With the newest show in sports, Herschel Walker Against the World, scheduled to debut Sunday on ABC, it's time for a short quiz on the U.S. Football League's TV deal. Two or more right answers and you win a Heidi Award. Fewer than two right, you watch arm wrestling for the rest of the year.
Q. Is this the first made-for-television pro league?
A. You betcha. The USFL had $18 million committed from ABC and $11 million from ESPN even before it named its commissioner, Chet Simmons, who just happens to be a former president of NBC Sports and of ESPN. The deal was orchestrated by Mike Trager, an erstwhile NBC Sports vice-president who once worked for Simmons.
Q. Will pro football finally use television replays as an officiating tool?
A. No. ABC won't go for it—and the response here is bravo. Sure, the pros ought to put a Supreme Ref on the sidelines in front of a monitor, but they should furnish their own replays. TV should report the action, not influence it.
Q. 'Fess up now, how much hidden cash did TV put into Walker's $3.9 million deal with the New Jersey Generals?
A. None—at least not directly. ABC, which at week's end had sold 90% (or $20 million worth) of the commercial time for the 1983 USFL season, is free to show Herschel, Herschel and more Herschel and in so doing may boost ratings. That could earn the USFL more dollars because its contract with ABC can be reopened if ratings exceed expectations.
For the record, ABC is scheduled to carry 21 games this year, all but one of them on Sunday afternoons, while ESPN will air 34 games on Saturday and Monday nights. What's not on the record are two tales thick with intrigue: 1) To ensure its survival for at least two seasons, the USFL played what Washington Federals President James Gould calls "a game of mirrors" to set up the ABC deal, and 2) NBC, in one of the more noteworthy lapses in sports TV annals, blew a chance to obtain a property it sorely needs.
Trager, who is president of the international sports division of Robert Landau Associates, a corporate consulting firm in New York City, was hired by the fledgling USFL in 1981. He quietly presented the league's case to the three major networks. CBS, which has plenty of spring programing—the NCAA basketball tournament and the Masters, for instance—said, "No thanks." NBC initially said, "Forget it, not interested." ABC said, "Maybe—tell us more."
Then came a fascinating turn of events. Last May 11 the USFL held a press conference at "21" in New York City, announcing that it would play an 18-game schedule in 12 major cities, with or without a network contract. Few people knew that 48 hours earlier the USFL was at best an eight-city league and that several owners were threatening to boycott the press conference because they weren't prepared to pretend that they'd proceed without a network deal. "Let me tell you—that announcement [at "21"] was really shaky," says Gould. However, the press conference, no matter how much of a sham it was, may have been a prerequisite for ABC's getting together with the USFL. Says Trager, "There was probably this misgiving [at ABC]: 'Is it our money that's starting the league or is the league starting on its own with us coming in as a partner?' " Thirteen days following the press conference, ABC and the USFL signed a four-year contract. The network will pay the league $9 million in each of the first two years and has an option for 1985 at $14 million and for 1986 at $18 million. (ESPN is in for $4 million this year and $7 million in 1984.)
Meanwhile, NBC had begun to galvanize itself into action. The weekend before the USFL-ABC deal was concluded, NBC President Robert Mulholland, Sports President Arthur Watson and Vice-President Geoff Mason inundated league owners with phone calls. They promised Joe Garagiola would do promos. They said the league was young, so NBC might use one of its top young announcers, like Bob Trumpy. Says Gould, "They'd been asleep at the wheel, so at the last minute they came up with this disheveled approach. It was desperation."
NBC matched ABC's dollar totals but never showed abiding interest. As former USFL Chairman Peter Spivak says, "They offered slogans instead of sandwiches." There's another expression that applies. For years ABC News and Sports President Roone Arledge has been known for his sense of timing in acquiring the rights to major sporting properties. The word is that "Arledge leaves the barn at 3 a.m., while the rest of the animals leave when the sun rises." The USFL being a TV league, that as much as Walker's unexpected presence explains why it's off to a fast start.
While NBC slept, Trager came to terms with ABC.