Ever since the American League challenged the National League in baseball, we have been enthralled with the idea that a rookie league could battle with a superpower. Today, upstarts like the MLS are taking on England’s EPL. But in the 1980s, it was all about the USLF versus the NFL. And as we move into the 20-year anniversary of its demise (in 1985), it seemed appropriate for kids to have a little bit of history of the flash American football league that made it just three seasons.
Let’s start with a bit of history. The USFL was a league formed by Dave Dixon. Dixon was a New Orleans businessman. It played for the first time in 1983. It folded in 1986. It was a major rise and extreme fall.
Dixon had a ‘strategic’ plan which he tried to turn into the league rules. First, Dixon decided that the League should play in the Spring. Second, he called for a strict salary cap. Third, he had a call for revenue sharing across all of the teams. Finally, he wanted to drive national television exposure. Dixon believed that these four pillars would lead to the overall success of the League.
However, teams went all out to sign top talent and compete head-to-head for the best players in the game. Consider this snapshot of USFL talent. The League had: Jim Kelly, Herschel Walker, Steve Young, Doug Williams and Doug Flutie. It was a who’s who of future NFL starts. This League was not to be taken lightly.
Given the top players and lots of media attention, the USFL attracted a sizable following in their first two years. Tampa Bay, New Jersey and Denver all averaged more than 35,000 in their first year in the League. Jacksonville and Tampa Bay both averaged over 45,000 fans in 1984 (Year Two). In total, Year Two exceeded over 4 million fans. It was a legitimate league.
So, you might be wondering: what went wrong? The Dixon Plan, as great as it may have been, was discarded when a big name wanted to sign a contract. There was no discipline at the owner level to make the Dixon Plan work and success only made matters worse (because owners thought that the ultimate success of the League was all but assured).
Most importantly, the USFL pursued a lawsuit against the NFL that they hoped would finance their move from a spring season to a fall season. Thank you, NJ General owner Donald Trump! In the end, they only made $3 dollars in court. You can barely buy a milkshake for $3 —let alone finance the move to a fall schedule (which USFL owners all but guaranteed) and/or put pressure on a major competitor like the NFL to embrace an upstart like the USFL.
So, what does this history of the USFL tell us? It is possible that spring football could survive and thrive in America. Two, it takes real discipline to make a strategy work across multiple owners and multiple cities. Finally, as Michael MacCambridge said in my interview with him about the late Lamar Hunt, it is truly amazing that Lamar Hunt was able to orchestrate a merger of the AFL with the NFL. It was and is a stunning accomplishment by the greatest sports entrepreneur of all-time.
On the 20th anniversary of the USFL’s demise, the only major pro sports for kids to watch this spring will be baseball and soccer. Of course, some of you may consider UFC to be a thrilling third professional league, but this writer will take a pass.