Now there is this new thing that calls itself the United States Football League, and it is not somebody's tablecloth drawing but a living, breathing outfit already fleshed out by a $20 million, two-year television contract from ABC, and it has teams in 12 decent cities and George Allen as one of its coaches.
And they say this one won't go the way of the two-year disaster that was the rag-tag, bankrupt World Football League, because only very rich men are interested here, and they won't quit.
The whole thing is premised on a most original belief--yet to be sustained--that in the spring, America's fancy will lightly turn, tra la, to thoughts of pro football, amid the romantic scents of the forsythia, the dogwood and the azaleas.
This is the basic plan, to keep the USFL out of the way of the bruising, and richer, NFL by playing its games in March, April, May and June, and fie on the Gregorian calendar that says football is foreign to those months. The USFL is the league that dares.
There is another motive, of course. It is the beginning also of a flirtation with the insatiable law of cable TV, which, like the networks, is hungry for all-season programming that promises ratings upsmanship. Network stuff like the ABC contract will do for now, but cable TV with its per-set profits is the true gleam in the eye of the USFL. The league already has signed a two-year contract with the ESPN cable sports network to televise 34 games for each of the next two seasons. No figures were announced on the price of the rights, though the fee was considerably less than what ABC paid. Still, league owners believe the cable fees will escalate once the USFL catches on.
That the networks and cable are hungry for the kind of stuff the USFL can offer is acknowledged. They'll take anything that promises ratings in the slow season. The begging question is whether the American public will have an appetite for pro football in March and the subsequent three months. The doubt is there.
In March, it will be a scant two months since, for goodness sakes, the Super Bowl was played, when all America is agreed that after five months of football, with all the playoffs, there has been a surfeit of that sport; that the fans have had it up to here, and are unready for more of the same in March.
Roone Arledge, the top boss of ABC-TV who invented Monday Night Football and steered his network to new eminence, seized on the idea of outbidding NBC for USFL football. He is quoted as saying, "Except for the Indianapolis 500 there are no events from March to June to capture the public interest."
That could rate as one of the most debatable statements ever uttered. Far from having a clear track with the NFL out of business, the new league will face in those months continual competition for the public interest--in March, when baseball starts to heat up at the training camps and the NCAA basketball tournament is played; in April, when there is golf fever stemming from the Masters in Augusta, plus the start of regular-season baseball; in May when the Kentucky Derby and Preakness also move on stage, in addition to Indianapolis, and with the interminable pro basketball and hockey races and their playoffs pervading the whole scene.
Come again Mr. Arledge. Your new boys will be trying to bust in on not only a pretty fierce grip on the public interest in those months, but a very traditional one. Possibly that is why NBC dropped out of the bidding for the USFL games at $10 million, for one year, with a promise to televise only 10 games a season, not 20.
The new league has gained credibility by signing coaching notables from the NFL: George Allen at Chicago and Chuck Fairbanks at New York and the commissioner, Chet Simmons, is the former president of ESPN cable sports network. On Monday, the Philadelphia franchise signed the Eagles' respected front office man Carl Peterson as general manager, and Steelers assistant George Perles as head coach.
The USFL gained a voice, as well as a coach, when Allen signed on at Chicago. He already has proclaimed that the USFL will develop comparable stars and is expounding the aims of the league continously. Allen has a piece of the action at Chicago, an estimated 25 percent ownership, plus the titles of general manager and chief executive officer.
It is, in fact, Allen's fourth adventure this year in attempts to hook up with some team as coach and franchise boss. In March he signed on as coach-general manager of the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian league. According to a source, he took out $40,000 as his pay and expenses for two months work, and quit the job when he couldn't gain team control. The Montreal Star reports that lawyers for the team's owner now want $32,000 back from the sum that Allen took. Allen said "I only took what belonged to me."
In May, Allen negotiated with Los Angeles in the USFL to be coach and general manager and was turned down by the owner who, according to sources, "wouldn't give him a piece of the action."
Allen turned next, in June, toward the new Washington franchise in the new USFL. He'd be perfectly delighted to coach here, he told club owner Berl Bernhard. But he didn't get the job. An informed source has revealed that "Allen said he would consent to be coach and general manager of the Washington team and work without salary, but he also demanded 51 percent of the ownership." This, without any investment, in contrast to the $6 million commitment made by franchise owner Bernhard.
Allen's version of his meetings in Washington was different. "I am not interested in the Washington franchise," he said on June 5. "I don't need them. They need me."
In the face of being told by league organizers that they face "losses of up to $4 million in the first three years," the USFL has been able to attract owners of substantial wealth. That is not remarkable. Many rich men hunger for the instant name recognition and status that ownership of a pro sports franchise brings. Bernhard, who said yesterday he hopes to announce a coach next week, already has commanded more public notice than he ever did in his distinguished law career even if he has not sought it.
The $40 million TV contract of the new league is a paltry sum compared to the $2 billion pact that has been signed by the NFL owners. There are other signs that the USFL is accepting secondary status, despite George Allen's claims that his new league will compete on the field. "We will have an average payroll of $40,000 per player," one USFL owner has said, a contrast to the $91,000 average salary in the NFL.
What the new league sees as a plus is its regional draft that gives the local team first call on a region player, thereby stimulating local interest. What it has to fear is the inevitable owner type who will go berserk and bid some all-America up to $300,000, and set a bad example for other clubs trying to hold the line. In that sense, what the league has to fear is human nature. In addition, of course, to the prospects of very lean live gates for their out-of-season game.