Following Herschel Walker's lead, ABC made up its mind about the USFL this week, too.
No sooner had news spread that the New Jersey Generals had room for the Georgia running back than ABC suddenly found room for Walker on opening day.
Although ABC originally talked of kicking off its 18-Sunday USFL season on March 6 with George Allen's return to Washington, where his Blitz play the Federals at RFK, Walker's self-assured entrance into major-market New York football-land effectively altered its plans.
Most of the country will see Walker (and the Generals, too, by the way) play the Express in Los Angeles. Washington and portions of the Midwest will see the Federals-Blitz game. Philadelphia and the Mountain time zone will see the Stars play at Denver.
All telecasts will start at 3 p.m. EST. Blackouts in this league are not up to the teams but the network, which isn't blacking out anyone.
"I think it's a good idea, as long as Washington's on in Washington," Federals President Jim Gould said yesterday. "Some of the country should see Herschel Walker play, but . . .I think the one thing they should do is kick off the whole day in the nation's capital. We've got Lou Rawls to sing the national anthem, Ethel Kennedy's throwing in the ball--I think they could do five minutes at the top of the broadcast from Washington."
"Our main concern is parity--on the field," Gould said. "We know we have good teams, good players, but I think this (regional telecasts) gives ABC some protection."
Gould, also chairman of the USFL's media committee, said he was told by Jim Spence, ABC's senior sports vice president, that a Washington intro would be considered, as would cutaways to and from Washington during game action. Spence was unavailable for comment.
Naturally, in networkspeak, no game is the "primary" telecast, but let's be realistic: the Herschel Walker Show will go to virtually the entire Pacific Time Zone, all of the South and all of the Northeast except Washington, southern Maryland (Baltimore will see Walker at L.A.), Virginia and Philadelphia. ABC's A-team announcers--play-by-play man Keith Jackson, expert analyst Lynn Swann and sideline reporter Tim Brant--will be in Los Angeles, not Washington.
ESPN, which is carrying the remainder of the USFL's schedule on Saturday and Monday nights, says it has received more than a few inquiries on whether it will increase the number of New Jersey Generals games (ESPN is scheduled for five) as a result of Walker's signing. ESPN says it won't, unless the league changes the schedule. It happens that the rest of the Generals' games are on Sundays, ABC territory.
Few officials at ABC or ESPN, or at other networks, doubt that Walker's arrival in the USFL won't churn up at least initial interest in the new league, and, consequently, in its telecasts. Comparisons among network people to Joe Namath's signing with the fledgling American Football League Jets were numerous. Qualified to varying degrees.
"It's a strong piece of marketing value for the USFL, and since we're covering it, I tend to assume it would be an asset for us, for ABC," said Jackson, choosing his words carefully, much as another careful ABC official felt obliged to contact NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle Wednesday to disavow any knowledge or involvement by ABC in Walker's contract.
"Sonny Werblin brought Namath into the New York market and gave the AFL credibility," said Charlie Jones, the NBC commentator who got his broadcasting start doing AFL games in the mid-'60s. "From that standpoint, the comparison is valid, no question.
"But the USFL's a TV series, not a football league, and now they have a star of their TV series," Jones said. "The USFL shopped around and wanted to know if people would watch football on TV in the spring, and they found people said they would. It's a spring-TV series, plain and simple."
"We were looking for someone in the AFL to hang your hat on," said Scotty Connal, ESPN's executive vice president and a 32-year veteran at NBC, which paid the AFL its first up-front rights payment contract in 1965. "In a new league, you're looking for a superstar--and Walker is a bigger star at this point than Namath was at Alabama."
Said Mike Weisman, NBC executive producer: "You can't forget the WFL signed Csonka, Warfield, Kiick, and it didn't make much of a difference. People knew these NFL players were playing against inferior product."
If the USFL is dominated by inferior product, it will be exposed much more quickly than in the early days of the AFL, by superior product on the TV side--closer closeups, bolder producers, more (and more revealing) replays away from the ball, microphones on the coaches, cameras in the locker room at halftime, all the things ABC and ESPN have said they hope to standardize in USFL coverage.
"Remember, in 1960 the AFL was in black and white, three cameras, and tape replays hadn't been invented yet," said Jones.