Just when the U.S. Football League was celebrating a little harmony, the old fall-spring debate reared its divisive head again yesterday.
In words that rang with rebellion, Tampa Bay Bandits owner John Bassett announced that he would contest the spring league's plans to move to a fall schedule in 1986, and would stand alone if he had to.
One of the most powerful owners in the USFL, Bassett said at a press conference in Tampa that the Bandits would be playing in the spring next season. His remarks earned him an undisclosed fine from USFL Comissioner Harry Usher.
"This is our team, our fans and our time of year and that's when we are playing," Bassett said. "There are other owners who will be staying with us in the spring."
He said he had told Usher and other owners of his plans to play in the spring, and that Usher asked him to rethink his position, particularly in light of Usher's efforts to get a TV contract for a fall season.
"The commissioner is upset, but we will not play in the fall of 1986, period," Bassett said. "I don't speak for the league; this press conference is for the Tampa Bay Bandits. Mr. Usher thinks we aren't helping him with his negotiations, but for four years I've done nothing but act in the best interests of the league. Now I'm acting in the best interests of the Tampa Bay Bandits.
"I'm tired of all the hassle. We've been here three years and the Bandits have done a hell of a job. I haven't asked any of the other league owners to join us yet, but there's a mood among us mushrooms. I call some of the other owners that share my views mushrooms, compared to some of the big guys who dump on us . . . I haven't spoken to one fan within 60 miles of here who wants us to move to the fall . . . The fall people have had their chance and they haven't succeeded."
In a reply issued through the league office in New York, Usher said Bassett would be fined.
"John Bassett is one owner representing one team in the USFL," the statement said. "As such, he speaks for himself, not the league and the ownership."
Usher's statement indicated that the spring-fall issue had not been settled, despite a vote last August in favor of the move.
"The subject of whether the USFL will play in the spring or fall of 1986 is currently under study, and I have indicated that a decision may be made in the next 30 to 60 days," the statement said. "USFL owners, including Mr. Bassett, voted last August to move to a fall season. To rescind that decision would require the approval of two-thirds of the owners. No such vote has been taken."
The USFL has a three-year cable contract with ESPN worth $70 million, and ABC is televising this season for $14 million.
The move to a fall schedule has been led by New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump, another of the league's powerful owners. Bassett said he thinks Trump might support him.
"Donald Trump is a very bright young man," Bassett said. "I think Donald gets an idea and most often gets his way. I think in this case, he found he was wrong and I think he sees that perhaps we made a mistake."
Trump said yesterday that he still favors the move to the fall, but not necessarily in 1986.
The Bandits' average attendance is 42,969, compared to the league's 27,000. It is also the only franchise that has the same owner, coach and locale that it started with three years ago. As for the Bandits being stranded in the spring if the league goes ahead with its fall plans, Bassett said he might start a rival spring league.
"I don't think that will happen," he said. "I'll deal with that when I have to. There are lots of football players and lots of cities and lots of rich men in America who like football."
His remarks were met with surprise and anger.
"That's rather unilateral, isn't it?" mused Don Klosterman, president and general manager of the ownerless L.A. Express. "It's kind of a renegade attitude. I don't know if it's consistent with the spirit of cooperation among the owners. I'm astonished he would hold a press conference and make such a unilateral statement."