The Washington Federals management had hoped that Monday night's halftime fireworks display and the booming, yet tasteful, medley of movie themes and Tchaikovsky that accompanied it would be enough to wrench fans away from moviedom's annual homage to itself, the Oscars.
It didn't work. Even on a clear, cool night, only 13,936 were at RFK Stadium to see the Federals lose their fifth of six games.
"I think we were hurt by the Academy Awards and the last night of the circus (at the Armory)," said Federals owner Berl Bernhard.
In general, attendance has dropped off throughout the U.S. Football League. Although opening day attendance averaged 40,511, this week's average crowd was 19,824. The Federals need to sell an average of 26,000 tickets per game to break even; they have sold 19,000 season tickets.
The Federals drew 38,010 for their home opener, March 8, against Chicago; then drew 11,414 for their second home game against Michigan. Both games were played in the rain. The average attendance for three home games is 21,120.
In recent weeks, cynicism has tinged many articles and broadcasts throughout the country. One writer for the Associated Press called the USFL the Who Cares Football League.
"I think we opened up here," said Commissioner Chet Simmons, raising his hand chest level. "Right now we're down here," he said, lowering his hand to the table. "The cynicism level is high. After a ratings dropoff after the opener, they went back up a point this week. But we still have to get things ironed out. As we prove to people that the play is exciting, we'll do better."
Simmons, who worked on the American Football League's television package when he was an executive with ABC and NBC, said in an interview at RFK Stadium before Monday's game that a number of television-oriented problems are hampering the league's progress.
The league's television contracts with ABC and ESPN do not allow for local coverage when a particular city's game is not scheduled for regional or national broadcast.
"Right now we're in a situation where the people in Washington can't see all of the Federals games," said Simmons. "That doesn't do much for attendance, either, in the long run. The city needs to identify with its team."
Simmons said he hoped arrangements would be made in the future so that national broadcasts would be blacked out in the home city if the attendance was inadequate.
Simmons said he was not yet sure if the league would in fact double in size over the next two years as discussed in the USFL's recent meetings in Chicago, but he did promise comprehensive expansion. The theory behind wide expansion is two-fold, he said.
"The first thing is, we have to get into more major markets. We're just too small now," Simmons said. "A guy living in Iowa, who is he going to form a loyalty for? Chicago? Who? Everybody's so far away. So we have to have major markets throughout the country."
On potential expansion in smaller markets, Simmons said, "I think it would be a good idea to be the only show in town in some places."
Simmons said he's been surprised by the number of individuals and groups interested in purchasing a USFL franchise.
"In Oklahoma everybody is behind it, from the governor on down," he said. "The thing we look for, as much as money, is depth of support; something like Oklahoma is thrilling."