Their record over two seasons is 5-24, worst in the USFL's short life. One joke around town is "What's green, has an eagle on it and is worth less with every passing day?" Answer: "A Washington Federal." Even the team's principal owner, longtime D.C. lawyer and sometime yachtsman Berl Bernhard, 54, has added cruel insult to ongoing injury. After Jacksonville, an expansion team, routed the Federals 53-14 in their 1984 opener, Bernhard was quoted from coast to coast: "We played like a group of untrained gerbils—no fight, no aggressiveness, no spirit and a lot of moping around." Three days later, he fired the coach, Ray Jauch. Bernhard apparently felt that, gerbils or no, they should've been better trained.
From there, things have gotten worse. For an April 15 home game against the Oklahoma Outlaws, the Federals management declared that the first 10,000 spectators to pass through the stadium gates would receive free T shirts. Alas, only 6,075 fans found this deal worth the trip. Bales of T shirts went begging, to say nothing of the Federals, who lost 20-16. As the local fans saw it, Sunday's game against the visiting Memphis Showboats was a Battle of the Zeros: The Feds were 0-4 at home, while the Showboats were 0-5 on the road. After Washington lost 13-10 before just 4,432 diehards—lowest attendance ever in the USFL—the Federals were 1-10 on the season and averaging a scant 8,016 spectators per home game, 52.9% fewer than the team drew through five home games last year. By contrast, average attendance for the USFL as a whole is up 15% over 1983.
It's hard to believe, but life in Washington wasn't always a sea of empty seats and an air of impending doom. When the franchise was born as one of the 12 original USFL teams, D.C. football fans were excited. The team signed Craig James, the splendid SMU running back and one of the first big names snared by the new league. The Feds sold 18,808 season tickets in 1983. For the home opener, against the Chicago Blitz on March 6, 39,010 fans came out to RFK Stadium on a day of terrible rain.
Unfortunately, Washington lost that game 28-7, and while a defeat does not a franchise wreck, the Federals subsequently performed so poorly that not even gerbils could be trained to attend Washington games en masse. Now the club is out of dough and up for sale. James is gone. The Federals let him slip away—not only to another team but also to another league, the New England Patriots of the NFL—so that they could be rid of his estimated $500,000 salary. And the Feds will probably slip out of town too, after Bernhard sells them. Viewed as a whole, the Federals' brief, unhappy history is a worst-case example of what has gone wrong in the USFL, and a sort of road map of the direction in which the league is now heading.
When Bernhard decided to come into the USFL, the league's master plan called for each team 1) to outspend the NFL in order to sign one or two top rookies, like James, each year; 2) to establish a salary cap of from $1.5 to $1.7 million for 1983 and from $2.1 to $2.3 million for 1984; 3) to develop its own talent while signing selected NFL veterans; and 4) to sell the unique idea of spring football. Trouble was, the Federals followed the plan while much of the rest of the league was abandoning it. Now there is a big-bucks war for talent, and some of the league's newer owners, led by New Jersey's Donald Trump and L.A.'s Bill Oldenburg, are pressing for a fall schedule and head-to-head competition with the NFL. It's unlikely that's what Bernhard had in mind when he chose to play football in the same town as the hugely successful Washington Redskins.
As the USFL has made a 180-degree change in philosophy, the Federals have slid rapidly downhill. In their defense—if only they had a defense—they may not be as bad as their record. Seven of their 24 defeats have come by a total of 14 points. "There isn't a football team in either league better at getting to the 20-yard line than the Federals," says James. "But then we would always disintegrate, making mistakes you couldn't believe. We'd be in lots of games right up to the last minute, but we'd always find a way to lose."
This is true, and the Feds seem to be suffering from a debilitating belief that they're snakebit. James had never had a serious injury in high school or college, but as a Federal he fractured a vertebra and suffered damaged ligaments in his right knee. He was well enough to play in just 10 of 26 games before he shipped out two weeks ago.
As Rick Vaughn, the Feds' normally upbeat publicity man, says, "It's getting to be mental. We're in a self-destruct mode before the games even start now." So what's to be done? An infusion of God's own four-leaf clovers would do wonders. However, an infusion of quite a different kind of green is what Bernhard has in mind for the future.
"We need new money and lots of it," he says. "When we came into the league, we had a budget that, given the original framework of salary ceilings and the like, we figured would carry us through the first four or five years of the franchise's life. The league moved more aggressively than we had planned for, and men with deeper pockets than mine have come into the league. The old concept is gone. People have outspent us, and even though we put $1.1 million more into our salaries this year, it just wasn't enough. Other teams have passed us by."
Bernhard, of course, is referring to the paying of superbucks for superstars by the likes of Trump and Oldenburg. Their big spending, made possible by their personal fortunes rather than by revenues generated by their teams, has drastically affected struggling teams like the Federals. Some owners held out an unrealistic hope that ABC's renewal of its option to televise USFL games in 1985 might release a mighty flood of new millions to underwrite gargantuan player salaries. This seems out of the question now. Although the TV deal is still under negotiation—league games are pulling down an average rating of 6.7, almost even with last season's number for the same period—it's unlikely that ABC will offer more than $16 or $17 million. That comes out to far less than $1 million per club and isn't nearly enough to put a relatively shallow-pockets operator like Bernhard into the same ball park as Trump or Oldenburg.
So what's the answer? "If you're going to go for the gold, you have to have gold," says Bernhard. To get the gold, Bernhard is trying to sell controlling interest in the Federals to Miami's Sherwood (Woody) Weiser, 53, a hugely successful hotel developer who was first urged to buy into a USFL franchise by—guess who?—his good friend Donald Trump. Not everybody in Miami thinks Weiser ought to make the deal. In a column two weeks ago, Herald sports editor Edwin Pope asked Weiser, "Why don't you just go up on the 14th floor of the Grand Bay [a sumptuous Miami hotel built by Weiser] and throw off a few million dollars and save yourself a lot of time and trouble?" Nevertheless, Bernhard said last week, "I'm very optimistic that the deal will be resolved in a week. I'll stay with the team, maybe as chairman, but he will have control. A decision about whether we'll move out of Washington [presumably to Miami] won't be made until after this season is over."
Bernhard insists he isn't bitter about the onslaught of wild spending in the USFL that's forcing him to relinquish control of his team. "It's just that we've already reached the level I thought we'd be at four or five years down the road," he says. But Washington isn't the only USFL team seeking longer greens. Ron Blanding, an entrepreneur in construction, real estate and recreational ventures, recently sold the very successful Denver Gold. "It's beyond us now," he said, referring to the spending binge. The Chicago Blitz, a desperately troubled franchise, is being operated by the league because ABC has the right to cancel its contract if the USFL fails to field a team in any of the top three TV markets—New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Last week, word spread that the league was trying to entice Chicago White Sox owners Eddie Einhorn and Jerry Reinsdorf into bailing out the Blitz.
These aren't terrifically healthy financial times for the USFL, and the question of survival hangs heavy. However, no team has experienced blacker days than the Federals. If this brokenhearted bunch can make it through this year and on into 1985—and then beyond—maybe there's hope and profit ahead. Indeed, maybe the Feds will prove that if you can pour enough money into the training of a gerbil, it will eventually cease being a gerbil at all.