Berl Bernhard flew off to Switzerland on a business trip today knowing his Washington Federals had just cost him about $2 million in losses this year. Nearly all of the U.S. Football League's other owners are in a similar situation, but Bernhard was typical, saying, "I'm filled with optimism."
Bernhard said he may continue losing money for another three years, but the reason he has not folded his sails and headed back to the safer shores of his law practice is the belief he holds in common with his colleagues: the U.S. Football League will eventually succeed.
Bernhard's optimism comes despite a number of bracing figures. Although they sold 19,000 season tickets, inclement weather and the Federals' 4-14 season record resulted in numerous no-shows. The Federals' average crowd was 13,849 for nine games at RFK Stadium. Only Boston's home average of 12,734 was worse, and the Breakers played at Nickerson Field, a much smaller, inferior facility.
Bernhard would have preferred the modest profits made by John Bassett in Tampa and Ron Blanding in Denver. But he said he takes heart in what must be seen as a remarkable performance by a league just ending its first year.
The league's 12 teams will suffer losses totaling around $15 million, according to USFL sources; however, the league is adding franchises in Jacksonville, Pittsburgh, Houston and either San Diego or, more likely, Tulsa.
The arrival of the new franchises also will cancel many of the original teams' losses. Expansion clubs must pay a $6 million initiation, which is distributed equally among the original teams.
Commissioner Chet Simmons is determined to expand again in 1985 and has heard petitions for franchises from numerous representatives. He has said that the way to build national interest in the league is for fans to identify with a local franchise.
Many owners were surprised when the league drew crowds of 35,000 or more in its opening week in early March, and were then deflated when the crowds averaged as little as 18,000 two months later. But while football fans have grown used to seeing sellout crowds as regular backdrops for NFL games, the USFL's final crowd average of approximately 25,000 per game cannot be considered a failure. Bernhard said an average crowd of 26,000 at RFK Stadium would put the team at the break-even point.
David Dixon, the league's founder, said, "We have to get people used to the idea that football no more has to be played in the fall than ice cream has to be eaten in the summer."
Another telling statistic is the television rating. Before Walter Duncan ever signed Herschel Walker for his New Jersey Generals, ABC signed a two-year agreement to broadcast USFL games.
Jim Spence, senior vice-president of ABC Sports, said before the season a rating of 5.0 would be competitive. The network based its advertising sales on that figure.
The final rating average was more than a full point above the network's original projections, a result that is likely to encourage ABC to extend the contract beyond 1984.
"In the first year of the AFL, the rating was a 5.8, so this is quite a bit better even though it's in an unusual season," said ABC spokesman Irv Brodsky. "In its second year the AFL went up to a 6.1, and that's what we'd like to see with the USFL, a steady increase. We went in looking for a long-term plan. ABC wanted in on the ground floor of a new league."
Despite early signings of college standouts such as Walker, Anthony Carter, Kelvin Bryant, Craig James and Tim Spencer, fans and even coaches complained that the owners were not spending enough on such essentials as offensive and defensive linemen.
While the USFL bid for, and consequently increased the salary of such NFL free agents as San Diego quarterback Dan Fouts and Redskins running back John Riggins, Bernhard admits, "We were a little naive about some of the football needs." The Philadelphia Stars franchise was one of the few teams to concentrate adequately on the less glamorous positions, and the result was a 15-3 record, the league's best.
The quality of play has improved over the course of the league's 18-game season. The style of play is not as freewheeling as originally advertised but there are fewer mishaps than there had been in March.
Many of the growing pains were the result of a tedious, public training process. The Federals signed 180 players to playing or tryout contracts since January.
League spokesman George McFadden said, "I think one of the mistakes we made was to go without any preseason games. We probably let our teams go on display before they were ready to play polished football . . .
"We haven't stopped getting better. We just got (Buffalo Bills running back) Joe Cribbs for 1984 and I think we'll keep on improving, next year and the years after that."