The United States Football League (USFL) was a short-lived but memorable professional football league that existed between 1983 and 1985. Also known as the “third” league, it played in the autumn and early winter months to avoid competing directly with the NFL and CFL. The USFL was meant to be a spring league, debuting in February 1983 to avoid competition with the NFL and college football. However, most of its owners believed that moving to the autumn would increase revenue. The new schedule forced teams to play 17 games in just 20 weeks, which led to concerns regarding player safety. Did you know that the USFL is often credited as being an inspiration for future alternative pro football leagues such as the Arena Football League (1986), Indoor Football League (2000), and Canadian Football League (2002)? READ MORE
USFL Scores Live
The USFL kicked off in March 1983 with the New Jersey Generals defeating the Tampa Bay Bandits in the first-ever game. The league had originally hoped to avoid head-to-head competition with the NFL, but a number of factors led to a switch of the season to the fall. The USFL hoped to reach a TV deal with the then-fledgling ESPN network (they eventually signed with a fledgling network called the SyndEx), which had been offering a spring slot for years. However, the network only wanted USFL games as a mid-season replacement for NBA basketball games that were cancelled due to a players’ strike. The USFL decided to make the switch to the fall in hopes of reaching a larger TV audience. The second reason for the switch involved the USFL’s owners, who were desperate for a cash infusion. This led to them signing contracts with the NFL for two future NFL expansion franchises, which would begin play in 1988. However, the owners of the USFL franchises hoped that the switch to the fall would lead to an increase in revenue. It didn’t.
Mergers and Foldings
The USFL had a promising start, but many owners began looking to merge with the more established NFL. The owners of the New Jersey Generals, Tampa Bay Bandits, Oakland Invaders, and Houston Gamblers all hoped to bring their teams into the NFL. The owners of the Chicago Blitz, Detroit Lions, and Arizona Wranglers also explored the idea of a merger with the USFL, but talks broke down and they folded their teams. The league had planned to expand to 18 or 20 teams for its second season, but the folding of several franchises put an end to those plans. The USFL and NFL also got into a serious bidding war for television contracts. The USFL was hoping to sign with ESPN, but the NFL signed a contract with a fledgling network called the SyndEx. The new network had offered the USFL a much smaller contract than ESPN and the league was unable to compete. This led to a serious cash flow problem for the USFL. This, coupled with the fact that the USFL did not have a sound financial structure, led to the league filing for bankruptcy in 1986. USFL Scores
The USFL in Court
The USFL filed an anti-trust lawsuit against the NFL in 1986. The league claimed that the NFL had conspired to sabotage the USFL’s ability to obtain a network television contract. The USFL had hoped to be able to sign a network contract after the NFL completed its contract with CBS. However, the NFL had a clause in their contract that allowed them to extend the contract if the network had not been able to find a replacement. The USFL felt that this was a deliberate attempt to keep the USFL from the TV market. The jury ruled in favor of the USFL and awarded $3 in damages (the amount of the league’s attorneys’ fees). However, they also awarded the NFL $5 in damages because the USFL had broken its contracts with the NFL teams. The court ruling was a disappointment to the USFL, but they hoped that the decision would open the door to new negotiations with the NFL regarding the future of professional football. The NFL, however, ignored the ruling and continued their efforts to put the USFL out of business. One way the NFL accomplished this was by encouraging the creation of new pro football leagues. This led to the creation of the American Football League (1988), the World League of American Football (1991), and the XFL (2001). All of these leagues posed competition for the USFL and put a strain on their finances.
Interesting Facts About the USFL
- The USFL was the first pro sports league to have a salary cap. The cap was $1.8 million per team, though the average salary was only $45,000.
- The Blitz were supposed to play at the University of Chicago, but their stadium was still under construction. They ended up playing at Comiskey Park, home of the Chicago White Sox.
- The Arizona Wranglers were originally called the Arizona Outlaws, but the league forced them to change the name.
- The league had several notable players, including Jim Kelly (Buffalo Bills), Steve Young (San Francisco 49ers), and Herschel Walker (Dallas Cowboys).
- The USFL had a brief but memorable television commercial in which a young boy is seen ripping up a paper football and yelling, “Goodbye, NFL!”
Final Words: Was the USFL a Success?
The USFL had some success in its three years of play, but the league was plagued by financial problems and poor management. In fact, many believe that the USFL’s biggest contribution to football may be its role as a pioneer for future alternative pro football leagues such as the AFL, WLAF, and XFL. Although the USFL had some success and achieved many of its goals, the league failed to survive long enough to become a major player on the sports scene. The league was outspent, outmaneuvered, and ultimately outplayed by the NFL.