They sat at this long table in New York City's "21" Club: 15 businessmen, all at the pinnacle of success, all apparently sane, all secure and powerful, all millionaires of varying multiples, with the richest said to possess nine-figure fortunes. And they declared with total sobriety and absolute seriousness that they were launching a new 12-team pro football league that, beginning in 1983, will play a 20-game Other Season from March through June, with a championship game in early July. And they announced that they plan not only to put almost all of their teams in NFL cities but also to play in many of the stadiums the NFL uses.
Can this be so? We shall see. These millionaire owners of the dozen United States Football League franchises reportedly put up a $1.5 million letter of credit for each club, to be held in escrow. Moreover, the owners said that they were able—and willing—to cover something between $3 and $6 million in losses per franchise over the next couple of years to guarantee that the league would have time to bloom. Notably, they agreed that each club will spend a minimum of $500,000 each season on promotion and advertising.
The USFL's premise is that the American public isn't sated after devouring the annual banquet of pro football served up by the NFL; indeed, contend the league's organizers, the nation is still hungry, perhaps even starving, for more. The chairman of the USFL owners' committee, former Michigan circuit court judge Peter Spivak, a co-owner of the Detroit club, put it this way, "Baseball teams play 162 games and pro basketball plays 82. Why should pro football—the most popular sport in history—be limited to a 16-game season?" Of course, this question has been asked before, most recently by the World Football League, which was launched, foundered and sank in the two short, dark autumns of 1974 and 1975. The major difference between the dead WFL and the USFL is the so-called Other Season concept. It's not entirely new, either, although this will be its first actual test.
The Other Season idea was hatched almost 20 years ago in the fertile brain of one David F. Dixon of New Orleans—but at the time he saw it as a ploy to coerce the NFL into an expansion club for his hometown. Dixon, 58, is a sort of professional enthusiast, an effervescent and often successful jack of many, many trades, including plywood manufacturer, car dealer, co-founder (with Lamar Hunt) of World Championship Tennis, amateur art collector turned professional art dealer, executive director of New Orleans' Superdome, candidate for the U.S. Congress (one of his unsuccesses), amateur golfer good enough to qualify for the U.S. Open, etc., etc. Now he's co-owner of the USFL's Chicago franchise and is given full credit—or blame, as history may dictate—for founding the league, which makes him, in other words, Mother of the Other Season.
To Dixon also goes the lion's share of credit for bringing the Saints to New Orleans, an accomplishment that also carries a certain amount of reprobation. His campaign for the NFL franchise began in 1964, and his strategy for attracting an uninterested Commissioner Pete Rozelle was to float a trial balloon, to the effect that an Other Season league was about to start unless New Orleans got an NFL team. In the process, Dixon got some amazing responses to his great notion. He wafted it past Paul Brown, then in NFL exile in La Jolla, Calif., and Brown was overwhelmingly positive. "Dave, never let anyone talk you out of this," Dixon recalls Brown saying. "It'll work, and I want the San Francisco franchise." Dixon began to sell harder and attracted a dazzling string of backers. "The Ice Follies people were ready to go all the way with a league," he says. "Some really impressive people wanted franchises—Gussie Busch of Anheuser-Busch, Kemmons Wilson of Holiday Inns, Gerry O'Neil of General Tire & Rubber, Nelson Bunker Hunt, the oilman. Believe it or not, Walter O'Malley wanted a piece."
But after New Orleans got itself an NFL team in 1967, Dixon went to work helping to set up that franchise and then took on the task of getting the Superdome built. The Other Season, without his enthusiasm to keep it aloft, didn't fly. Which brings us to the spring of 1980, when Dixon, by now an art dealer in the French Quarter, came North for a series of art shows and found himself reading in newspapers everywhere about the cable-TV explosion. "It suddenly occurred to me that this was going to break the NFL monopoly on pro football TV," he says, "and it also occurred to me that this was the time to bring the old Other Season idea out of mothballs."
From then until last week, Dixon took his Motherhood of Otherhood show on the road in an exhausting odyssey, trying to bring together the necessary men and money to put the USFL in at least a semblance of business. A key element in Dixon's selling strategy was a 1980 survey by Frank N. Magid Associates, Inc. of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a market research firm that has done work for ABC Sports, among others. For a test conducted for Dixon in nine top metropolitan markets, Magid needed as a statistical base 600 adults willing to classify themselves as "pro football fans." It took only 800 random phone calls to come up with that number, which the USFL people say means that 75% of all adults in major U.S. cities classify themselves as pro football fans. And of these 600 self-described fans, no fewer than 76% indicated interest in watching televised USFL games during the spring and summer and about 63% said they might actually be interested in attending games in the Other Season. And what of the head-to-head competition with baseball? Magid found that 53% of those polled would prefer pro football to baseball on TV in the spring.
Last week there was plenty of discussion of TV and the big bucks it could bring the USFL, but all of the talk was of the blue-sky variety. No contracts—not even with cable or subscription TV—had been signed. However, at week's end the favorite to fill the still invisible office of USFL commissioner was Chet Simmons, the former NBC Sports executive and the president of the 24-hour cable-TV sports network, ESPN. Because the USFL is likely to scatter its games over several prime-time slots during the week, as well as play on weekend afternoons and possibly evenings, its potential for TV exposure is huge, and Simmons' expertise could prove invaluable. Despite the Big Three networks' new $2 billion, five-year commitment to the NFL, both NBC and ABC, which have more openings on their spring sporting calendars than CBS, were said to be seriously pursuing a limited lineup of Sunday USFL games next season, while the cable networks were eyeing the rest of the league's schedule.
Of course, the ghost of the WFL keeps moaning in the background. Dixon insists that that league's fate is totally beside the point—except for the mistakes it made, which no intelligent man would repeat. "The WFL had the wrong cities, the wrong stadiums, the wrong owners," says Dixon. "The fact that the WFL managed to last two seasons before it folded is a tremendous tribute to the popularity of pro football in the U.S."
Unlike the WFL, the USFL is going head to head with the NFL in 11 of the USFL's 12 cities—New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Tampa, Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego and Detroit, with Birmingham the one non-NFL location. The new league hopes to add Houston and one other city. As for stadiums, the USFL says it will play in the same facilities that the NFL and, in some cases, major league baseball use. Spivak says he doesn't even expect to have to go to court to gain access to any of the stadiums. But many people have their doubts about that, including officials who operate publicly owned stadiums. Among others, San Francisco's Candlestick Park and San Diego's Jack Murphy Stadium are facilities in which the NFL occupant has a contract granting it exclusive use for pro football. Scheduling could also be a problem. Assistant City Manager John Lock-wood of San Diego says of that city's ballpark—which the USFL flatly states it will use—"The trouble is, we don't want a football team in the stadium in the spring. We have a contract for the Padres for 81 games a year, and the Sockers are playing there at the same time. To put a pro football team in there for 10 games—we can't maintain the field with that kind of activity."
As for owners, the USFL seems well stocked with the kind of blue-ribbon high rollers of which the WFL had entirely too few. The co-owner of the USFL team in Tampa is John Bassett, the Toronto motion picture producer who raided the Miami Dolphins to obtain Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield for his Memphis WFL team. Of the difference between now and then, Bassett says, "In the WFL, I was the richest guy in the league. Here I'm the poorest." The USFL roster of ownership includes a variety of magnates: The New York owner is Walter Duncan, 61, a grandfatherly Oklahoma City oilman said to be worth considerably more than $100 million; the Birmingham owner is a native of that city, Marvin Warner, also 61, a financier and thoroughbred owner now living in Cincinnati, who was ambassador to Switzerland during the Carter Administration and gave a memorable dinner party at the embassy featuring hot dogs, popcorn and beer; the San Diego owner is Bill Daniels, 62, an erstwhile Wyoming insurance agent who wired the town of Casper for cable TV in 1952 and from that beginning built an 11-state cable operation worth about $150 million; the San Francisco principal owner is Tad Taube, 50, a real estate developer who, the night before the USFL was unveiled, flipped a coin with the Los Angeles principal, another real estate developer, Jim Joseph, 46, to decide who would get San Francisco and who L.A.
And what of the players? Will this be a league of NFL has-beens and never-weres? No way, the owners say. But neither will the league try the old Bassett method of outbidding the NFL for its stars. Says Dixon, "I've said from the very start that the best way for us to operate is not to go after the NFL's veterans and superstars. We will not try to sign a Bradshaw, a Campbell, a Payton. The price is too high, the risk is too high. Our first-year payroll is going to be full of first-year players or their equivalent. No retreads, no rejects. We're going to create our own stars."
What will prevent the NFL from continuing to have its way with all of the best college talent? Probably nothing. Even the most rabid USFL backer wouldn't claim there will be true competition for the cream of the college crop for some years. Says Dixon, "We'll have troubles in the first and second round of the draft, sure. But once we get to the third, fourth, fifth rounds—there we'll be real competitive. We'll offer things the NFL wouldn't think of giving, such as three-year, no-cut contracts to the top rookies and a promise that a player will stay in the territory where he was a college star."
For now the USFL will tackle the problem of not having the most famous players by hiring "name" coaches. Two former Denver Bronco coaches, Lou Saban and John Ralston, were conspicuous at "21" last week, and it was broadly hinted that they would be coaching in the USFL next year. A third prospect is yet another ex-Bronco coach, Red Miller. Apparently the USFL considers Denver the cradle of coaches.
There do seem to be ways such a league could survive, possibly even prosper someday. In fact, for a number of reasons the timing is propitious for the new league. The onrush of cable television and pay-per-view technology all but assures the league of all-important national TV exposure, regardless of what the major networks decide. The WFL gladly would have given its 1975 championship game—free—to any TV outlet, network or whatever, that would take it, but without cable or subscription outlets there was simply no slot for it. Furthermore, if the USFL can survive for five years it will have a big jump on the NFL in the cable field, because Rozelle has sealed his league into a networks-only contract through 1986.
Another very positive bit of timing by the USFL—an element that the league founders claim they never consciously planned to cash in on, but surely would—is the threat of a long NFL players strike. If the 1982 NFL season should be truncated or—dare we say it?—canceled because of a labor dispute, the USFL would provide sustenance to a football-starved nation by next March.
And one more example of good timing: Because the Oakland Raider-L.A. Coliseum lawsuit has made the NFL so sensitive about its status vis-√†-vis antitrust laws, Pete Rozelle's cohorts are probably less likely to fight the USFL—either in court or through public denunciations—than they might once have been. For openers, the NFL clubs may not go to court to enforce stadium exclusivity clauses where they exist.
Indeed, the birth of the USFL raises almost as many questions about the future of the NFL as it does about the USFL itself. For example: Might a second league ease the antitrust troubles of the NFL by putting it in a competitive situation? Would it affect the progress through Congress of the antitrust exemption the NFL is having such difficulty getting to the floor of the House? Would a USFL plan to share revenues with players—a definite possibility—push the NFL in the same direction? Would such a policy unleash a rush of NFL players to the USFL? Might more pro football mean over-saturation and a loss of popularity for the high-riding NFL?
No one knows. But whatever the answers, the founders of the USFL face a plethora of problems now. At the top of the list: to convince the skeptics and detractors that the league is a viable, valuable addition to sport.
A survey said pro football would be popular TV fare in the spring as well as in the fall.
TV exposure may well help this new league survive.
USFL fat cats hope spring football bags big bucks.