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A Brief History of the USFL
The United States Football League was a professional major league which played its games from 1983-1985 during the spring and summer months. Founded by David Dixon, a New Orleans art and antique dealer, the USFL announced its formation on May 11, 1982, at the 21 Club in New York City. Judge Peter Spivak, part owner of the Detroit team, served as president of the league, an interim position until the league named a commissioner. The league announced that it would be made up of 12 teams in major markets across the country. Franchises would play in New York (the Meadowlands, NJ), Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Boston, Tampa, Oakland, Denver, Washington, Philadelphia, Birmingham and San Diego (eventually switched to Phoenix). Not long after the press conference, the league named Chet Simmons, a broadcasting executive with fledgling ESPN, as the league's first commissioner.
The league averaged more than 24,000 fans per game, close to Dixon's original forecast, and both ABC and ESPN were pleased with the ratings generated by the circuit. Only the Denver Gold, who topped the league in attendance, and the Tampa Bay Bandits managed to escape large financial losses. Most of the shortfalls were due to larger than expected expenses for player salaries.
Expansion, new owners and new players highlighted the USFL's second season in 1984. Joining the league were the Houston Gamblers, Memphis Showboats, Pittsburgh Maulers, San Antonio Gunslingers, Oklahoma Outlaws and the Jacksonville Bulls. The Breakers moved from Boston to New Orleans, and half the original owners sold their teams. Mike Rozier, college football's top player, was just one of many quality players to sign with the league in just its second season. The league also inked Jim Kelly, Reggie White, Steve Young and a host of college football's best along with former NFL starters. In addition, it picked up real estate tycoon Donald Trump as the new owner of the New Jersey Generals. Not even the addition of six more teams and another Heisman winner, though, could stop the Stars in 1984. Philadelphia blew through its league schedule before handling the Arizona Wranglers in the title game. Following the season, the embattled Simmons was replaced by Harry Usher who had been instrumental in the success of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Although league attendance remained solid, rising player costs forced many teams deeper into the red.
Prior to the 1985 campaign, the USFL announced its intention to switch to a fall schedule beginning in 1986 and to file an antitrust lawsuit against the National Football League. The change of playing season had severe ramifications for several franchises, many of which faced direct NFL competition in their cities. Fresh off their championship season, the Stars left their growing fan base in Philadelphia for the recently-vacated Baltimore. The Michigan Panthers threw in the towel and merged with the Oakland Invaders. The Pittsburgh Maulers called it quits after just one season. The Breakers were forced out of their new-found home in New Orleans and made Portland, Oregon their third home in as many years. All four moves were a direct consequence of the league's intentions to play in the fall. The Chicago Blitz also suspended operations, the Oklahoma Outlaws and Arizona Wranglers merged to form the Arizona Outlaws and the Washington Federals headed South to become the Orlando Renegades.
On the field in 1985, the relocated Stars overcame a slow start and won their second title. Doug Flutie became the third consecutive Heisman winner to sign with the league, and league play improved again due in large part to the preseason consolidations. Several franchises did not fare very well, though. The San Antonio Gunslingers, Los Angeles Express and Houston Gamblers struggled to make it through the year. Negative headlines and near financial ruin plagued the league even as it was showcasing its best football.
In July of 1986, about a month before the league was to begin its first fall season, the USFL won its suit against the NFL, but was awarded just $1 (trebled to $3 under antitrust law) in damages. With losses of more than $200 million, the league folded before beginning its first fall campaign.