U.S. Football League Commissioner Harry Usher, concerned by dissension in the ranks and beset by problems that range from money to attendance to television, said yesterday he will recommend to league owners they carry out their plan for a fall season in 1986.
Usher said the league needs to move into the fall and leave the spring concept behind. Attendance has fallen off 6.7 percent from this time last year and television ratings are down 24 percent. Ten franchises in the 14-team league have lost fans this spring.
"It just doesn't work at that time of year," Usher said. "The reeducation of people to watch football in the spring is hard . . . I don't think there is sufficient ability to stay in the spring for the five years that it might take to increase fan awareness."
Usher said the league may have to survive without a major television contract for an autumn season. The USFL has been unable to negotiate a fall contract with any of the major networks, although it does have a three-year deal with ESPN that would transfer.
In addition, some teams are experiencing financial problems. Among others, the Los Angeles Express is under league supervision, and the San Antonio Gunslingers have had a hard time making payrolls. Usher said he hoped a fall move might relieve some of those difficulties, but that the league needs to reduce to 12 or even 10 strong franchises to play in the fall.
"I would like to see about 12 strong teams playing in the fall," he said. "It may be fewer if Mr. Bassett is serious."
John Bassett, owner of the modestly successful Tampa Bay Bandits, has said his team will play in the spring regardless of what the rest of the league does, and was heavily fined by Usher for his comments last month. League owners voted last fall to compete head on with the National Football League in 1986, but some have become increasingly concerned about the inability to secure a network deal.
Usher said he decided to make the recommendation in hopes of ending the bitter debate within the league. He is expected to present his decision at a meeting of league owners some time in the next two weeks.
"A continuation of debate as to where the league belongs is debilitating," he said. "I think the time has come to make a binding, firm decision. There is certainly some validity to staying in the spring. When I took office I tried to explore that. Maybe if I had three more months it would be different. But we don't have three more months to end this debate."
A number of teams have suffered substantial losses at the gate. Only four teams -- New Jersey, Orlando, Tampa Bay and Memphis -- can claim increased attendance. Last week in Phoenix, the Arizona Outlaws tried an almost heretical experiment. They sold 46,000 tickets for $1. Still, they had some 14,000 no-shows.
In Denver, the team has an improved record, but attendance for Gold games has dropped a staggering 60 percent from last year.
In Los Angeles, the ownerless Express can hear the Coliseum echos, with attendance off by 25 percent. "It was awful," Baltimore Stars Coach Jim Mora said recently. "You don't feel like you're playing a game." But even the defending champion Stars are off 29 percent since the glory days in Philadelphia when they averaged 28,000. Last weekend, they offered synthetic diamond chips to all comers to College Park, their temporary home this year, with a real one somewhere in the crowd. Only 15,728 went treasure hunting.
Oakland, which merged with successful Michigan in the offseason, is off by 16 percent; San Antonio by 14 percent, Houston 10 percent, and Jacksonville 17 percent.
There are several theories about the decline, ranging from an identity crisis to simple growing pains as the league struggles through what has been labeled by some a "transition" season.
One of the most controversial theories is the Great Network Conspiracy. In addition to the USFL'a inability to get a fall network contract, ABC decided not to show regionalized games this season, cutting back to one national game a week from last year's three regional telecasts.
Since fans are more apt to watch their home team, ratings on the national games have gone down, according to the USFL party line. Last week, the USFL got its lowest marks of the season with a 3.7 rating and 10 share. Last week's three-game ESPN package got a 2.5 rating compared to 3.5 at this point last year. Some around the league claim the lack of television exposure also has had an adverse effect on attendance.
"It's all attributable to TV," said one owner. "ABC is only showing one game, there's no regionalization. If they showed regional games, ratings would be substantially up. That hurts attendance. They're trying to hurt us with ratings, because that puts us in a weaker position to negotiate."
Jim Spence, ABC senior vice president in charge of sports, called the conspiracy charge "ludicrous," and reiterated that the network has no intention of seeking a USFL fall contract.
"We already have two packages in the fall of '86," he said. "We have Monday Night Football and the College Football Association package. So we have a pro and college package. We don't need or want a third. It has nothing to do with conspiracy.
"We got involved with the USFL and put them on in May when nobody else wanted them. We were interested in the spring idea. We have never been interested in the fall. Why would we want to put them in a weaker negotiating position, if they go to the fall and we say we're not interested?"
Usher would not comment on the conspiracy charges other than to say, "I have all kinds of speculation running around in my mind, and I'd rather keep it to myself."
The unpredictable nature of the league hasn't helped its case. Franchises change hands like coin of the realm, and only Tampa has the same owner, coach and stadium it started with. The Portland Breakers are in the their third city in three years. Fans are having trouble remembering the logos, much less names and numbers.
In Orlando, attendance is up 246 percent from the old Washington franchise. But then, the Federals preferred small parties, entertaining 4,000 regularly with a dreadful team. "The ones that are down are offset by the big gainers," one league official said.
"The main problem is that it's a transition season," said New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump, one of the few who can claim a rise in attendance (due in large part to the presence of quarterback Doug Flutie) and an outspoken supporter of the fall season. "We're playing in the spring when everyone is at the beach."
"Everybody is trying to solidify their franchise," said Don Klosterman, Los Angeles' president and general manager. "People want to know you're going to be here. There are growing pains and you have to pay for them."
"There's been a movement of a number of teams in the league," said Carl Peterson, general manager of the Stars. "That's always a concern. The fans don't know who the players are. That takes time. They're still trying to associate names and numbers."
Among the troubled teams, the biggest concern is Denver. The Gold has had three coaches and two owners in two years. It started with former Broncos coach Red Miller, and averaged a league-best 41,739 in their first season. There was a switch to former Broncos quarterback Craig Morton last season, and the team averaged 33,954.
But Morton was fired and Darrel (Mouse) Davis was brought in from Houston. The Gold has improved with a 5-3 record, but without the Broncos connection, the team is averaging just 13,669. A switch to fall and head-to-head competition with the popular Broncos could be disasterous.
"It's obviously not my favorite topic of conversation," said Steve Nathan, president and general manager of the Gold. "We don't track the falloff to any particular cause. But the league's planned switch to a fall season is a major problem in an NFL city. We counted on not having to compete with the Broncos.
"I think what's happened is we got away with novelty our first couple of years, and now we're having to earn our way back in. We got away from the Bronco connection, we're divorced from that now. The result is that we've had to establish a separate identity."