gamble," says Bassett. "There was trepidation and concern," admits Ehrhart.
Now that the decision has been made, the USFL has already begun to get into shape for the showdown. The Oklahoma and Oakland franchises have been merged, and San Antonio and Los Angeles may follow suit. The league-champion Philadelphia Stars will probably move to Coltless Baltimore, and Trump's Generals to now-vacant Shea Stadium (where the Jets used to play). But the league has lost Sherwood Weiser, who agreed to buy the weak Washington Federals franchise in order to move it to Miami (he even persuaded the University of Miami's College Coach of the Year, Howard Schnellenberger, to sign a contract with him to become coach and general manager of the new club). Now Weiser, who has no desire to buck the Dolphins and the Hurricanes in season, has canceled the deal, the franchise is back in Washington and Schnellenberger is out of a job.
Weiser may be more realistic, but the USFL feels it has an ace in the hole: TV. "The bottom line," says Trump, "is that the networks don't want a situation like that of two years ago when the NFL walked in and said, 'This is what we want.' The networks said, 'We won't pay it,' and the NFL said, 'We'll do something different.' " Meaning cable TV. The networks had to give in, and the NFL ended up with a five-year, $2 billion windfall that runs through the 1986 season. By that time the USFL hopes to show enough to be a valid alternative. "The networks say they're paying too much," says Eddie Einhorn of the Chicago Blitz. "The NFL has created an economic need for us."
Well, maybe, but it's something less than a need. Neal Pilson, head of CBS Sports, says flatly, "I fully expect to renew our deal with the NFL. That's where we'll continue to put the most emphasis."