Monday, July 20, 2009

USFL Championship at Tampa Stadium, 7/15/84

On January 22, 1984, Tampa Stadium hosted Super Bowl XVIII and, for one evening, became the center of the sporting universe. Less than six months later on July 15, 1984, the stadium would play host to another league’s championship game on a significantly smaller stage.

The United States Football League, nearing the end of its second season, chose to play their championship game in Tampa over other competing cities such as New Orleans, Jacksonville, and Pontiac, Michigan. Tampa thus became the first -- and only -- city to ever host the championship games of both the NFL and USFL in the same year.

Other than a shared sport, one could hardly draw fair comparisons between the two games. While the Super Bowl had yet to become the overarching spectacle it is today, it still had a tremendous impact on the local economy.

The NFL Task Force estimated the economic impact at roughly $87.4 million, with 65,000 out-of-towners visiting the Tampa Bay area because of the game. That the Washington Redskins and Los Angeles Raiders both had huge followings certainly didn’t hurt, either.

The USFL Championship Game, on the other hand, could not be counted on to generate such numbers or interest. While an estimated 100 million people around the world tuned in to Super Bowl XVIII in January, how many would be watching a Sunday night showdown between the Philadelphia Stars and Arizona Wranglers? Of more importance on the home front, would the game come close to selling out Tampa Stadium? While the Stars and Wranglers no doubt had their share of hardcore fans, neither team could hope to bring as many fans to Tampa as the Redskins or Raiders.

In a match-up, however, that foreshadowed Tampa’s most recent Super Bowl by 25 years, a juggernaut team from Pennsylvania would square off against a long-shot team from Arizona. The Stars breezed through the regular season and playoffs with an 18-2 record, while the Wranglers came into the contest on a six-game wining streak, but with a much less impressive 12-8 mark. Philadelphia, seeking redemption following a defeat to the Michigan Panthers in the 1983 championship game, seemed to be the team of destiny.

“I don’t think our players are simply content with being here,” said Philadelphia head coach Jim Mora. “They’ll be extremely disappointed if we don’t win it.”

The Stars were also loaded with NFL-caliber talent, led by running back Kelvin Bryant, center Bart Oats, linebacker Sam Mills, offensive tackle Irv Eatman, and former Buccaneer’s backup quarterback Chuck Fusina. Regardless of the unfavorable comparisons between the leagues and their championship games, few could take issue about the quality of football on display.

In front of a respectable crowd of 52,662, the Stars used their greatest strength – an overpowering offensive line – to their advantage all night long. The Stars jumped out to a quick 13-0 lead in the first quarter behind rushing touchdowns by Bryan Thomas and Fusina.
Things could have gotten much worse for Arizona had the Stars not committed two turnovers and missed a field goal on their next three possessions.

Philadelphia’s offense, however, would go on to control the ball for 43:19 of the game’s 60 minutes. Such a staggering differential, coupled with a two-touchdown lead, made an Arizona comeback virtually impossible.

The Wranglers cut into the lead with a field goal in the second quarter to make the score 13-3 at the half, but those would be the only points produced by Arizona on the night.

The Stars, capping a game long-since decided, added 10 more points in the fourth quarter to make the final score 23-3. Philadelphia’s dominant running game generated 256 yards on 59 carries, a USFL record. With that kind of support, the one-time-Buc Fusina merely had to turn in an efficient performance -- 12 of 17 for 158 yards – en route to being named the game’s Most Valuable Player.

After the game, pundits debated how Philadelphia, as clearly the USFL’s best team, would handle NFL competition.

“I’m not saying we’d be a playoff team,” Mora said after the game, “but we could survive in the NFL. I think we could go into that league and compete.”

If overnight ratings for the game were any indication, however, the USFL still had miles to go in terms of competing with the NFL. The game, televised by ABC, only drew a 19 ratings share (percentage of total viewing audience). Worse yet, the broadcast landed ABC behind both CBS and NBC in the ratings, whose stellar programming that night featured reruns of Knight Rider, AfterMASH, The Jeffersons, Alice, and Trapper John, M.D..

No comments:

Post a Comment