The United States Football League is not a new idea. It was conceived in 1964 by David Dixon, an art dealer in New Orleans. Then and now, the concept was to give the fans an alternative to the National Football League.
So why now? What makes many wealthy and influential businessmen across the country decide that this is the time to invest heavily in a new football league, which will operate in the spring, when professional basketball, hockey and soccer are struggling?
The answer is simple: television.
The tremendous growth of cable networks, plus the void in network programming on the weekend in the spring, have created an opening for a saleable product. ABC, for one, thinks the USFL is a worthwhile investment.
Roone Arledge, president of ABC news and sports, concluded a two-year contract with the USFL worth a reported $20 million. The contract calls for showing a game of the week every Sunday, two playoff games and the championship game, scheduled for July 10.
The cable network, ESPN, has given the new league a reported $15 million for two years for the opportunity to show two games a week, Monday night and either Friday or Saturday night.
"We'll be on television three times a week," Commissioner Chet Simmons said. "That's the type of exposure we want. That's the best way to sell our product."
Simmons has been involved in television sports for 25 years, starting at ABC. He served as president of NBC Sports from 1977 to 1979. He also was president and chief executive officer of ESPN.
"Having lived through the evolution of sports on network and cable television, I am confident that the USFL holds extraordinary potential for the fans, players, media and the advertising community," Simmons said. "The personal reputation and accomplishment and commitments to the league by the franchise owners are strong indicators to me that the USFL will succeed."
Arledge agrees. Also, he says, football is strong programming in the spring.
Before a nickel was invested in the USFL, a marketing survey was conducted by Frank Magid Associates, Inc. and distributed to potential owners. Of those interviewed, 99 percent said they watched football on television.
Once the format of the USFL and its schedule--March to July--was explained, 54 percent said it was a good-to-excellent idea and 75 percent said they would watch it on television.
"The survey was a factor in our decision," Irv Brodsky of ABC said. "And so were the underpinnings of the league. They seem to be very good."
And, if the NFL strike forces cancellation of the current season, the USFL will have the added benefit of showing off its product to a nation starved for professional football.
Unlike the NFL with its glamorous superstars, the USFL's strongest asset at the moment is its ownership. From John Bassett in Tampa to Judge Peter Spivak in Detroit to Bill Daniels in Los Angeles, the chain of ownership appears strong.
"I made a vow never to get involved in professional sports again," Bassett said, laughing. The president of Amulet Pictures, Ltd. previously served as chief executive officer of Memphis in the now-defunct World Football League and also was deeply involved in the World Hockey Association.
So why, in this late stage of a highly successful career, is he plunging back into another gamble for the sports fans' dollar? "I was very impressed with the people who are involved," he said. "Naturally, the television contract is a step in the right direction, but the attractive ownership is extremely encouraging.
"I used to be one of the wealthiest owners in the WFL. Now I'm one of the poorest," Bassett added. "That gives me a feeling of security."
Coaches George Allen of Chicago, Chuck Fairbanks of New Jersey, Red Miller of Denver and John Ralston of Oakland all worked in the NFL and all say they are very optimistic about the new league.
"There is no question this league can succeed," Allen said. "There are plenty of good football players out there. You just have to know where to find them."
When asked how long it will take for the USFL to gain parity with the NFL, Allen said some of the teams could be competitive in three years. Then he added, one team might do it in (pausing for effect) one year. His, of course.
Miller, whose teams compiled a 42-25 record in his four seasons as head coach at Denver, still is popular in that city. The Gold leads the USFL in season tickets sold with almost 23,000. Phoenix reported 17,000 and Washington, 10,000.
"Red Miller still is such a strong name in this area," said a Denver spokesman. "A lot of people still would like to see him coaching the Broncos. He gives instant credibility to our team."
Miller said he sees a lot of parallels between the USFL and the old American Football League, where he served his apprenticeship as an assistant coach with Boston, Buffalo and Denver. "We had to do the same thing, go out and recruit players, start an organization, the front office, everything," he said. "I've been through it before. You have to have patience, but it can be done."
Ralston, who preceded Miller at Denver, says he has been overwhelmed by the response in the Oakland area over the Invaders.
"Al Davis (managing partner of the Los Angeles Raiders) has been extremely cooperative," Ralston said. "We've moved right into the Coliseum and he's let us use all the facilities. There is a natural void here and we're going to take advantage of it.
"I'm very excited about this," Ralston continued. "We have good solid ownership, good businessmen."
One of the requirements for ownership was a $1.5 million letter of credit and a guarantee of $6 million. Each team was told to be prepared to lose up to $4 million in the first three years. The fact they all complied gives the league the potential stability that attracts good coaches and network contracts.
"This was the original thought," said Dixon, credited with founding the USFL. "In the early 1960s, we sensed great progress in the NFL and wanted to get a team in New Orleans. We knew the NFL would never expand willingly, so we started talking about starting a league in the spring.
"I went out to visit Paul Brown, who was in exile in La Jolla (Calif.) at the time. After spending two days with him, he said 'Don't ever let anyone talk you out of this idea.' I also talked to Gussie Busch and Walter O'Malley.
"We were talking about a six-team league and had the networks interested," Dixon continued. "All of a sudden the television people stopped talking to us. I smelled a rat and sure enough, New Orleans and Atlanta were granted NFL franchises. That killed two of our prime cities, so I just tucked my idea away in mothballs."
Dixon hardly was idle in the interim. He was offered a position of chairman of the board of the New Orleans Saints, but instead became chief executive officer of the Superdome from 1966-1972.
His next project, with Lamar Hunt, was to organize World Team Tennis, but since then he has been content to play golf and run his plywood company in New Orleans. Then cable television began to come on.
"I could see cable becoming a real force on a national basis and I thought, at last, there is some competition for the three networks, all of which are getting a piece of the NFL pie," Dixon said. "At first blush, everyone said football in the spring wouldn't work, but real football fans didn't complain. That's like saying you're only going to make love in the fall. If you enjoy something, why wouldn't you want more of it?"
The hope of the USFL, of course, is to attract all the football fans. In the fall, attendance is spread from the high school level, through the college scene to the professional ranks. Fans who attend college games rarely are the same ones who fill the NFL stadiums the next day.
"In the spring, we've got a shot at all the fans and that's what we're counting on," Dixon said. "After all, every football fan needs his fix." Next: the players