I'm not sure I like playing football in the spring. I still think of it as a fall sport.
So spoke the Himself of spring football last week—the USFL's centerpiece star, Herschel Walker. In expressing his own sense of displacement and vague discontent, he was speaking for millions of American football fans who apparently are also not sure they like football in the spring. Walker's remarks were underlined in bleak fashion the very night after he uttered them. His New Jersey Generals played the Birmingham Stallions and suffered their seventh loss in 10 games. Walker, who fell flat in his ballyhooed pro debut back in March and then exploded in an amazing streak of five games, during which he averaged 152.4 yards and took the league's rushing lead, suffered even greater humiliation by gaining a scant 28 yards in 11 carries against the Stallions. Except for one game at Georgia when he had a broken thumb, this was the lowest total of Walker's life.
You really can't blame that dismal performance entirely on the fact that the game was played in May instead of November. However, there's a question abroad in the land as to whether the whole idea of the USFL's Other Season is working any better than Walker did against Birmingham. Though the league is now entering only its 12th week, a lot of folks have been quick to answer in the negative. Particularly newspaper people such as Rocky Mountain News columnist Dick Connor, who wrote, "Bo-ring. The numbers are slipping, and as the weather warms, it could get worse. The USFL is suffering from a serious lack of interest." And John Schulian of the Chicago Sun-Times: "Would someone please tell me why the USFL hasn't vanished in the night like a platoon of shady rug merchants working out of the trunks of their cars?...What we're talking about here is terminal anonymity." And Glenn Sheeley of The Atlanta Journal: "People aren't talking about why they dislike USFL games. That's the problem. They aren't talking at all."
The funeral drums for the USFL beat louder every day. Given the grave statistical signs that have suddenly popped up, the situation does look deadly. Take television. The league's opening Sunday games, on ABC March 6, found the USFL riding a wave of national curiosity, primarily because of the signing of Walker 12 days before. That afternoon produced a spectacular rating of 14.2 (the percentage of all TV homes in the U.S. tuned to the games) and a share of 33 (the percentage of the TV sets on at the time that were tuned to the USFL). That was only a little less than an average NFL rating on CBS—16.5 last year. Since that first starburst statistic, ABC's Sunday game ratings and share have fallen steadily, dropping to 7.4/21 the second Sunday and to 5.0/14 on May 1 and a horrendous 4.2/12 on May 8, the most recent date for which national figures are available. ESPN, which beams prime-time games every Saturday and Monday, started with a 5.0 rating (extremely good for cable) and had a 2.2 last week, which, in fact, isn't bad.
As for attendance, again there's a falling barometer. The league totaled 235,023 the first week, a whopping 39,171 per stadium. Since then crowds have dwindled and dwindled. Games of the 10th week drew 128,059, a relatively pitiful average of 21,343 per game.
What's going on here? And, more important, what's going to go on next? Is the fate of the USFL already sealed? Well, if an early demise is the prognosis, the victim is certainly unaware of the seriousness of the illness. Chet Simmons, 54, the peripatetic former TV sports executive (ABC, NBC and ESPN) who was named USFL commissioner last summer, says, "When people ask me what's wrong with the league, I say, 'Well, it's not My Fair Lady but it's not "The Ugly Duckling" either.' Look, it's barely a year since formation of the league was even announced. Then ABC said it would cover us, then ESPN, then we hired name coaches, then we held the draft, then we signed Herschel—the timing was terrific. We were building up to the start of the season with incredible momentum. But the problem was that things were going too well. People expected the child to be born a full-grown adult. It didn't happen. This operation is in its infancy. People simply have been expecting too much."
Last week, even in the face of those ugly-duckling numbers, everyone with a stake in the USFL—from Simmons to the owners to the players to the folks at ABC and ESPN—everyone claimed that none of those numbers were as catastrophic as they seemed. Take the falling TV ratings. Jim Spence, ABC Sports senior vice-president, says with utmost tranquillity: "In the spring, ratings always fall. People go outside more as the weather gets better. There's no way to generate audience levels in spring and summer as we do in the fall. I can tell you now that our ratings will not go up in the last six or seven weeks of the regular season."
Despite the continuing drop, ABC's ratings for the first 10 weeks of the season averaged a relatively hearty 7.0. Even throwing out the monster rating of 14.2 that first big day, the network still boasts a respectable 6.7 for its Sunday afternoon football telecasts. By comparison, the same ABC time period on Sundays last year, pre-USFL, pulled a 5.6 average rating in March and April for a mix of sports events and shows such as Superstars. Then, bearing out Spence's thesis, the average fell in May, June and early July to a tepid 4.1. This year the NBA playoffs on CBS on Sunday afternoons through May 8 had been averaging 8.0, baseball 6.2 on NBC on Saturdays. At this point it seems very unlikely that USFL average ratings will fall below a mid-6 for the year—particularly with the expected rise in fan interest for the playoffs and the championship game in July. That's better than expected. ABC predicted an average 5 rating when it set its rate in selling commercial time to advertisers at $30,000 per 30-second spot. The network will make a profit on that figure and be able to raise its rate next season.
And what of ESPN's numbers? In cable television, a 2.0 rating is considered a sweet reward in prime time. Not sensational but very good. ESPN's ratings have ranged from a high of 5.3 (both on March 21 and April 25) to a low of 2.2 on May 7. As Scotty Connal, chief operating officer of ESPN, says, "Our live USFL telecasts rank as the highest regular programming on ESPN, and our 3.6 average almost doubles the rating average of all our prime-time programming."
And attendance? Simmons speaks with the optimism that his job requires: "Statistically, we are a success already. We have attracted more than a million and a half fans. I said when this thing started that if we were able to average 25,000 people per game this first year, we would be in good shape. For our first 10 weeks we averaged 25,377. If we start falling below a 25,000 average, O.K., it may show a problem. Look, if we were drawing, say, 5,000 to the average game and we were pulling 2 ratings on TV—then we might consider this a failure. But not now, not when we're doing better than any of us ever thought."
One thing that has hurt attendance is the ABC contract, which gave the league such a formidable boost in its formative days. The deal provides for no TV blackouts for any home games, and this automatically undermines the stadium turnout. In Chicago, where the Blitz has produced a crazily disparate attendance pattern, ranging from a mere 10,936 in a March rain and sleet storm to 32,182 against the Generals, the team has had four of its last five home games on TV and is averaging 19,323 at the gate. Blitz President Ted Diethrich says, "The blackout is our problem. The network's position is: 'What you really want are visibility and exposure, don't worry about what happens at the stadium.' Our position is, yes, we do want visibility, but it would be nice to have fans in the seats, too."
The non-blackout provision was something the league itself suggested to ABC. Simmons says with a shrug, "We have to suck it up and do it. TV sells your product. The more people who see teams on TV, the more will become season-ticket buyers. It's the best promotional medium ever invented." However, USFL projections call for a whopping 70% of revenues to come from stadium attendance, with 30% from TV, a ratio that is just about exactly opposite that of the NFL. Thus, the revenue sacrifice over the two-year stretch of the ABC contract could be hefty if some easing of the no-blackout rule doesn't occur.
But then, none of the USFL's owners expected to make a profit for at least three seasons. Steve Ehrhart, the league's director of administration, says, "The estimate when we started was that each club must be ready and willing to lose as much as $6 million in the first three years. I think at this point there are some clubs that are precisely on that schedule: They will lose that amount of money. The rest won't do that badly." Jim Foster, director of marketing for the Arizona Wranglers, says, "Maybe it's a question of how long some of our owners will go with the flood of red ink. It's a great tax write-off for two, three years, but then the IRS comes tapping on your shoulder. Generally, our owners have very deep pockets. They're in it for the duration."
Obviously, some clubs look to be in for a longer duration than others. The moribund Boston Breakers, for example, are trapped in the rather suffocating and hostile confines of Boston University's 20,535-seat Nickerson Field, where they are averaging a pathetic 12,454 per game. Residents of the area surrounding the field are enraged over football fans parking on their streets, and local cops turn out in hordes oh game days to ticket and tow every illegally parked car they can find. The owners of the Breakers, including former Patriot Wide Receiver Randy Vataha, are said to be looking for another place to play. At the other end of the scale are the Tampa Bay Bandits, widely considered the USFL's "model franchise." It's owned by John Bassett, the Canadian sports and entertainment entrepreneur who was the only owner to rise unscathed out of the wreckage of the World Football League, which failed in 1975 after two years. Playing an exciting, pass-oriented brand of football called Bandit Ball and well managed in everything from souvenir marketing to halftime shows, the Bandits have drawn an average of 40,319 at home. The Bandits are one of three teams—the others are the Denver Gold and the Oakland Invaders—that could turn a profit this first season.
But as USFL folks keep telling us, money is no object. And for the moment at least, they may be right, because however pessimistic the sports-page Cassandras may be, a franchise in the league is now considered a precious prize. Indeed, the USFL office in Manhattan has received no fewer than 20 applications for expansion franchises. The price of applying is a refundable $50,000. The price of a franchise will be $6.25 million, and an additional $1.5 million letter of credit must be filed with the league office to underwrite any unforeseen crises—such as bankruptcies or unmet payrolls.
But wait a minute. Expansion? Expansion in a 12-team league where all forms of spectator involvement are falling off, where the average loss this year will be around $1.5 million per team? Can this be? Yes. And the increase next season will be at least four teams and very likely six.
The league already has announced it will have a team in Pittsburgh in 1984. The franchise will be owned by none other than Edward J. DeBartolo Sr., who was behind son Ed Jr.'s purchase of the NFL's San Francisco 49ers in 1977. The arrival of DeBartolo has been greeted with huzzahs by USFL men. Philadelphia Stars owner Myles H. Tanenbaum says, "There are different kinds of credibility for this league. One was ABC's business decision to buy rights to our games. Another is Ed DeBartolo's coming into our league. ABC and Ed have made the two most significant business judgments so far in regard to the future of this league." Besides Pittsburgh, there will be new teams in Houston and San Diego, and USFL insiders say Minneapolis, San Antonio, New Orleans, Miami, Jacksonville and Memphis are also in the running for new franchises.
The expansion isn't a bullish show of optimism but rather a matter of dollars and sense. "One big reason we're doing it is scheduling," says Simmons. "With 12 stadiums, it's an absolute bitch to set dates. We are the last tenant in all of our stadiums. Everyone is ahead of us: soccer, baseball, high school graduations. Also, we need more Sun Belt cities for the better weather in early spring. Besides that, we need to expand exposure of the league beyond the markets we're in now, which should increase the ratings. And even though we are financially solid, there's the matter of the revenue we get from the start-up money for these new franchises."
All right, so the USFL brand of football will reach out and touch more Americans than ever next season. But do Americans want to be touched by it? The real question about USFL football is one of quality, not quantity. As Simmons puts it, "Whether we succeed or fail depends on how people perceive the game we play. If there are constant bad games, dull games, low scores, slow decisions by officials, unimaginative play-calling—that'll kill us before anything else. No one expected us to play NFL-caliber ball, and we certainly aren't. Of 600 players in the USFL, I think 500 are either rookies or players with one year of pro experience. We have more rookies than the AFL had when it started in 1960. But we are also in far better shape than the AFL was in its early years. People thought they were much more rinky-dink than we are, a total Mickey Mouse operation. I was at ABC and we televised those first AFL years. I know what I'm talking about. The USFL is light-years beyond the AFL in its first year."
Ah, yes, the American Football League. This is the league the USFL is most often compared with these days—not with that more recent suicidal mess, the WFL. This in itself puts the USFL in a much better credibility bracket. And using numbers alone, the USFL even seems to be substantially ahead of where the AFL was in its earliest days. Whereas the USFL averages more than 25,000 in attendance, the AFL had a 17,000 average in its first year, 1960—these were pro football's pre-boom days; the NFL drew 42,000 a game that season—and didn't average 25,000 until its fourth year. As for TV ratings—all in the much riper autumn/winter viewing season, remember—the AFL averaged 5.8 its first year (while the NFL was getting 10.6), and for its first five years on the tube it averaged 6.6 (the NFL over that span: 13.4).
However, in the critical areas of esthetics and theatrics, the USFL is offering a pale game compared to the flamboyant happenings of the AFL in its early days. A highly knowledgeable fellow in the front office of a West Coast NFL team who was involved in the AFL's origins makes a most apt comparison of the USFL and AFL. He says, "The USFL is packaged professionally, in most ways better than the AFL—more advertising, better marketing, television. But the product is dull, not nearly as good or as exciting as it was in the AFL." He points out that there were only 12 NFL teams in 1960, with just 396 players, so that the AFL got some excellent talent. Now, with 28 NFL teams consuming roughly 1,400 players, the leftover talent is diluted. More serious is the fact that there were only 24 quarterbacks (two per team) used up in 1960, whereas now at least 80 quarterbacks are tied up in the NFL. If there's one thing the USFL lacks, it's exciting quarterbacks and innovative offenses. As the NFL man says, "Even the high-scoring USFL games have been dull. The AFL was big-play football. I watch USFL games and I don't see the big offensive plays or the big hit by the defense. I put a lot of blame on the coaches. Their approach to the game seems to be 'don't get beat.' "
This is true. Conservatism has been the rule in the USFL, and many contests are played out with numbing caution. Before the season, the USFL competition committee considered a wide variety of rules that might have made the league's game more wide open than the NFL's. But so hidebound were the committeemen that they even refused to approve a rule that would have made a pass reception a completion if the receiver caught the ball with only one foot in bounds, instead of the NFL's two feet. At this point the only rule variation that makes a noticeably interesting difference is the option to go for two points after a touchdown. Another innovation—a full-blown time-out after every first down in the last two minutes of each half—has simply served to extend games by a few more ya-w-w-w-nnning minutes.
If fans perceive the USFL as being boring, there's nothing—not sleet or spring fever or 28-yard-rushing totals by Himself—that will bury the league quicker. Getting better quarterbacks is one solution, but that will take time. And until there are skilled quarterbacks there won't be much of the innovative and adventurous coaching the league so badly needs. A quicker solution is more wide open rules, but the league can't be expected to change in midseason.
If the USFL were suddenly transformed into a dozen teams specializing in Bandit Ball instead of Bumble Ball, the whole thing might quickly take on some glitter, an aura of good fun. But if something isn't done by the start of next season to enliven games, football, as Walker suggests, could prove to be nothing but a fall sport after all.