United States Football League
What is it?
Under the assumption that football could be watched and enjoyed in the spring and summer time, the United States Football League was founded in 1982. Their goal was to provide a springtime alternative to compete directly with the NFL.UR: -15
Why is it underrated?
Like the Canadian Football League, the USFL wound up being a proving ground for a lot of future NFL stars. But more than that, it influenced a lot of future NFL rules and trends.
The USFL founders and owners believed that there was plenty of audience for the country’s most popular sport, and with America’s willingness to embrace anything that’s gimmicky (at least for a little while), the league figured they could reel people in with their flashiness and hook them by emphasizing the fast-paced and exciting parts of the game with a quality on-field product. That started with the personnel on the field.
In order to attract the players they wanted, they raised the salary bar up above the NFL average. USFL franchises wound up shelling out mega-bucks for all of the young stars of the day: Steve Young (future NFL MVP), Mike Rozier (1983 Heisman Trophy winner, and two-time NFL Pro Bowler), Jim Kelly (four-time AFC champion), Doug Flutie (1984 Heisman Trophy winner, 3 time CFL MVP) and Reggie White (NFL’s career sack leader). All of this young talent was brought in to build an audience, expand the fan base and become a legitimate competitor of the NFL.
For a while, it worked. The things that the USFL devised to attract people to their version of the game weren’t only things that made the games better; they were things that the stodgy NFL rules committee were reluctant to adopt because there was no competitive league to push innovation in the game. And they allowed the players to share more in the profits of a huge multimillion dollar business that they were getting nearly getting their heads ripped off playing. The status quo was fine for the NFL. Frankly speaking, who was going to stop them?
The USFL, for better or worse, was truly innovative. They adopted the two-point conversion in 1984, giving teams the option of winning the game outright, rather than being forced to settle for an extra point and sudden death overtime, emphasizing the offense first mindset of the USFL.
Mergers and Acquisitons
For their 1985 (and final) season, the USFL wanted a system to review controversial plays that would allow the coaches to take advantage of the emerging instant replay technology that showed just how fucking nearsighted the referees actually were. Ideally, this system wouldn’t really interfere with the flow of the game. They came up with a system where each team was given two challenges a game. Lose your challenge, you lose a timeout. Win it and there was no penalty. Sounds familiar, right? It’s the NFL’s “new” replay system instituted in 1999, the one with the red flag that Bill Belichick keeps in his filthy sock.
Like Joe Namath was for the New York Jets of the old American Football League, so was Herschel Walker for the USFL. Walker made headlines as the league’s first major signing for a lot of reasons. Not only did he win the 1982 Heisman Trophy as college football’s most outstanding player in his junior season, Walker saw the USFL as an opportunity to do what he couldn’t do with the NFL: leave school early to play football professionally. So he did, signing a 3-year, $3.9 million contract with the New Jersey Generals in February, 1983, which made him one of the highest paid players in either league. Walker also had what could only be described as a juicy Jheri curl.
Herschel Walker and USFL did what Maurice Clarett and his gang of unruly ne’er-do-wells couldn’t: get the NFL to change its eligibility rules. These days, if you’ve been out of high school for three years, you’re eligible for the NFL draft, whether you actually play football or not. More often than not, underclassmen populate the first round of the draft. It’s a system that balances talent and maturity.
There were problems with the business model though, which is putting it mildly. They were threefold: Financial solvency became a big issue. As the league laid out millions to sign exciting players, ticket sales didn’t go nearly as well as expected and the coffers were empty. Suddenly, having a contract with the USFL became like owning 10,000 shares of Pets.com. They weren’t worth the paper they were printed on.
Beyond the financial issues, it’s hard to gain fan loyalty when the moving/merging of the team is a constant threat. Over the three years that the league was in existence, three teams fully relocated, four teams merged into two, several teams folded and two owners actually traded franchises. Got that? They didn’t trade players, they traded franchises. Imagine the owner of the St. Louis Rams and the owner of the New York Jets getting drunk one night, and saying, “Fuck it. You like St. Louis? You take my team and live there. I’ll take yours and live in New York.” It would never happen.
It made the USFL very interesting to say the least. In the 3 seasons that were actually played, plus a 4th that was set to go before the legal challenge to the NFL as a monopoly took off, there were 4 different divisional and conference alignments, meaning that if you followed a team, you were never quite sure who their divisional and conference rivals were.
Eventually, the original goal of competing with the NFL morphed into an attempt to force a merger with them. The USFL became like the younger brother with the inferiority complex. No matter what they did, they couldn’t get mom and dad’s attention. Once the USFL showed signs of weakness, it was game over. The NFL showed no mercy. For the record, the USFL lost their anti-trust case against the NFL, but won a verdict to recoup their attorney fees due to a provision in the anti-trust laws. In 1990, the NFL cut a check to the USFL for $3.82, the amount awarded by the jury after appeal, tripled per the Clayton Anti-Trust act, plus interest. Not bad for three years work.
While the lasting impression that the USFL made on the football landscape is undeniable, it’s also unheralded. Corner an NFL exec at some point and maybe they’ll grudgingly admit the debt that the success of their game owes to the USFL.
But it’s much more likely that they’ll call security and have you escorted out of the building.