THE USFL CHOOSES A BIGGER ROAD OVER A SMALLER CAR
The USFL's decision to switch its schedule from spring to autumn beginning in 1986 prompts a number of questions. Does the USFL really think it's strong enough to take on the NFL? How unanimous was last week's "unanimous" vote? Why were some owners shaking their heads after the league meeting?
When its third season ends next summer, the USFL could close up shop for 14 months, not to open again until the autumn of 1986. It will probably shrink from 18 teams to 12, and it will go head-to-head with both the NFL and college football. "We're ready, willing and able to compete for fans," says USFL commissioner Chet Simmons. "This puts to rest the idea that televised football has reached the saturation point."
Simmons and such owners as Donald Trump of the New Jersey Generals are placing great faith in a $700,000 market study that says the USFL has a 98% recognition factor among America's football fans, has demonstrated remarkable new-product success and could press on confidently into an autumn schedule. But in 1982 Simmons said, "Market research has shown the American public will accept a new professional football league at a different time of year." The public hasn't accepted it yet. Steve Ehrhart, who runs the USFL's Memphis Showboats, concedes, "The competition against baseball and tradition was greater than they thought."
The league's decision to play in the fall was dictated by economic problems of its own making. At its genesis the USFL planned to be a modest league offering good football at popular prices. ABC-TV's then-generous two-year, $18 million contract was more than enough to give the owners financial stability and reason to hope. But then ambitious owners began signing prizes like Herschel Walker, Mike Rozier and Steve Young to fabulous contracts. Team payrolls soared. The league priced itself out of its chosen season. It needed bigger bucks.
"What we have here is a car that got too big for the road," says John Bassett, the owner of the Tampa Bay Bandits, "so we've got to change the road. Personally, I would've gotten into a smaller car."
Some say the owners want to force a merger with the NFL, but Trump says, "I don't want a merger. What I do want is games with the NFL—challenges, more revenues. Fall is first-class." It was this vision of a greater USFL that Trump and his allies sold to their fellow owners. "A bold move," Trump calls it. "And a big gamble," says Bassett. "There was trepidation and concern," admits Ehrhart.
Now that the decision has been made, the USFL has already begun to get into shape for the showdown. The Oklahoma and Oakland franchises have been merged, and San Antonio and Los Angeles may follow suit. The league-champion Philadelphia Stars will probably move to Coltless Baltimore, and Trump's Generals to now-vacant Shea Stadium (where the Jets used to play). But the league has lost Sherwood Weiser, who agreed to buy the weak Washington Federals franchise in order to move it to Miami (he even persuaded the University of Miami's College Coach of the Year, Howard Schnellenberger, to sign a contract with him to become coach and general manager of the new club). Now Weiser, who has no desire to buck the Dolphins and the Hurricanes in season, has canceled the deal, the franchise is back in Washington and Schnellenberger is out of a job.
Weiser may be more realistic, but the USFL feels it has an ace in the hole: TV. "The bottom line," says Trump, "is that the networks don't want a situation like that of two years ago when the NFL walked in and said, 'This is what we want.' The networks said, 'We won't pay it,' and the NFL said, 'We'll do something different.' " Meaning cable TV. The networks had to give in, and the NFL ended up with a five-year, $2 billion windfall that runs through the 1986 season. By that time the USFL hopes to show enough to be a valid alternative. "The networks say they're paying too much," says Eddie Einhorn of the Chicago Blitz. "The NFL has created an economic need for us."
Well, maybe, but it's something less than a need. Neal Pilson, head of CBS Sports, says flatly, "I fully expect to renew our deal with the NFL. That's where we'll continue to put the most emphasis."
Still, Pilson admits, "I don't think you can ignore the USFL. They'll be a factor. We'll have a pretty good idea of what will be available in 1987 before we renew with the NFL, and we'll have to give some consideration to the USFL. It's not inconceivable that one or more networks might do one or more leagues."
The USFL is gambling, hoping to soothe ABC, which isn't too happy about losing its relatively inexpensive spring football programming, hoping to placate the players ("I see this translating into a continuing escalation for the players," says the ever optimistic Trump), hoping to re-create in the fall whatever credibility it has established playing in the spring. The USFL isn't out of the new-league woods yet. It may be just getting into them.
CAVEAT EMPTOR—ESPECIALLY AT $8.25 MILLION
Horse trading may not be the world's oldest profession, but it's a contender, and through the centuries its practitioners have acquired a reputation for integrity close to that enjoyed by used-car salesmen. But shoddy merchandise isn't supposed to be passed along at high-level horse auctions, where animals are sold for fabulous sums of money; top dollar is supposed to get top quality. At the Keeneland Sales in Lexington, Ky., July 23-24, air could hardly get more rarefied than that surrounding a yearling colt sold to the prominent British horseman Robert Sangster. Hip No. 93, a dark bay colt by the renowned sire Northern Dancer out of Ballade (the dam of Devil's Bag), was bought for $8.25 million, in the annals of yearling auctions a price second only to the $10.2 million paid last year at Keeneland for another Northern Dancer colt.
But a few days after Sangster bought Hip No. 93, it was discovered that something was wrong with the colt's right front foot. Windfields Farm, the seller of the animal, has no legal obligation to cancel the deal and refund the purchase price, but because Windfields and Sangster have long had a good business relationship, a readjustment of the sale price is being negotiated. Both parties are reluctant to comment on the affair, refusing even to specify what's wrong with the colt's foot, and the racing public may never learn the outcome of the negotiations.
Even so, perhaps caveat emptor—let the buyer beware—should be tattooed inside the lips of thoroughbred horses along with their identification numbers. Prospective buyers might also do well to recall the horse trader's rhyme that goes, "One white foot, buy him; two white feet, try him; three white feet, look well about him; four white feet, go without him." The rhyme is based on an old horsemen's belief that white hooves are softer and more prone to injury than are dark ones. The expensive colt that Sangster purchased has three white feet. The trouble is, the bad foot on Hip No. 93 is black.
WAITE AND BABE
Waite Hoyt, the Hall of Fame pitcher who died last week in Cincinnati at the age of 84, had a tumultuous life, most of it entwined in baseball, much of it wreathed in humor. A schoolboy star before World War I, he was in the big leagues before he was 20, was a brilliant pitcher for Babe Ruth's Yankees in the 1920s and, after 21 seasons in the majors, became a play-by-play broadcaster for the Reds. His rambling, idiosyncratic style at the microphone both charmed and exasperated his listeners, and he became an institution in Cincinnati.
"Waite would occasionally interrupt an anecdote to tell what was happening on the field," says an admirer. "He was the only broadcaster I ever heard who did play-by-play in the past tense. He'd say things like, 'He hit a hard grounder to the shortstop who made a nice play and threw him out at first base.' "
Hoyt loved to reminisce about the good old days and sometimes annoyed members of the great Cincinnati teams of the 1970s by telling them they couldn't hold a candle to his beloved 1927 Yankees. He told countless stories about Ruth, whom he once fought in the clubhouse when they were teammates and with whom he shared a keen interest in off-field carousing.
Hoyt's drinking later became a serious problem that he solved after he joined Alcoholics Anonymous in 1945. Just before he joined AA, he disappeared from the Cincinnati broadcasting booth for several days and was finally found recovering from a drinking bout. His absence was blamed on "amnesia." When Ruth heard about that he gleefully sent his old drinking buddy a telegram. "Read about your case of amnesia," he wired. "Must be a new brand."
NOT SO VIOLENT OPINIONS
The Hockey News recently asked its readers how they felt about various aspects of the sport. Despite all the negative publicity about violence on the ice, 67% of those responding to the poll said that the level of violence in hockey was acceptable, and almost as many (62.5%) said they didn't feel that fighting should be banned.
Don't assume by this that readers of The Hockey News are modern versions of Romans shouting for blood from bleacher seats in the Colosseum. Another question was whether hockey is better today than it was 10 years ago when the Philadelphia Flyers, the renowned Broad Street Bullies, were winning Stanley Cups with intimidation and aggressiveness. A resounding 71% of the readers preferred today's relatively milder game.
Just so it doesn't get too mild.
THEY SAID IT
•Dick Enberg, NBC sportscaster, praising Howard Cosell after his retirement from Monday Night Football: "I'm not a critical broadcaster. I'm probably the captain of the vanillas. But I'm grateful that I can say critical things, and all of us should be thankful to Howard for that."
•Quintin Schonewise, University of Kansas offensive tackle: "My question is, after arriving early in August to three-a-day practices in 100-degree heat, and then into an 11-week season that takes a minimum of 60 hours a week in meetings, practice and travel, and then into a conditioning program until spring practice starts, who's the guy that called a football scholarship a free ride?"