In a moment, we'll discuss why the U.S. Football League can be a commercial success, like most television, without being a critical success. But first, a word from our sponsor.

These words are brought to you by A-1 Pocket Calculators, without which this column, or most sports columns, would not be possible. Our line is your line--the bottom line.

The USFL premiered March 6 on the ABC network with a surprising, curiosity-inspired national rating of 14.2--nearly equal to a fair NFL Sunday in October. Last Sunday, however, spring football's rating was 4.2, a long way from the NFL and the first time below ABC's preseason prediction of 5. The USFL is in the middle of a downward climb--if there is such a thing as a downward climb.

Jim Spence makes it sound as if there is.

"When we made the commitment to the USFL in the spring of '82," says Spence, ABC's senior sports vice president, "we made it on the basis of being involved in the long term. We said then, and we say now, that we didn't expect the ratings to be outstanding in the short term. And by the short term, I include all of '84, also.

"The bottom line is going to be, as has been said from the beginning, the quality of play," Spence says. "And, whether people will watch football in the spring and summer. I think people have been surprised by the quality--it's not NFL, but it's higher than we envisioned."

More later on a kind of bottom line other than the quality of play--which is decent, mostly--but first Spence interrupts himself to say, "It's 28-22, Philadelphia, second quarter."

Spence coincidentally has an NBA playoff on the tube--as a lot of people will this Sunday, and did last Sunday (when CBS' NBA coverage averaged an 8 rating, NBC's taped auto racing and sumo wrestling a 6). The tail end of basketball--the only end that draws big TV audiences--and the blossoming of baseball represent the USFL's chief competition as the days grow warmer. The other competition comes from the days growing warmer themselves.

But ABC knew this, too, Spence says.

"It's always been true that sets in use drop off as the weather improves, but there's another important point nobody's mentioned," he says. "It's also very true that we expected that to happen."

ABC and the USFL have some problems to work out, including policy on blackouts and regional telecasts. Blackouts, as originally proposed by the USFL, are not allowed--but some second thoughts by league owners, alarmed by no-shows and dropping home attendence, have prompted ABC to consider "crossfeeds," Spence says.

Crossfeeds: If ABC is covering Chicago at Washington and New Jersey at Philadelphia, Washington will see the N.J.-Philadelphia game, and the New Jersey/New York market will see the game in Washington.

Sounds like blackouts. ABC "is considering it at some point this year," Spence says; it will be weighed against the USFL's first concern: exposure.

USFL owners also want more regional telecasts, to build home team identification, and have enjoyed a fair amount of network cooperation in that. ABC originally planned regionalized broadcasts on four of the 18 regular-season dates; by season's end, Spence says now, ABC will have regionalized 12 of 18 dates. This raises production costs, but if regional telecasts raise ratings even a half a point--which they can--the extra work more than pays for itself.

Which brings us to why ABC can afford its patience. In the USFL, ABC has found a ripe, willing bargain--a relatively painless experiment. (Likewise ESPN, which carries games Monday and Saturday nights, but to a lesser extent.) "On television, football is football," says Jerry Solomon, who places sports-program advertising for Anheuser-Busch.

Spring or fall. The USFL was founded on this concept.

"The USFL is still an excellent buy. Football is a quality audience," Solomon says. "We're not even talking about ratings, or how many are in the audience; we're talking about the quality of the audience--active, young, good for automobiles, any male product, any corporate product. A football fan is upscale."

We climb downward now to the bottom line.

ABC will pay about $9 million for USFL rights this year, or about $430,000 a game, not including production costs. Based on that 5 rating (and the average after 10 weeks is still 7), ABC is charging $30,000 for a 30-second spot. There are 28 minutes of commercials in a typical game. That's about $1.7 million in revenue per game, if ABC sells all the spots. It has sold 97.9 percent of them, Spence says.

Including playoffs, ABC will take in about $37.5 million this season on games, the rights to which cost them $18 million over two years.

That's a quality of play any network can live with in the short term