The TV Deals
The deals with ABC and ESPN were in place before the USFL actually had a league office established.
The USFL knew television was the key to its success, so they hired ESPN president Chet Simmons to be the league’s first commissioner.
ESPN was a mere infant in the sports broadcasting industry and was anxious to be named the league’s network when it commenced play in March of 1983.
Stu Evey, the founder of ESPN and author of Creating AN Empire: ESPN, wrote, “securing the rights to their games would be a major coup for ESPN.”
Before Simmons jumped from ESPN to the USFL, there was some “spirited negotiation going on,” says Steve Erhart, a former USFL executive from his Liberty Bowl office in the fall of 2006.
ESPN at the time was a fledgling network compared to the powerhouse it is today. The USFL was ESPN’s foray into producing live sporting events like football. Ironically, there was competition for the rights to the league by Ted Turner’s TBS.
Evey was awakened one early morning in February of 1982 by Simmons, who was not yet named commissioner of the league, saying that Turner has come in with a higher bid on the USFL deal.
Evey was aware of the cross-promotional appeal the new league would give to ESPN, even though the network wouldn’t make money on it.
“The publicity alone would be worth the price,” writes Evey. “The new league wasn’t announcing its formation until May, but the sports pages were already talking about it.”