For three seasons, the USFL provided perhaps the NFL’s most direct challenge. It was that growing ambition to truly compete with the NFL that likely caused its demise, however.
The brainchild of businessman David Dixon, who had been responsible for the formation of the Saints in the NFL, the USFL launched its 12-team league in the spring of 1983. After studying the failures of previous alternative leagues, Dixon stressed financial modesty and stability ownership in the league—two plans that quickly fell by the wayside.
The league enjoyed initial success, showcasing breakout stars such as Herschel Walker and Jim Kelly. It provided a true spring alternative for players to take their talents, helping to raise collective salaries in football — teams from both leagues were now forced to bid against each other.
While it helped get the league off its feet and attract legitimate talent, the USFL was not ready for that level of spending.
“I think, plain and simply, the USFL owners, to our advantage as players, spent much more than they were receiving from television and tickets,” longtime punter Sean Landeta, who played 22 seasons in the NFL and was the last active NFL player who played in the USFL, told The Post. “We the players benefitted from that. To prove what I’m saying, the average NFL salary, I think, was around $75,000 in 1983. In the three years the USFL was around, it went from $75,000 to about $230,000. So if you think, it took the NFL from 1920 to 1983, it took 63 years to get to $75,000. And in just three years, [the USFL] tripled.”
In its second season, the league expanded to 18 teams. The expansion, coupled with the steep player costs, went directly against Dixon’s plan, and he subsequently decided to leave the league. The USFL saw initial success, but had quickly gotten ahead of itself, growing too large for its own good.
“They found themselves very, very successful, I think more so than they thought, and they started spending tremendous amounts of money,” Bart Oates, who played on the Philadelphia Stars in the USFL before winning two Super Bowls with the Giants, told The Post. “It wasn’t really a sustainable model, what they had evolved to. I think when they started, it was. But then it evolved into something that was not sustainable at all. The revenues were never gonna match the expenses. That’s usually not a good thing for a business.”
Throughout the 1985 season, which would be its third and final season, the USFL faced unreliable — and sometimes fraudulent — ownership, financial difficulty, as multiple teams had trouble paying all of their costs, and logistical battles with stadiums, infrastructure and TV deals.
Engulfed in turmoil, it shrunk to eight teams following the 1985 season. Led by an outspoken section of owners — spearheaded by Generals owner Donald Trump — the USFL voted to move its season to the fall to directly compete with the NFL. The long-term goal was likely to somehow force a merger with the NFL, raising the value of the USFL teams in the process.
In the USFL’s current state at the time, a merger became extremely unlikely. Next, Trump convinced the league to sue the NFL over antitrust laws, accusing the NFL of having a monopoly over TV broadcast rights. A large financial settlement would inject a vital lifeline to the league, he argued.
A jury actually did rule in favor of the USFL, but was not sympathetic to its larger claims. The USFL was awarded $1 in damages, when trebled under antitrust law, gave the USFL a grand total of $3. Without any money, the league folded, losing over $163 million throughout its three-year existence.
“With the risk of sounding cavalier, did they stick around when they decided to [sue the league]? No,” Oates said. “I think that was a decision based on a couple of owners.”