“The NFL knows it’s a monopoly; they thrive on it; they glory in it,” says Lestor Munson. “If Myerson had succeeded and won $800 million (trebled would have added up to $2.4 billion), each team would have to pay their portion. But the commissioner views trebled damages as a way of doing business -- they don’t care. When it comes to a monopoly like the NFL, anti-trust laws don’t work.”
The USFL developed a loyal following in its three- year existence; they had TV deals in place with ABC and ESPN, and leases with stadiums that housed NFL teams. But if the league decided to move from the spring, certain stadiums would pullout of the lease agreement with their USFL tenants in favor of the NFL teams. More importantly, a fall move created a conflict with ABC -- which carried the crowning jewel of NFL programming -- Monday Night Football. With the NFL controlling the networks, the USFL never had a chance to survive in the fall.
Despite's the league's popularity, teams were still losing money and the league strayed from its initial stance of staying patient and remaining fiscally conservative in signing big-name players. Generals’ owner Donald Trump was the biggest culprit – on his 1985 roster he had two Heisman Trophy winners and at least six well-established former NFL veterans on the team.
Some of the owners -- especially Trump -- wanted to make a push to the more traditional fall schedule and force a merger with the NFL. If a merger with the NFL occurred, or the “taking in” of a few USFL teams by the NFL, would drastically raise the value of the USFL franchises. The NFL didn’t like “policy” be dictated to them, they preferred to do the bullying. “This is when the NFL really battled back, they didn't want a competitor to come in and take part of its attention, airtime and revenue,” says Steve Erhart, part of owner of the Memphis Showboats. “The NFL started using its power, pushing ABC not to put the games on if we moved to the fall.”
ESPN, with no allegiance or contract with the NFL, was prepared to televise fall schedule by the USFL, but ABC was getting pressure by the NFL to pull-the-plug on the TV contract with the USFL if the spring league wanted to play in the fall.
The USFL had lucrative deals in place if the league remained in the spring. ABC had $175 million on the table; ESPN was offering $ 70 million over three years.
The fall move depended solely on the success of the $1.69 billion anti-trust suit against the NFL. It was a star-studded trial of names: Raiders’ owner Al Davis, legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell, Generals’ owner and real estate tycoon Donald Trump, Senator Al D’ Mato and NFL commissioner Peter Rozelle, were just a few of the names that took the stand in the trial that doomed the USFL.
"It was the ‘Bonfire of the Vanities,'" says Bob Ley, a veteran ESPN sportscaster who covered the trial in the summer of 1986. "It was a 'Who’s Who’ of American football owners, tycoons and media. It was the perfect paradigm of the moment - rich guys suing rich guys.”
While the names of the witnesses that testified had enough money to feed Africa through the year 2050, it was the USFL’s lead counsel who stole the show -- Harvey Myerson.
Ley, reached at his ESPN office on a cool November afternoon in 2005, says, “The day he had Rozelle on the stand was a high-noon shootout. Pete’s face was flushed and became so angry at Myerson’s theatrical line of questioning.
"At one point, Myerson pointed at Rozelle and called him ‘this monopolist.’ It was great theatre and very entertaining," Ley recalls with a sound of amusement in his voice as he reflects on this "media-fest"of a trial.
Myerson threw in a final jab before the lunch break, and inquired about Rozelle’s salary from the NFL. Rozelle didn't want to divulge his earnings from the NFL which were assumed to be enormous. “Everyone in the press was eager to hear this, but he never answered,” he says.
Ley, who interviewed Davis the day before he testified in the summer of ’86, says, “When Davis showed up as a USFL witness, that really ticked off the NFL. His testimony was treasonous, treasonous to the NFL.”
Davis, a maverick owner going back to the old AFL, won an anti-trust lawsuit in 1982 after the league wouldn't allow him to move from Oakland to Los Angeles. The NFL lost in court and Davis moved to Los Angeles.
When Davis was cross- examined by the NFL, he became upset at the line of questioning from the NFL’s counsel. Ley recalls that during a recess in the trial, Davis said to NFL executives, “Be careful questioning me here because there’s a lot I’m not saying.”
According to court documents (USFL v. NFL 605 F. Supp. 1448), Judge Leisure excluded Davis's testimony about what Davis called “ the NFL's ‘habitual disregard’ of antitrust advice.” Lesiure contiues: “because testimony as to three or four episodes over a 20-year period was hardly sufficient to ‘conclude that a pattern of behavior exists with respect to the conduct at issue here."
“The NFL has been denying monopoly status for years,” says Lestor Munson, a legal analyst for Sports Illustrated. “NFL is not exempt from being a monopoly, only baseball is exempt. The NFL is clearly, obviously, and has been adjudicated many times as a cartel -- a monopoly.”
USFL Commissioner Henry Usher testified that the USFL suffered a "tumbling" of teams and abandoned its spring season because NFL ‘pressure’ caused ABC to withhold broadcast rights payments and to reject any proposal to televise the USFL. He further stated that the USFL sought competition between, rather than a merger of, the leagues, and that NFL pressure forced the USFL to move its teams from highly-rated television markets into low-rated non-NFL markets.
Usher also testified that he was told by Roone Arledge, the president of ABC Sports, that Arledge "had a negative reaction from the NFL for putting the USFL on initially." ABC sportscaster Howard Cosell testified that he was told by Arledge that Commissioner Rozelle was "all over" Arledge because ABC was televising the USFL in the spring. (Arledge denies he made such a statement to Cosell.) Jim Spence, a senior vice-president at ABC, testified that he believed that the NFL was "less than enamored" of the network's dealings with the USFL.
“The USFL couldn't prove that how the NFL's behavior injured the USFL,” says Munson. “The jury didn’t like the USFL’s his clients: Donald Trump, Herschel Walker and such, they were unappealing individuals. They were very difficult to present as victims of anything. You need an appealing plaintiff to win an anti-trust suit. When Trump testified they lost all the emotional appeal of the case.”
In retrospect, it seems ludicrous that the USFL turned down so much money and pursue the anti-trust suit and turndown the guaranteed TV money.
This decision to move to a fall schedule and leave major markets like Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Washington, damaged the USFL's relationship with ABC and ESPN. ABC was so angered about these decisions, they withheld a significant portion of the USFL's rights fees for the 1985 season. ESPN demanded a renegotiation of its proposed 1985-87 USFL contract.
The 1985 "lame-duck" spring season affected the league's television ratings declined to 4.1 on ABC and 2.0 on ESPN. Despite the negative publicity the USFL was facing, the league’s rating of 4.1 is higher than hockey, college basketball and football, and competitive with the NBA ratings of today.
When plans were made to have it become a fall sport in 1986, Rozelle buckled down, saying any network that showed their games would not be permitted to cover the NFL. ABC, which owned Monday Night Football, chose to terminate its contract with the USFL, which was a large factor in the league's collapse.
If you don’t think the NFL has such influence, author Jon Feinstein writes in his book Next Man Up, “when ESPN began airing a fictional show called Playmakers, based on the off-field lives of NFL players that depicted virtually all of them as womanizers, drug users, liars and all-night partiers, Don Tags [Paul Tagliabue] was horrified. He informed the ESPN people that he wasn’t at all happy with the content of the show.”
The NFL already faced a similar dilemma in the 1960s with the emergence of the AFL. Like the signing of Walker, the Jets signed Joe Namath out of Alabama. This led to escalating salaries and competition of college’s best players -- sound familiar. Ironically, the formation of the AFL, led to what is now the NFL’s billion-dollar cash cow -- the Super Bowl.
“Myerson's legal theory was flawless, but proving it was where he fell down,” says Munson. “You have to show that there was an agreement among all the teams -- which there was. The agreement included using their leverage to control their markets and keep competition out.”
"We knew where cable TV was going, and Rozelle wanted to crush the USFL," says Steve Erhart, a former USFL executive. “After the league suspended play, the NFL grabbed the ESPN position and has been partners since then. But we lost the stomach to go through another legal battle. They jumped right in and took our spot on television."
In 2004, Sporting News named ESPN president George Bodenheimer No. 1 on its list of the 100 powerful people in sports. But this ranking didn’t stop Tagliabue, or “professional sports’ Last Don,” as Feinstein writes, from inflicting the his will on ESPN --“Don Tags” made Bodenheimer an offer he couldn’t refuse: “ get the show gone, or we might just take our Sunday night games [and the Monday night games that air on corporate sister ABC] elsewhere.”
ESPN cancelled the show despite its strong ratings -- coincidence?
Further proof of the strong arm of the NFL is commissioner Tagliabue’s attempt to handpick games for the prime-time packages for the upcoming TV deal in 2006. With Monday Night Football’s rating on a steady decline for years, “Don Tags” will look to switch games late in the year by moving them from a Fox Sunday afternoon to an NBC Sunday night. Fox and CBS “willingly signed the new deals in November 2004 in which they agreed to pay more money – a total of $8 billion between the two of them, as opposed to 4.2 billion under terms of the current contract – in return for a weaker schedule,” writes Feinstein.
Ed Garvey, the former head of the NFLPA from 1971 thru 1983, says, “The NFL has the ability to dominate the networks, which they ultimately did and still do.”
“If a new league came along, the NFL would either kill it or absorb it, that’s its history,” says Garvey, who left the NFLPA to run for office in Milwaukee in 1983, and testified against the NFL during the ant-trust suit. “If the networks hadn’t been in collusion with the NFL, going to the fall season would have worked for the USFL. But the networks got the word from the NFL that if they fooled around with a competitive league they weren’t going to get any more games. It was a clear power-move by the NFL.”
“The NFL knows it’s a monopoly; they thrive on it; they glory in it,” says Munson. “If Myerson had succeeded and won $800 million (trebled would have added up to $2.4 billion), each team would have to pay their portion. But the commissioner views trebled damages as a way of doing business -- they don’t care. When it comes to a monopoly like the NFL, anti-trust laws don’t work.”
Despite being out of the league by the time the trial took place in 1986, Garvey was informed of the “backdoor-dealings” between the NFL and the networks by Cosell. “I wasn’t there when the conspiracy was hatched -- they didn’t invite me to those meetings,” says Garvey with a wry tone in his voice. “They are the most powerful industry in this country because they have the male demographics from 19 to 49. They have enormous market power and they don’t hesitate to use it.”
According to Garvey, Cosell, who testified against the NFL, felt it would be healthy for football to have another league. Cosell, an attorney before becoming the legendary ABC sportscaster, was in favor of two leagues, “because the owners and coaches would have to respond differently to players in the way they were treated, not just from a salary perspective,” recalls Garvey.
In addition to the networks there would some difficulties with teams that shared a stadium with NFL. The Panthers merged with the Oakland Invaders while the Philadelphia Stars moved to Baltimore before the 1985 season. This was to avoid head-to-head conflicts with the NFL teams. Although the Generals still had to get dates in the meadowlands, which already housed the Jets and Giants.
The Stars, who were playing in Maryland, but still practiced in Philadelphia, were unceremoniously asked to leave Veterans Stadium. “About half-way through the season (1985) the Vet kicked us out of our offices and we had to move to the ROTC building at the University of Pennsylvania,” says Jim Mora, coach of the two-time champion Stars. “All the coaches were in one classroom, in separate corners, coming up with the game plans.”
"They got greedy and tried to move to the fall a year before they should have," says Charlie Steiner, who was the play-by-play voice of the New Jersey Generals. "It was headed in the right direction. If they wanted to go to the fall, they should have waited until 1987, the year of the NFL strike. With the threat of the strike, they would've had NFL players who were panicking about playing the season, they could have brought more players over there [USFL], and this would have ended the strike and facilitate some sort of a merger."
“If they had stayed in the spring, with the TV contracts in place, and the revenue streams, places like Birmingham and Jacksonville were huge opportunities,” says former Cincinnati Bengal Dave Lapham. “In the fall you’re not only competing against the NFL in the big cities like NY and Chicago, but in the south you’re going against college football. SEC football is religion. You can’t win.”
There was rumor of backroom deals with Trump and Oakland Invaders owner that was brought up during the trial. The word had it that Trump just wanted a football and he didn’t care where. The trial revealed there was a meeting between Trump and Rozelle at the Plaza Hotel in New York City.
Trump, the owner of the Generals pushed for the league to a fall schedule. Trump, a real estate magnate, knows how to make money and was aware of the value of owning an NFL team. “Donald was right in a lot of respects to get over the top, we had to go head-to-head against the big guys,” says Erhart. “ We could have stayed in the spring, but when we were compared to the NFL, there was a natural push to move to the fall. Do you stay in the spring and be branded a second league, and continue to be mocked by the NFL? ”
“One mistake they made was in ’84 when Trump wanted to move the league to the fall, that led to the fall of the league,” says Dan Jiggetts, who played for the Chicago Bears and has a degree from Harvard University. "I don’t blame Trump, but competing with the NFL is like competing against Godzilla in a stone-crushing match. It just didn’t make sense, even if they thought the USFL might merge with the NFL, they [NFL] would never play by those rules.”
“In laboratory setting it could have worked,” says Ley, a veteran of ESPN since 1979. "ESPN was becoming a fixture on the American television landscape and the USFL had that outlaw appeal, like ‘we showed them’ mentality.”
But once Trump bought the Generals, he changed the economics of the USFL. "He was going to 'big-time it' -- spend the money," says Ley. Trump buying the Generals was probably the worst thing for the league. The real state tycoon freely signed Heisman Trophy winners like he bought casinos and high-rises in Manhattan.
The plan, according to the Stars' general manager Carl Peterson, in an interview with Greg Garber from ESPN.com, said, "the idea was to crawl before we walk, walk before we run. We had some guys, like Donald Trump, that were too anxious, wanted to go to fast."
When the USFL's owners met in New York Aug. 4 to determine the league's future, six wanted to play this fall. Stephen Ross of the Baltimore Stars and Donald Trump of the New Jersey Generals did not. "I believed as late as the night before that we would play," said Lee Scarfone of the Tampa Bay Bandits. "We voted by teams alphabetically. When Donald Trump voted no, that was it. The ESPN television contract required that there be a New York area team. When he said 'no,' it didn't matter how the rest voted."
Trump said his main objective now was to pursue further legal means of attempting to win hefty damages from the NFL. "I am not interested in owning an NFL franchise," he said. "I am looking for a victory in court," according to a SI article from Aug. 18,1986.
Trump's search for the victory against the NFL led to the ultimate demise of the league.
“There were a few owners who could pay the big bucks to the big stars, but I think the league made a mistake in trying to go to the fall,” says Levy, who coached the CFL’s Montreal franchise to two Grey Cup championships in the ‘70s. “ It might have forced a merger like the AFL. I saw some cities where it was picking up tremendous momentum. It was a grave mistake to try and compete in the autumn.”
Dixon, the founder of the league, recalls in his interview with Garber, "I knew they would have ultimately spent themselves into oblivion -- which they did. I decided I'd better get out. I took an offer that was pending for the rights I had to a team, the team that became the Houston Gamblers."
Dixon believes if teams had followed the original modest philosophy and built their franchises slowly, the league would have succeeded. "They let their costs get out of control," he says. "Even multi-millionaires don't like to lose money."
"The move was a difficult decision," says Erhart, who has become the unofficial league spokesman/historian. "There were mixed signals from ABC at the time.”
Erhart, who kept a skeletal staff in place, says, "When the crazy verdict came in, we thought we would win the appeal. Then we decided to suspend play. The greatest mistake was not ever playing the fall, we could have carved out enough of a market share. If we would have played in ‘86 it would have forced a merger."
"The thing most frustrating is that period of time was about as much fun as any of us had ever had," says Steiner, now broadcasting games for the Los Angeles Dodgers and doing work with the NFL TV Network. "It was new, a revolutionary spirit that we could do whatever we wanted like the sideline reporting." It was so much fun, this rogue, revolutionary spirit. Whenever I see any of the players or coaches, it's like an alumni club."
"I think if the league would've stayed to the original plan like in 1983 with 12 instead of 18 teams the league would have succeeded," says Bobby Hebert, a former Panthers and Invaders quarterback. "But when Donald Trump got involved and forced his hand to go head-to-head with the NFL, that wasn't a wise decision on the league's part."
“By the time of the trial, the economic dye was cast,” says Ley. The USFL's fate was sealed.