The owners of the U.S. Football League teams today reaffirmed their commitment to moving their season from the spring to the fall in 1986.
However, in their search for league-wide stability, the USFL likely lost its most stable franchise of all. Immediately after the 13-2 vote to move to the fall was announced, Tampa Bay Bandits owner John Bassett said he will withdraw his team from the USFL after this season.
Bassett, a native Canadian, also said that he has "10 or 11 teams" that have agreed with him to start still another league. This new league would, presumably, be played in the spring and likely would include numerous teams in Canada.
While Bassett's move was not shocking, it was not the kind of news desired by the 3-year-old USFL, which still does not have a contract with one of the three major television networks for the fall of 1986.
"I'm not going to sit back and let people who don't know how to run their business tell me what to do," said Bassett, who, along with Denver owner Doug Spedding, voted to continue the spring schedule. "I think the chances of the USFL succeeding in the fall are very slim."
Bassett appeared angry as he left the meeting at a local hotel. A reporter asked him what his plans were and Bassett said, "To win a (USFL) championship."
And beyond that? "To win a championship in a new league or to convince these guys to change their minds over the next 30 days," he said.
Bassett presented a detailed 60-page report today, emphasizing the virtues of spring football and, specifically, how it might be better marketed. Tampa Bay is drawing nearly 46,000 per game this season, among the league's best.
But Bassett's power of persuasion -- which included, one league official said, stressing how various Hollywood stars could lend their names and perhaps financial support -- lost today.
"This move to the fall is a great thing. I think a lot of people are surprised we got 13 votes," said New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump. (Eddie Einhorn, owner of the Chicago Blitz, which will resume USFL operations next season, also voted for a switch to fall.) "To the other two teams, we just said, 'Go your own way.' "
"We've spent a lot of money for an experiment to prove you can't make it in the spring," said Myles Tanenbaum, Baltimore Stars managing general partner. "We now have solid ownership with solid teams.
"John (Bassett) had all these numbers (in his report) bouncing off the walls about TV and all of the big TV names who would lend their names to the league. That's great, but we want to play football. I don't think his plan would work."
There seemed to be confusion about whether the rights to the current Tampa Bay players would belong to the USFL or to Bassett, after the Bandits leave the USFL.
When the issue was raised during a question-and-answer session with Commissioner Harry Usher, Bassett said loudly, from the back of the room, "They are my players. The last time I looked, it was my name on their paychecks."
Usher heard Bassett's remarks and smiled nervously. He said the matter would be determined later.
Meanwhile, Usher announced that the league would continue to press its $1.32 billion antitrust suit against the National Football League, enjoining the NFL from playing on all three major television networks.
Usher also said the owners reaffirmed their commitment to save the financially failing Los Angeles Express franchise. Thirteen USFL owners have pledged $500,000 each to keep the Express, currently in search of a new owner, in operation through the end of this season. Usher also said that the Birmingham Stallions, also financially troubled and without an owner, would defer their $415,000 payment due to the Express until February 1986.
Last Friday, Los Angeles President Don Klosterman and Coach John Hadl gathered the team's players to notify them that this Sunday's game against Tampa Bay might be the Express' final game.
"When I called back to L.A. a little while ago to tell them about what happened here," said Klosterman, "I could hear the coaches and players let out a big yelp of joy."
"It's most important that we have an L.A. franchise," said Carl Peterson, the Stars' president. "That's absolutely crucial for a TV contract."
In fact, a television contract lies at the crux of the USFL's current problems. The league's contract with ABC Sports runs out at the end of this spring season. The network has said that it would not televise USFL games if the league moved to the fall.
When Usher was asked today if the USFL could survive without a network contract in the fall of 1986, he said, "Yes, very well."
Usher made reference to a potential television package for the USFL, but would not elaborate. One league official said the package included a possible syndicated pay-television deal with the creation of the league's own network.
Meanwhile, Spedding, the Denver Gold owner, was left with an uncertain future. The Gold drew an average of 42,000 per game in its first season. But, the Gold's average now is only 13,500. Competing with the NFL Broncos is a frightening possibility, too.
"John (Bassett) has a lot of good ideas on how to put the (new) league together. His plan for the new league would cover all of the major markets, including L.A., Canada and Mexico City," said Spedding. "I have about 15 options. I can move the team, I could merge the team, I could stay in spring or move to the fall."
In the front of the room, Usher said with unbridled optimism, "We're dedicated to the idea of playing on into the future with the USFL."