The USFL was a spring football league that lasted on three seasons between 1983 and 1985. The league was a concept of Louisiana businessman David Dixon, who envisioned a spring alternative to the NFL. Dixon’s plan was to build slowly, establishing footholds in top tv markets, before spending big money on players. Unfortunately for him, the league quickly deviated from his plan. Owners like presidential candidate Donald Trump spent wildly on players, and pushed to move to a fall schedule, which ultimately killed the league.
1983 season: There was trouble before the new league even played its first game. The league’s original owner for the Los Angeles market, Alex Spanos, pulled out and instead became a minority owner of the San Diego Chargers. The Boston franchise struggled to secure a stadium. They preferred Harvard Stadium, but could not close a deal there. They were also unsuccessful in getting a deal at Sullivan Stadium in Foxboro, before settling for the woefully inadequate Nickerson Field at Boston University. Once the season began, the league showed some promise. The Denver Gold franchise averaged 41 thousand fans in its first season. The Tampa Bay Bandits, New Jersey Generals, and Oakland Invaders all averaged over 30 thousand fans that season. Herschel Walker was a huge signing for the New Jersey Generals. The Heisman Trophy winner rushed for 1800 yards and 17 touchdowns in his first season. The Jim Mora lead Philadelphia Stars were edged out by the Michigan Panthers in the inaugural USFL championship game.
The 1984 season: Once again the league had issues before their season could begin. The Boston Breakers were forced to move to New Orleans because of the stadium situation. David Dixon did not start his franchise in 1983, so he could help guide the league. By 1984, he was at odds with the other owners because of them not following his original blue print. This lead to Dixon selling off his franchise rights for an estimated 6 million dollars. This franchise would become the Houston Gamblers, which would be part of a six team expansion. The other franchises added were the San Antonio Gunslingers, Memphis Showboats, Oklahoma Outlaws, Jacksonville Bulls, and Pittsburgh Maulers. The Maulers were owned by Eddie DeBartolo sr., who’s son owned the San Francisco 49ers. This was especially irritating to the NFL, who were trying to downplay the new league. The Los Angeles Express signed Steve Young to an unheard of 40 million dollar guaranteed contract. This was by far the biggest contract ever given to a football player at that time. Perhaps the biggest offseason news was the purchase of the New Jersey Generals buy Donald Trump. Trump immediately began pushing for a move to the fall, which would later be seen as a huge mistake. There was good and bad during the 1984 season. The cornerstone Chicago Blitz franchise failed miserably. A last ditch effort to sign Walter Payton away from the Bears failed, which killed any hopes of gaining a hold in Chicago. The league would have to take over the Blitz halfway through the year. On the good side, the expansion Jacksonville Bulls thrived averaging 47 thousand fans per game. The Steve Spurrier lead Tampa Bay bandits also did well, far outdrawing their NFL rivals the Buccaneers. Rookie Jim Kelley threw 44 touchdown passes for the exciting Houston Gamblers. Houston would go on to lose to the Arizona Wranglers in the playoffs. The Wranglers in turn, would eventually lose to the Philadelphia Stars 23-3 in the championship game.
1985 season: Chaos ruled the offseason in 1985. Los Angles owner William Oldenburg went bankrupt and turned his team over to the league. The Chicago Blitz franchise folded after the 1984 season. The then “New Orleans” Breakers were forced to move again. This time the team settled in Portland, Oregon. The defending champion Stars moved to Baltimore to take advantage of the NFL Colts moving to Indiana. A merger between original champion Michigan Panthers and Oakland Invaders left Detroit without a team. The Wranglers and Outlaws also merged, becoming the Arizona Outlaws. Finally,the Washington Federals moved to Orlando, becoming the Orlando Renegades. Donald trump was at it again, signing Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie to be his quarterback. During 1985, some teams still managed to flourish. The Jacksonville Bulls averaged 44 thousand per game in attendance. This had a lasting effect on the NFL, and was an important factor in Jacksonville being awarded the expansion Jaguars later on. The Generals did well until Flutie broke his collar bone late in the season. They would go on to lose in the first round of the playoffs. The bad news for the rest of the league continued though. Gunslingers owner Clinton Manges stopped paying the teams bills half way through the season, forcing the league to take over the franchise. With the threat of moving to the Fall, the Denver Gold franchise fell apart. It got so bad, ABC forced the team to play a playoff game on the road rather then televise a game with so few fans in the stands. Baltimore would go on to win it’s second consecutive title, beating the Oakland Invaders 28-24.
1986 season: Ultimately this season never got underway. The Gunslingers and Breakers were disbanded. Los Angeles and Oakland would announce they were suspending operations. Two sets of teams merged together, Denver with Jacksonville and Houston with New Jersey. Donald Trump would boast that his merger creates the best team in football. Placing Jim Kelley with Herschel Walker did create an intriguing offense. As it turned out Trumps plan all along was to force the NFL to take on some USFL franchises and therefore get himself into the NFL. He never really cared how the league did, his only goal was to prop his own franchise up to make it look attractive to the NFL. In a last ditch effort to save the league, the USFL sued the NFL on the grounds of the NFL’s anti-trust exemptions gave them a monopoly over broadcast rights and public stadiums. The USFL was seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. Ironically the USFL won the lawsuit, but was only awarded 3 dollars. Without the leverage of a big award, the NFL had nothing to persuade it to take on any of the USFL franchises. Trump and the other owners were left with no choice but to fold the league without any merger with the NFL.