Commissioner Harry Usher of the U.S. Football League testified today that ABC Sports chief Roone Arledge told him he received "a negative reaction from the NFL" when the network began televising USFL games.
On the 14th day of the trial between rival leagues, Usher testified that Arledge made the comment at a meeting between the two men in February 1985. Usher said he had received, six days earlier, a reception "colder than a glacier" from Jim Spence, then an ABC Sports executive.
Usher said he requested the meeting with Arledge to improve the occasionally "rocky" relationship with the network, which began televising USFL games in 1983.
" [Arledge] said he was upset because, when ABC had lauched the USFL by entering into agreement with it, he had a negative reaction from the NFL," Usher testified under questioning from USFL attorney Harvey Myerson. "[Arledge] felt he had taken risks and there was no sense of appreciation on the part of the owners of the USFL of the risks he had taken."
Usher testified largely of his trouble negotiating deals with the three networks. He faced nearly two hours of cross-examination from Frank Rothman, representing the NFL.
The USFL has filed a $1.32 billion antitrust suit against the NFL, alleging that the NFL violated the Sherman Antitrust Act by "tying up" the three networks.
After planning to move to a fall schedule for 1986, the USFL has been unable to secure a network contract. Besides damages, the USFL is seeking an injunction to force the NFL off at least one network so that the USFL might work a deal with that network.
Myerson is expected to hone in on the television issue this week. A USFL official indicated that Spence and perhaps Neal Pilson, former head of CBS Sports, would testify this week. Donald Trump, owner of the New Jersey Generals of the USFL, will be called later this week or early next week, the official said.
In cross-examination, Rothman tried to show that the tenuous ABC-USFL relationship was not a result of the NFL's pressure, but rather a product of the USFL's own mismanagement. He brought into evidence a letter written to Usher in March 1985. In the letter, an unnamed ABC executive said the network planned to withhold $7 million from the USFL, giving it $8.4 million because the league had failed to meet its contract with the network. First, ABC maintained, the USFL had failed to keep active franchises in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, and four of five other top markets.
Usher testified that none of the three networks would give the league a contract in the fall of 1986, the last year of the NFL's five-year deal with the networks.
Rothman suggested to Usher that the USFL chose to move to the fall in 1986 rather than in 1987 -- the year after the NFL contract with the networks expires -- only to spur on its lawsuit against the NFL. Usher said he did not try to negotiate with the networks for the fall of 1987.
However, Usher testified, "the efforts of the NFL to hurt us with ABC have had a devastating effect on us. We're down to an eight-team league, geographically skewed. We're going to have a difficult time getting an attractive product on the field for the fall of '87 without the help of this court."
Usher alleged that the NFL tried to woo his league's premier player, running back Herschel Walker of New Jersey, in trying to implement the recommendations of a "How to Conquer the USFL" seminar given to 65 NFL officials by a Harvard Business School professor in 1984.
Usher said Walker told him that the Cowboys, who own Walker's NFL rights, invited him to Dallas, where he was given a Dallas jersey with his name and number.
Cowboys President Tex Schramm later said outside the courtroom: "We've been very, very conscious of not having any contact with him." But Schramm added that Gil Brandt, the Cowboys' director of college scouting, once gave a jersey to Walker but only "as a memento type thing. To my knowledge, Walker has never been in the Cowboys offices."
Usher also testified about his dissatisfaction with ABC commentators Keith Jackson, for his "negativism" toward the USFL, and Lynn Swann. He testifed that he wanted ABC to hire former NFL quarterback Joe Namath as a color commentator in 1985.
When Namath was hired by ABC, Usher testified, it was as a color commentator for NFL games. Namath was terminated after one year of doing NFL games.