This is a story of money, power, drama. There are glittering successes, ignoble failures, affairs of the heart. So why can't the United States Football League sell?
That's the question of the moment as the league prepares for its third season, which began this weekend with seven games, including the Baltimore Stars against the Jacksonville Bulls at the Gator Bowl today. A Broadway producer would say, "Okay, guys, jazz it up," and bring on the girls. But this isn't Broadway and the new commissioner, Harry Usher, isn't George M. Cohan. Doug Flutie has star billing, but his presence is still evidently not enough to sell a fall season to the networks, and that could be the final undoing of the league.
USFL owners have lost an estimated $100 million, two franchises have merged (Michigan with Oakland and Arizona with Oklahoma) and three have moved (into Baltimore, Portland and Orlando) since year two, and two more folded. Two are being kept afloat by the league office (Los Angeles and Houston), and there are now 14 teams as opposed to 18 last season. Even the league champion Stars felt the need to make a change and transferred from Philadelphia to a temporary home in College Park before they move on to Baltimore next year, if there is a next year.
Television has become the most important target for the league as it prepares for a switch to a fall season in 1986, and so far it is without a 1986 network contract. Some say the league's real aim is merely to survive until 1987, when the NFL's contract with the networks expires and the USFL can get a piece of the big fall money. Or a merger with the NFL. Meanwhile, a $1.32 billion antitrust suit charging the NFL with monopolizing pro football won't be heard until at least the end of the year.
All of which leaves the USFL in a state of uncomfortable limbo. If entertainment is the ticket to success, then the leaguewide description of this season as one of "consolidation" has an unpromising, lackluster ring to it. Although quality is better across the board because of talent absorbed by the paring down to 14 teams, marquee value appears to be off. Heisman Trophy winner Flutie is the only big college name to have signed this season, with the New Jersey Generals for a reported $7 million, and owners are vowing to cut back on expensive sprees in 1985.
"We infused a lot of talent last year," says Don Klosterman, general manager of the ownerless Los Angeles Express, who signed quarterback Steve Young for $36 million (or whatever) in 1984. "You have to give the economics a chance to start working for you. So you trim your sails and make sure you can survive until 1987, when the NFL contract is up.
"If they (the owners) see the prospect of a TV contract, they'll spend. Without that prospect, it's like pouring money down an empty hole."
Doug Spedding, owner of the Denver Gold, recently said the league might change its mind again and stay in the spring if it can't get a fall contract and if network television offers $30 million for 1986, which would be double the USFL's current contract with ABC. League spokesman Jim Byrne said, "That's news to us," but Spedding's comments were indicative of the growing concern over a TV contract.
So far, the networks have closed their minds and their wallets to a USFL fall season, and Eddie Einhorn, president of baseball's Chicago White Sox and owner of the dormant Chicago Blitz, has angrily quit his position as the league's television negotiator amid charges of "a fix" between the NFL and the networks. In the meantime, the league has a $70 million, three-year cable deal with ESPN and a $14 million package with ABC for this season. That pales in comparison to the NFL's billion-dollar pact with CBS, NBC and ABC.
The great spring-fall debate and spending are still the causes of the two major divisions in the USFL. Some fear that without a continued effort to sign big names, the league will sink fast. There are those who suspect that the only way to get a TV contract is to persist in grabbing Heisman Trophy winners, of which the USFL already has three (Mike Rozier, Herschel Walker and Flutie). But right now the majority of owners favors a return to the league's initial plan, to hire cheaper, less known talent and still draw crowds.
"There is a significant change in philosophy to sign top college talent, which in my mind means they're reverting back to the original concept, which was to sign a wide spread of mediocre players who could still provide entertainment to the fans," said Washington attorney Robert Bennett, who represents about 25 pro football players.
"The only way the USFL will survive on a long-term basis is to continue persistent efforts to sign top talent because that is what the fans are interested in paying to watch."
One reason for the slowdown in big spending may be a glut of costly talent. A number of fine players were available as a result of the mergers and moves. Jacksonville is one team that looks to have benefited hugely, picking up Rozier (formerly of the defunct Pittsburgh Maulers) as a free agent and obtaining Brian Sipe from the Generals. Another significant figure: of 286 free agents in the NFL, only six have signed into the upstart league.
"The great gold rush of 1983-84 is over," said agent Leigh Steinberg, who negotiated Young's deal with the Express. "It has dried to a trickle. The league originally had the necessity to sign players for two things: box office value and the ability to attract TV money. The 1985 draft had only one obvious first-rounder in that respect, and that was Doug Flutie. That's one factor. Another is that because of consolidation, the rosters are loaded. The two big spenders, the Express and Generals, have basically signed the players they wanted. The big spending days have come to a halt."
The Stars, at 31-5 for regular-season play the most successful team in the league, have not changed their roster substantially, sticking with the Chuck Fusina-Kelvin Bryant combination for their box office pull. They tried to sign Bruce Smith, the top college defensive lineman out of Virginia Tech, but he apparently is about to come to terms with the Buffalo Bills, becoming the No. 1 NFL pick, and the Stars are not about to get into a bidding war.
"We may have created a little bit of a monster, being the new guy on the block and bidding for select players," said Stars owner Myles Tanenbaum, in reference to the league. "We have created a demand on supply and demand. We have done more for the players than the strike, the union or anything combined. We have compensated to the point where it is uncomfortable.
"If they (the NFL) want to be damn fools and sign players at high prices, fine. We're going to be selective, to pay a large amount of money for players who are impact players. If you're spending dollars, do it not just to sign a draft choice, but do it wisely."
The league seems to have one ace in the hole: and that is determination. The L.A. Express and the Houston Gamblers are both receiving help to support expensive rosters, a generous gesture by the league. It's not all charity, however, because it ensures the league of hanging on to its top quarterbacks in Young and Jim Kelly of Houston, at least until the television and antitrust issues are resolved.