Treasures amid the USFL’s rubble

HAL QUINN September 29 1986

Treasures amid the USFL’s rubble

HAL QUINN September 29 1986

Treasures amid the USFL’s rubble


On the windswept eastern shore of Lake Erie, winning football seasons are as elusive as good job opportunities. But although a decision by a five-women one-man jury in a New York court this summer did not create any jobs in Buffalo, N.Y., it did precipitate a football renaissance.

The jury, ruling on the U.S. Football League’s $1.69-billion antitrust suit against the National Football League, awarded the USFL $1 in damages. The award is now under appeal, but the judgment effectively killed the threeyear-old league and freed its players to seek employment elsewhere. One, quarterback Jim Kelly, signed with the NFL’s Buffalo Bills. And now, only three weeks into the new season, the team’s fans have put the bitter past behind them. As Bills head coach Hank Bullough said simply: “Jim Kelly is our future.”

Last fall the future of leagues on both sides of the border seemed in doubt. The USFL was floundering. As the NFL embarked on its 66th season, television ratings for its games on all

three major U.S. networks were declining, and the league uncertainly faced the USFL’s suit. In Canada, one of the nine Canadian Football League teams faced bankruptcy, only two teams were making money, and attendance across the country was falling. But now, after a recovery in the TV

ratings last season and a victory in the courts, the NFL faces new challenges. And the CFL, after the off-season refinancing of the Calgary franchise and improved attendance this summer, is seeking to shore up its still tenuous financial standing with a strong performance on the field. Alone again as the only professional leagues in their nations, the two organizations are calmly sharing the spoils of the USFL.

Amid the rubble of the league that lost $200 million in its brief existence were several treasures. Principal among them were Kelly, 26, and running back Herschel Walker, 24. In two seasons at the helm of the Hous-

ton Gamblers’ offence, Kelly threw 83 touchdown passes. In three seasons with the New Jersey Generals, Walker rushed for 5,562 yards and scored 54 touchdowns. In the overworked lexicon of sport, the two are known as “impact players,” whose presence has a direct bearing on a game’s out-

come. Walker’s impact was immediate. After signing a $5-million fiveyear deal with the NFL’S Dallas Cowboys, Walker scored two touchdowns in his first game. But even that stunning debut was dwarfed by Kelly’s dramatic performance in upstate New York.

The “Kelly is God” banner waving in the wind at Buffalo’s Rich Stadium on Sept. 7 may have been an overstatement. Or perhaps it was an attempt to explain his new $8-million five-year contract with the Bills. Still, the team’s victory-starved football fans greeted the six-foot, three-inch, 215-lb. Kelly as the coming of the messiah. In the last two seasons the

team managed to win only four of 32 games. Reflecting an ineptitude unrivalled in the 28-team league, an average of slightly more than 38,000 spectators attended the team’s home

games last year. But when a record

crowd of 79,951 gathered for this

year’s season opener on Sept. 7 against New

York’s Jets, Kelly responded with three touchdown passes. Said Jets defensive end Mark Gastineau: “The feeling around the league is that Kelly is going to earn every cent of his money.” In fact, the signing of Kelly has already forced Bills management to hire an additional 21 people in the ticket office. They sold

38,000 tickets in six days for the opening game, as well as 6,200 season tickets. The revenue from the extra fans at that game alone represented one-third of Kelly’s annual salary.

Kelly’s fellow USFL alumni are not near the same tax bracket. Indeed, the majority have not found work. Of the 500 players released by the league in August, only 80 are currently on NFL rosters. And because their release came 10 games into the CFL season, fewer than 20 players came north, more than half of them to the Ottawa Rough Riders. According to the B.C. Lions’ director of player personnel, Roy Shivers, more ex-USFL alumni will play in Canada next year. Said Shivers:

“There are so many of them, we are going to have a hard time sifting through them all.” But ex-USFL players have appreciably improved their new teams in both countries. And the three-year competition that the defunct league waged for players increased NFL salaries overall—by about 10 per cent a year, according to Jack Donlan, executive director of the NFL Management Council.

Still, the contracts of Kelly and Walker, plus the $9-million deal recently signed by Miami Dolphin quarterback Dan Marino, will have a trickle-down effect. Added Donlan: “We have never had the long-term, guaranteed contracts of pro baseball and basketball. The contracts of Kelly, Walker and Marino represent a change in our way of doing business—and not a good change.”

In Canada, the CFL Players’ Association signed a new threeyear collective agreement with

the league in April, before the USFL suspended operations. Said CFLPA president George Reed: “Given the financial condition of the league and the condition of a number of teams, we made some concessions.” Among them: agreement to increase the regular sea-

son schedule from 16 to 18 games without additional compensation. But the players won improvements on medical benefits, termination pay and the arbitration procedure.

And, since the contract was signed, the league has performed another modest resurrection. Calgary Stampeder fans responded to the bankruptcy of their team by buying 22,000 season tickets and flocking to summer games. By Labor Day, with four home games still to play, the 1985 attendance figure had been exceeded. The

equally desperate Montreal franchise was still attracting small crowds, but the team had restored its original name—the Alouettes—and had made a commitment to the future in the front office and on the field. In Saskatchewan, the Roughriders held a fund-raising lottery offering 9,999 tickets at $100 each, with $500,000 in prizes. It sold out so quickly that the team’s management plans to hold another one. Said CFL commissioner Doug Mitchell: “Last year we went into the Grey Cup game with people saying there would only be

30.000 people at the game and no teams in Calgary and Montreal this year. Well, we had

57.000 at the Cup game, the Stampeders could

\Q make money this year, and the team is still there in Montreal.” While the CFL is once again off the critical list, crucial TV contract negotiations are in progress. The league’s $33-million three-year contract with Carling O’Keefe Breweries Ltd., which in turn sells the rights to the CBC and CTV networks, expires in November. The brewery has hinted at its intention not to renew the agreement, and Mitchell will say only that “we are looking at all the alternatives.” For the NFL, whose five-year $2.1-billion TV deal ends in January—the players’ agreement expires in August—upcoming negotiations are even more crucial.

The TV negotiations have already been strained by the networks’ claims that they are losing money on the NFL broadcasts, and by rumors that the league is considering setting up its own satellite network or selling its rights to pay TV. But the league’s real confrontation will come with its players. The NFL Players’ Association’s primary objective is free agency—the right of a player to sign with another team without his new employer having to compensate his old one. The objective of the league’s Management Council is to win back some concessions made in the last agreement. But at least until both leagues sit down at their respective bargaining tables, fans from Ottawa to Dallas are enjoying the best of what the USFL left behind.

—HAL QUINN in Toronto with correspondents’ reports