Can The USFL Cut The Mustard?

Pro football's new league is dogging hot prospects with big dough, and the NFL is beginning to battle back
January 16, 1984

They're at war. On one side are the upstarts from the United States Football League, age one year; on the other is the National Football League, which is in its seventh decade and may be the most powerful sports establishment in the history of the world.

The weapons are seven-figure checks. The battleground is roughly the size of the sheets of paper in a standard player's contract. The combatants are middle-aged fat cats, which is one of the refreshing elements of this conflict; for once we are witnessing a war in which the young are not the victims. Indeed, it's conceivable that the young—the players—could be the only really big winners. For example: When Mike Rozier, barely 23, the Nebraska I-back and Heisman Trophy winner who was the top pick in last week's USFL draft, signed on Monday with the USFL's Pittsburgh Maulers, he became an instant millionaire—$3 million for three years, to be precise. Another example: When quarterback Marc Wilson, 26, a $240,000-a-year non-starter for the Los Angeles Raiders for three seasons until last fall, was given a new Raider contract to keep him from defecting to the new league, he was suddenly worth $800,000 a year for the next five years. And there are other examples. Miami Dolphin nose tackle Bob Baumhower, 28, was paid a startling $515,000 salary this year because he did nor jump to the USFL, while former Tampa Bay Buccaneer quarterback Doug Williams, 28, got a raise from $115,000 to $400,000 because he did jump. Running back Billy Sims, 28, of the Detroit Lions must go to federal court later this month for a decision as to which counts: a $3.5 million, four-year contract he signed with the USFL's Houston Gamblers or his $4.5 million, five-year contract with Detroit.

Now these are what you call winners. But the players aren't at war; they are the loot, booty, plunder, the spoils of it all. And the USFL has already done far better in its raids than expected. Even before it played its first game last winter, the USFL had landed half a dozen potential No. 1 NFL draft picks, including Herschel Walker, the 1982 Heisman winner, Kelvin Bryant, another superb running back that year, and Trumaine Johnson, the best wide receiver. Two players the NFL did draft in the first round, quarterback Jim Kelly and wide receiver Gary Anderson, subsequently signed with the new league. It was the kind of thing the NFL tried to ignore. But then, this season, the USFL began picking off NFL veterans, some of them quite valuable, some has-beens or never-weres. Included in this crowd, besides the aforementioned Williams and on-the-fence Sims, are Joe Cribbs, Brian Sipe, Mike Butler, Gary Barbara, Dan Ross and Cris Collinsworth. This hurt a lot, although dyed-in-the-wool NFL loyalists like the Cowboys' president, Tex Schramm, weren't admitting it. Pooh-poohed Schramm, "We lose that many players every year because of injuries."

The new league will surely get a lot of talent from this crop of college seniors. Prime targets include three top quarterbacks: Steve Young of Brigham Young, Maryland's Boomer Esiason and Duke's Ben Bennett. And that's not all. NFL insiders say that on Feb. 1, when many veterans become free agents, there will be a massive migration into the USFL of NFL old-timers seeking more money (the main motivation) or more playing time or a chance to move to a favorite city.

The crux of it all is simple: money. Some USFL clubs are offering bushels of it. How can the USFL—which plays its "opposite season" in the springtime and so far has attained TV ratings that average less than half of the NFL's; has per-team TV revenues one-fourteenth those of the older league's; draws in-stadium crowds less than half the size of the NFL's; and had to go from 12 to 18 teams to get expansion cash to bolster its original clubs and still had per-team losses ranging up to $4 million in its first season—how can a bizarre sort of seat-of-the-pants league like that even pretend to take on the NFL in wallet-to-wallet combat?

Well, in fact, much of the money fueling the war comes from the personal fortunes of USFL team owners, money that has been generated by real estate deals and oil wells, not successful football franchises. The most visible Daddy War-bucks has been Donald Trump, the New York and Atlantic City real estate mogul, who recently generated a lot of headline heat by putting up $7 million to buy the New Jersey Generals and by then spending millions more to get NFL players like Sipe as well as rights in the distant future to the Giants' super linebacker, Lawrence Taylor. As Don Klosterman, former general manager of the Los Angeles Rams and since Dec. 22 president of the USFL's Los Angeles Express, says with a certain ambivalence: "Donald's driving salaries up all over the league. That can be a problem. But he's also giving the USFL a great shot in the arm when it comes to credibility."

However, not everyone in the USFL likes the big-spending approach, no matter how much credibility it buys. One skeptic is A. Alfred Taubman, the real estate magnate who owns the USFL champion Michigan Panthers. With a personal fortune in excess of $500 million, Taubman could afford to buy a dozen NFL teams by himself. Yet he's an outspoken critic of trying to take on the NFL in a spending war. "Look," says Taubman, "the NFL is a going organization. We're just a babe in the woods. It doesn't take a mathematical genius to tell they can afford a lot more than we can. In our league there are lots of owners with very deep pockets. But nobody can sustain losses year after year. The difference is TV revenue. What our entire league receives from TV is less than any one NFL team gets by itself."

This disagreement over spending philosophies could well be exacerbated—and soon—by such money-flinging wheeler-dealers as Jerry Argovitz, the new ex-agent who is one of the owners of the new Houston Gamblers. "Parity? That's ruined the NFL," scoffs Argovitz. "Me, I'd like to have a team that'll knock your block off, beat you 60-0. And we're going to do that. We're going to be competitive with Trump in New Jersey and Taubman in Detroit and [Ed] DeBartolo in Pittsburgh. A lot of other owners are worried about teams in our league loading up. I'm all for it. The other teams better sign top players, too, or they're in trouble."

However the high-rolling approach may affect the USFL's fortunes, it has already brought a surprisingly direct reaction from the formerly smug NFL. Whereas the attitude in the past was strictly that of the guy who runs the only game in town, the NFL is now exhibiting some very up-front salesmanship. Pete Rozelle himself sent personal telegrams to the top 200 college prospects, saying, "Congratulations on a fine college season. We hope to see you in an NFL training camp next summer." Beyond that, the league has sent potential draftees copies of a new 112-page book called The NFL and You, and a 28-minute film on the joys and rewards of playing in the NFL has been made available to college athletic departments everywhere. A toll-free telephone number at NFL headquarters in New York will be given to the top 200 would-be college draftees so they can call up and fortify themselves against giving into temptation from the USFL.

There was NFL buttonholing and elbow-squeezing at such college-senior showcases as the East-West Shrine game in Palo Alto, Calif. last week. Bo Eason, a safety for the University of California at Davis and a possible first-round draft choice in the NFL, listened to the NFL speaker at a banquet the league threw for the all-stars. "They told us to be patient [i.e., wait for the NFL draft on May 1]," Eason says. "And don't go overboard on the USFL pitch about what they do for us now, and don't be confused by their dollar signs. Then, later, NFL scouts would come up and say, 'Hey, are you going to be patient?' "

At one Shrine Bowl practice there were some 200 extremely interested spectators, of whom 100 were identified as NFL scouts, 20 as USFL scouts, another 25 as NFL front-office people, another two dozen as NFL coaches and about 30 as agents. Two weeks earlier, at the Blue-Gray game in Montgomery, Ala., a relatively low-grade source of professional material, Dick Steinberg, personnel director of the New England Patriots, had said, "In other years, you could go to that game and find a handful of agents, second-line guys mostly trying to hustle for clients. This year there had to be 200 of them—all promising stuff they couldn't deliver."

The onslaught of agents has become a hallmark of this latest football war. "The agents are the biggest difference between the situation now and the days of the AFL vs. the NFL or the WFL vs. the NFL," says Al LoCasale, executive assistant of the Los Angeles Raiders. "We used to deal directly with players. Agents' interests are different: They don't care about pension benefits and things like that. They don't reap any part of those rewards."

The USFL is a gold mine to agents, and not only because of the competitive bidding it has engendered. The NFL Players Association has established maximum fees that agents can charge clients they sign to NFL contracts, but there are no such restrictions on USFL contracts. And that's not the only lure for an agent to sign a player with the USFL. Tony Agnone, a Baltimore agent, says, "Some reagents are signing players with the USFL hoping the league will fold and then they can come back to the NFL for a double-dip commission.

"It's the wild, wild West of contract negotiations," says Leigh Steinberg, a Los Angeles-based agent who represents about 50 players in both the NFL and USFL. "Previously there was static salary growth—10 to 12 percent. The salaries were kept low by the lack of competition. My friends in the business who represent baseball and basketball players used to laugh at me. They'd say, 'We do three or four times less work for three or four times as much money.' They've stopped laughing. I think every player should say a little prayer every night for the continued existence of the USFL."

Will McDonough of The Boston Globe, one of pro football's foremost pundits, wrote last week: "By 1986, you can bet that the sport with the highest average salary will be pro football. Even higher than the NBA." Could that be? The NBA averages $235,000 per man. Well, the way things have been going this year, that could be, indeed. As the 1983 season began, the average NFL salary was about $126,000. "They can tear that up and start over just because of the number of contracts that were renegotiated since the start of the season," says LoCasale. "It's considerably higher now [$150,000]—and ours is way above the new number."

But what does all this player stealing ultimately amount to? Is the USFL really going to be able to raid its way into the public's heart? Can it really spend its way to glory and profit and ever-rising television ratings? Probably not.

As Klosterman puts it, "All this talk about money is really beside the point. Are we entertaining? That is the question. Are we a reliable source of entertainment? That's what we have to answer this season."

What happens this year may well be a matter of life or death to the USFL. No one is more aware of this than commissioner Chet Simmons. "There is no way of exaggerating how crucial this year is to the league," he says. "The first year we got the advantage of curiosity—people sampled it for the novelty. We had some problems—some very uninteresting games, some poor play—then we picked up. This next season proves it all: We have to be accepted as a Number One, first-class sports league, in terms of television ratings and stadium attendance. We have to be able to generate revenue."

There is a large problem in the USFL's revenue department: Its $18 million, two-year contract with ABC ends this July, but the network has the option of two more years without a significant increase in league income. If ratings for 1984 stay around the mediocre-but-not-bad 6.2 average of the first season, so will those all-important ABC-TV revenues through 1985 and 1986. (Simmons feels, however, that if ratings reach 8.0, the league will be able to renegotiate its TV contract.) This season's TV income will average a mere $1 million per USFL team (including ESPN rights fees), compared with a cool $14 million per team in the NFL.

What's more, springtime TV will never generate the kind of ratings the NFL draws—even the dwindling numbers that marked this season past. Ratings for the regular-season NFL programs averaged 16.7 on CBS and 12.6 on NBC. A single rating point is worth roughly 838,000 homes or about $250,000 per commercial minute in a Sunday slot. For the USFL, to deliver an average of 8.0 in spring and summer Sunday afternoon slots would be considered superb. A 10.0 would be a miracle. All of which means that there is no realistic possibility that USFL TV revenues could rise to more than $4 million per team under current economic conditions. Short of digging into the famous deep pockets of the USFL owners, there is no way the opposite-season league can compete in a long dollar war.

And now, of course, the USFL is in danger of being tripped by its own tactics. It is only a matter of time before the NFL does a logical turnabout, takes the offensive and launches a series of raids on USFL superstars like Walker and Bryant. Why can't the NFL use the USFL as a kind of unofficial NFL Triple-A farm operation in which callow college stars can get their rough edges polished for the big time? It doesn't take much to recall that the Cowboys didn't stop Danny White from going to the WFL Memphis South-men in 1974, only to welcome him back—smarter, sharper and more experienced—in 1976. Coincidentally, another Dallas backup, quarterback Glenn Carano, has recently signed for two years with the Pittsburgh Maulers for $525,000. A farming process?

Still, the USFL has made its mark. The NFL has definitely taken note and is battling back. But there are no signs of panic. Without a trace of alarm in his voice, Rozelle says, "I wouldn't categorize this as war—I'd downgrade it to a skirmish. We have had four of those since I came into pro football. The old All-America Football Conference, the original American Football League, the World Football League and now this. I can't predict what will happen in 1984 and beyond. There are only two certainties in all of this: one, an escalation of player salaries and, two, litigation. If the USFL has enough money and is willing to spend it, I think they might make a go of it."

Whether you call it a war, a skirmish or merely the free enterprise system operating at its competitive best, the USFL has caught the attention of the NFL—and of the U.S. That is much to its benefit, and it has lent some needed credibility and excitement to the operation. But what it all boils down to is whether the public buys the USFL and its product this year. Without better TV ratings and stadium attendance, nothing the league does in war—or in peace—can save it from ignominious defeat.

TWO PHOTOS PHOTOHot dog! Rozier relishes the $3 million that the USFL's Pittsburgh Maulers laid on him. PHOTOSims is tightroping between two leagues, but Willie Harper (59) has already jumped. PHOTOA new jersey will help rid Sipe of the blahs. PHOTOThe NFL hopes that Esiason will have the patience of a turtle in choosing a league. PHOTOYoung is a lock to fleece one league or the other.
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