Harry Usher, commissioner of the United States Football League (USFL), awkwardly but accurately described the league’s problem last week. Said Usher: “What we have is an impossibility at this time.” After three inglorious but expensive seasons and a protracted but unsuccessful antitrust suit against the National Football League (NFL), Usher announced that the 1986 season—already rescheduled from spring to fall—would be “postponed” until 1987. Tampa Bay Bandit Fred Besana, one of more than 500 unemployed USFL players, said, “What are they going to do, start it up again next Halloween so we can masquerade as football players?”
Indeed, the league first appeared in the trappings of a major league in 1983. To loud fanfare, star college players like Herschel Walker were signed to multimillion-dollar contracts. But in three seasons, the league failed—as had the American Football League (AFL) and the World Football League (WFL) before it—to win fans and U.S. TV network programmers away from the NFL. The AFL, formed in 1960, merged 10 teams with the NFL in 1970. The WFL, formed in 1974, quietly folded in 1975. Still the USFL expanded to 18 teams in 1984. A year later there were 14 teams, and only eight took the field in 1986. In the three seasons the team owners lost a total of $163 million.
Success hinged on a U.S. network TV contract. The NFL’s current deal pays each team $16 million (U.S.) annually. But ABC, which has a fall lineup of 24 NFL games, did not renew its $34-million, three-year pact with the USFL when the league switched to a fall schedule for 1986. The USFL’s $1.69-billion antitrust suit charged that the NFL is a monopoly and that it conspired to destroy the USFL by tying up the TV networks. But last month the six-member jury, while ruling that the NFL is a monopoly, decided that the USFL created its own problems and awarded $1 in damages.
At week’s end, the league released its players. The stars will sign with the NFL teams holding their playing rights. The others will look for jobs in the NFL or the Canadian Football League. Said Bandits coach Steve Spurrier: “It is like having a friend with a serious illness, and he finally passed away.”
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