As the USFL begins its third, and presumably last, spring season, its life signs are not exactly robust. All told, team owners have lost $100 million, and, so far, the league has struck out in its attempts to get a crucial network TV contract for 1986, when it switches to a fall schedule (see page 28). But there is one tantalizing unknown—the Flutie Factor, Can seven-million-dollar-man Doug Flutie transfer his magic to the USFL and. Joe Namath reincarnate, lead it to full houses, new TV riches and perhaps a merger with the NFL?
Those who believe there will be an autumnal flowering of the USFL are counting heavily on Flutie and on the acumen of the league's new commissioner, Harry Usher. He, too, comes to the USFL trailing clouds of glory, having been Peter Ueberroth's right-hand man in the organization of the hugely successful Los Angeles Olympics.
But Flutie's miracle pass for Boston College against the University of Miami last fall was one thing. Salvaging a whole league is another. And it is a league that has been a house divided over a central issue—whether to move slowly, making prudent expenditures for players, or to engage in a superstar war with the NFL. "Crawling before we walked, walking before we ran, running before we flew" was the original credo, as John Bassett, the Tampa Bay Bandits' principal owner, expressed it.
Cracks in the facade appeared as the New Jersey Generals, Flutie's new team, plucked running back Herschel Walker out of school in Georgia. He has a $6 million, four-year contract. Then in 1984 came a 43-year, $36 million deal for quarterback Steve Young with the Los Angeles Express; $3 million from the Pittsburgh Maulers for Walker's successor as the Heisman Trophy winner, running back Mike Rozier; and $6 million from the New Orleans (now Portland) Breakers (see page 32) for Oklahoma dropout Marcus Dupree, still another heralded runner. Now it's Flutie himself.
"[Those owners] went to the hip too quickly," says Bassett. "But there is that psychic reward," says Usher, "a psychic income that comes from owning a pro football team."
Not entirely content with psychic revenue, the owners have brought a $1.32 billion antitrust suit against the NFL, charging it with monopolizing professional football.
Whether the suit will produce some black ink on the ledgers is debatable; what's not is that the USFL's growing pains have been painful indeed. The number of teams in the league has shrunk from 18 in 1984 to 14 today, and there are other concerns:
•The league has assumed ownership of the failing Express franchise and is keeping a close watch on the struggling Houston team.
•Only two teams, Tampa Bay and Birmingham, have the same coach, owner and home stadium they started with. The Michigan Panthers, the first-year champions, merged with Oakland. Oklahoma merged with Arizona, which had been the Chicago Blitz. Arizona coach George Allen retired and was replaced by Frank Kush, the former Arizona State (and Baltimore and Indianapolis Colts) coach, who is returning to Sun Devil Stadium. One wealthy owner, A. Alfred Taubman of Michigan, pulled out. Taubman, who bought Sotheby's auction house in London last year, is the low-profile type.
•The defending champion Stars, supposedly the league's epitome of stability, merged with Pittsburgh and moved from Philadelphia to Baltimore to Byrd Stadium in College Park, Md. in one eventful off-season.
•Despite games that already take too long to play, the league wants to institute limited videotape replays by means of which coaches can dispute close calls. At week's end, the decision was pending.
How could this mess conceivably appeal to Usher, 45, who as executive vice-president and general manager of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee earned a reputation second only to Ueberroth's? Now baseball commissioner, Ueberroth presented Usher with an engraved ("You will continue to play a part in history") watch after Usher signed a three-year contract with the USFL on Feb. 1. Usher was Phi Beta Kappa at Brown and, while studying law at Stanford, an editor of its Law Review. He had been a partner in three prestigious law firms and a member of the L.A. County Bar Association's board of trustees. Throughout his career he has displayed a talent for making the right moves.
"The NFL has jealously and assiduously maintained this monopoly position for 15 years," says Usher. "All we want is for everyone involved to take a step back. Let's sit down and talk about it. That's what we want to do." Although he says, "It is not my desire to force a merger," and talks about free market competition on the networks—"Let the fresh air blow through," he says—a USFL source says Usher's contract has "survival-incentive bonuses." His earnings increase if the league survives three more years, or five more years or signs a new TV contract, or merges with the NFL. Usher doesn't deny the bonuses; he just hopes he can collect in some form, preferably through a healthier league.
But a merger would make the NFL a "monopoly" again, wouldn't it? The NFL's position, according to commissioner Pete Rozelle, is that "We want to pick our own ownership." The other NFL argument against a merger comes from the league's director of information, Joe Browne, who says, "How soon do you think it would be before another league was started up with the same goal in mind?"
Ultimately, Congress may have some say about who goes where or does what to whom. There are four "football" bills pending in the Senate, two of which, in return for limited antitrust exemptions, would restrict franchise movement and require NFL expansion into four cities. Rozelle has told the Senate, "We will expand.... We want to pick our cities."
What city better than New York (well, greater New York, which includes the New Jersey Meadowlands), and what owner more solvent than the Generals' Donald Trump? Seymour Eckstein, the Generals' business manager, projects that 44,000 season tickets will have been sold in time for New Jersey's home opener, March 10, against L.A. Seven thousand season tickets were sold within two weeks after Flutie's signing.
As for the Flutie-Namath comparison, Al Davis, the managing general partner of the Los Angeles Raiders, who coached Oakland of the old AFL when Namath broke in (1965), says, "One was a sure star. All the qualities of greatness were there. The other guy is a young kid who captured the imagination of a lot of people. He was a good college player. There's no question that he has dynamism, but perhaps he doesn't have that same superstar quality Namath had. Flutie's style reminds me of the guy who played in the Rose Bowl three years in a row, Pat Haden of USC, except that Flu-tie has that great escape ability. But then again, Haden was bigger. Another difference is that Namath never captured the imagination as a great college player. People didn't know that much about him because he didn't have the same TV exposure.... But you bet that the scouts knew all about him. I remember when Namath was a sophomore. I was scouting George Gross, a defensive tackle from Auburn. I flew all night to see them play Alabama. When I came back, Sid Gillman [Davis's boss, then the head coach of the San Diego Chargers] asked me, 'Did you see anything?' I said, 'I just saw a guy who tips the field—and he wears white shoes, too.' I couldn't get over the guy. He had the quality of greatness just standing there, just walking with that slouch of his.
"It's a different situation now because of the networks. There are three networks, and all have a star today—the NFL. All want that league to do good. It's like owning a show like Dynasty. In those days only CBS had the NFL."
Flutie finally played his first game as a professional on Friday night—an exhibition against the Orlando Renegades, once the lowly Washington Federals. His first two passes were intercepted by linebacker Jeff Gabrielsen. After that, things improved and Flutie finished 7 for 18, with 174 yards. In the fourth quarter he completed four of eight passes for 89 yards as the Generals won 24-14. Flutie gave himself a C-plus for the game, and his coach, Walt Michaels, who was skeptical of Flutie's talents just a few weeks ago, said he was impressed with the rookie's composure and his fourth-quarter comeback. Walker, the USFL's '83 golden boy, who has gained 3,151 yards for the Generals but has failed to generate much fan enthusiasm, ran for 56 yards against Orlando.
Bassett, the USFL's most prominent opponent of Trumpian extravagance, had made a go of it in the old WFL in Memphis before the league crashed in 1975. While playing a few expensive cards himself—Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield, for three—Bassett says he had a tacit agreement on merger support from the NFL's Davis and Carroll Rosenbloom, then owner of the Los Angeles Rams, before the WFL's financial underpinnings began to disintegrate. Now Bassett is in Tampa, with a team that averaged 45,000 fans per home game in '84.
"I am in the best position of anybody," says Bassett, whose team has sold 37,500 season tickets (the Bucs had 42,000 in '84). "There could be no agreement with the NFL without agreement among our owners. I'm good friends with Memphis and Birmingham." The stability of the Bandits, Bassett believes, is the reason they are, on balance, the league's most successful franchise. "People want rivalries," he says. "That's why a new team 78 miles away in Orlando won't hurt us. It will help us."
Here Bassett may be peddling a little snake oil. As did the Federals, the Renegades gave new depth to the meaning of real bad. "I don't think the football fan is that sophisticated," says Bassett. "They want to be acquainted with the players, care about the team. The appreciation of great skill by the players is a figment of media imagination."
Maybe so, but the Express, for example, could do with a lot more media excitement over the great skill of Steve Young. The Express had spent relatively little on ads and promotions when the league took over the team three weeks ago. "They expect only 7,000 fans a game," says Usher. "We had that many ushers in the Coliseum stands during the Olympics! We're going to saturate the L.A. area with hype."
As for the possibility of a player strike, or of athletes jumping contracts to go to the NFL, Usher says, "Most of the players, like Young, want to be in on this." Says Browne, "They [the USFL owners] have made it clear to their players that 'If you want to be in the NFL, come with us.' "
And so it goes. In the meantime, grab a six-pack, make believe it's September and catch Flutie on the tube. If the gods are smiling on the USFL, his receivers will catch him, too.