Monday, May 3, 2010

USFL Votes to End Spring Football, 4/29/85

In the recent ESPN documentary “Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL,” director Mike Tollin postulates that the demise of the league came about by the hands of Donald Trump.

It was Trump, Tollin says, who led the effort to move the USFL to the fall and engage in head-to-head competition with the NFL, rather than remain a spring league. Trump, who viewed spring football as “small potatoes,” believed the only way to achieve lasting success would be to directly challenge the NFL.

This week 25 years ago, Trump and almost every other owner in the USFL got their wish and decided to leave spring behind and begin playing fall football in 1986. One owner in particular – the Tampa Bay Bandits managing general partner John Bassett – decided early on that he would not be joining them.

By April 29, 1985, when the owners voted to move to the fall, Bassett had long since made up his mind about keeping the USFL a spring league. And if the USFL did not want to remain in the spring, well then, Bassett was fully prepared to start a new league that would.

“If I have to,” he said, “I will form that new spring league. We will play as we do now, except when baseball starts we will always play in the evenings, mostly Friday and Saturday nights. There will be no live TV in a town with a home team playing and all away games will be televised back to the home town, like we wanted originally.”

Television proved to be both a blessing and a curse to the USFL. In the summer of 1982, ABC helped create the USFL as a way to satisfy America’s craving for football, as well as to fill some programming during the spring and early summer months. The league and ABC were joined at the hip, as the network provided operating capital to owners to make sure the league stayed afloat. Ratings were good at first, but by the league’s third and final year in 1985, ABC had shown signs that they would not be on board with the USFL whether it remained in the spring or moved to the fall.

This would have left ESPN -- which in 1985 had not yet become the “Worldwide Leader in Sports” it is today – as the league’s lone broadcast outlet.

Also hurting the league were rules mandated by both ABC and ESPN prohibiting blackouts of local games. In other words, whether 5,000 or 55,000 fans showed up to watch a game at Los Angeles Coliseum, the L.A. Express would be televised locally. Despite having a glut of future NFL talent spread throughout the league, attendance suffered in many of the USFL’s major markets and several franchises were more concerned with meeting payroll than wins or losses.

The Bandits, however, were the exception to the rule. Under Bassett, the Bandits were a model franchise on and off the field. Buoyed by a competitive and exciting product, the Bandits were consistently at the top of the league in attendance and fan support. Between 1983 and 1984, their co-tenant at Tampa Stadium, the Buccaneers, won a total of eight games. During their existence from 1983 to 1985, the Tampa Bay Bandits won 35 games and made two playoff appearances.

Fans fell in love with a winner and the Bandits found a comfortable niche in the spring. In this pre-Lightning, pre-Rays market, the Bandits shared the stage with only the Rowdies, who by then had begun their slide into mediocrity. Moving the USFL to the fall, Bassett argued, would put the Bandits in direct competition with high school, college and professional football.

“Who in their right mind would put another team in Tampa? I wouldn’t,” Bassett said. “You’d have to be a raving lunatic to do that.”

Other owners who did not share in Bassett’s success story felt no particular allegiance to the idea of spring football. The Bandits, for all of their successes, were not making money, and the majority of teams in the USFL were not breaking even.

For owners who spent money like drunken sailors in ill-advised bidding wars against the NFL for top-flight collegiate talent – the names Herschel Walker, Doug Flutie and Steve Young come to mind -- moving to the fall represented a chance to make some real money. Filing an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL – which enjoyed broadcast contracts with all three major networks -- would supposedly clear the way for the USFL to land a lucrative network deal of their own. For proponents of the move, in an ideal world the USFL would never play a down of football in the fall. The NFL would simply make their wildest dreams come true by merging with the USFL and absorbing several teams, making everyone very wealthy in the process.

Bassett believed none of this would ever happen, and along with Denver Gold owner Doug Spedding, vowed to vote against the move to fall. In a 12-2 vote on April 29, the USFL upheld their intention to play fall football beginning in September 1986. For his part, Bassett vowed to start a new spring football league with his Bandits as the flagship franchise.

The USFL, however, claimed that they owned the Bandits logo and that its roster was an “asset of the league.” If Bassett truly wanted to make a go of a new league, which he envisioned as an international league with teams in Mexico City and London, he would have to leave “Banditball” behind and start over. Few USFL owners believed his league had any chance of happening, much less succeeding.

With football stadiums across America sitting empty, a $1.7 billion antitrust lawsuit filed by the USFL against the NFL reached federal court in spring 1986. In July, a jury concluded that the NFL was, in fact, a “duly adjudicated illegal monopoly” and guilty of using predatory tactics. The jury, however, also concluded that the USFL’s own mismanagement, not the NFL, forced the league off television, and that the USFL changed its original business plan to directly compete with the NFL and force a merger. Finally, the jury awarded the USFL $1 in damages, which was later tripled, with interest, to $3.76 - that's right, three dollars and 76 cents.

Despite the merging of franchises in preparation for a fall season that would never come, the USFL essentially ceased to exist after the trial.

While Bassett’s predictions for the USFL’s fate were ultimately realized, sadly he did not live long enough to see the result. In failing health, he sold his stake in the Bandits and gave up plans for a new spring league. Bassett died in May 1986, after a nearly year-long battle with brain cancer.

1 comment:

  1. I really hope some kind of USFL comes back and i think its a great part of football history that needs to be addressed more.