The Sports Lounge presents… Lost Leagues: The USFL
Many football leagues have tried to rival the NFL and most cease operations before even getting close. But the United States Football League, or USFL, was the rare league that came very close to reaching the popularity of the NFL before its ultimate demise.
The USFL was the brainchild of David Dixon, a man behind the construction of the Louisiana Superdome and the expansion of the NFL into New Orleans. He thought there was a market for professional football in America during the NFL offseason and began putting the pieces into place. After studying other leagues and getting franchises into the top TV markets, Dixon announced the formation of the USFL in 1982. With 12 franchises set, the USFL would begin play in the spring of 1983.
Before the inaugural season even began, the USFL was dealing with problems that most upstart leagues have to deal with. The Los Angeles franchise’s owner would drop out, leaving a minority owner of the San Diego franchise to want that job. But the majority San Diego owners were moved to LA to become the Express while the minority owner eventually moved to Phoenix because of stadium issues in San Diego. They would become the Arizona Wranglers.
Another team with stadium issues was the Boston Breakers. They tried to get deals done to play at Harvard and failed and then at Sullivan Stadium, home of the NFL’s Patriots, but were unsuccessful again. They eventually had to play at Nickerson Field, a 21,000 seat stadium on the campus of Boston University.
But despite the initial problems, the USFL kicked off and it’s first season was pretty successful. The league had TV deals in place with both ESPN and ABC Sports and had an average attendance of over 25,000 fans per game. The first season was capped off with the two best teams, the Michigan Panthers and Philadelphia Stars playing in the championship game, with the Panthers edging out the Stars 24-22.
Before the 1984 season would begin the USFL had an overhaul. Six new franchises were added in Memphis, Houston, Jacksonville, San Antonio, Oklahoma, and Pittsburgh. The league needed more revenue and hoped this expansion was the answer.
The Boston Breakers also moved to New Orleans for the 1984 season due to their lack of an adequate playing field. They would eventually play in the Louisiana Superdome, the stadium David Dixon helped to build. But, not even this massive stadium could keep the franchise in the city for more than one season.
Despite the moves and additions, the 1984 season went on and continued to be successful for the league. The Stars played in the championship game yet again and got the win this year with a 23-3 victory over the Arizona Wranglers. With another season now over, the USFL was set for its third season. But more changes would occur before a single ball was snapped.
Before the start of the 1985, the USFL announced it would play the 1986 season in the fall season. This came as a shock to people because they would be putting themselves in direct competition with the NFL. The USFL also then filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL. But the announcement of playing in the fall left several franchises questioning their future. Many USFL franchises shared a stadium with an NFL team and would have to deal with a split in the fan base if they played at the same time as the NFL.
Other changes for the 1985 season including more franchise relocations. The New Orleans Breakers moved to Portland. The defending champion Stars moved from Philadelphia to Baltimore. The Michigan Panthers merged with the Oakland Invaders and the Pittsburgh Maulers folded after one season. The Washington Federals were bought out and moved to Orlando to become the Renegades. The Los Angeles Express were operated by the league until a new owner could be found. The Chicago Blitz would fold and the Oklahoma Outlaws and Arizona Wranglers would “merge” to become the Arizona Outlaws.
With all the changes made, the 1985 season was played but the league showed signs of doom. Attendance dropped dramatically, mostly due to the announcement of playing in the fall of 1986. Fans were not going to abandon their NFL franchises so they just stopped going to the USFL’s games. The season finished with the Baltimore Stars winning the championship over the Oakland Invaders. Interestingly, this was basically a rematch of the first championship game since the Invaders absorbed most of the Panthers roster.
The 1985 season would eventually be the last for the USFL. The antitrust lawsuit against the NFL was a failure for the league and did not help their cause. Franchises also began to cease operations due to significant losses while the league itself was deep in debt. The USFL had eight teams set to play in the fall of 1986 but the league closed for good before the season could begin. What was once a league with some promise became just another casualty of leagues that failed.
The USFL did however leave a mark on the world. The league featured some of the NFL’s all-time greats such as Jim Kelly, Doug Flutie, Steve Young, Reggie White, and Herschel Walker. Longtime New Orleans Saints QB Bobby Hebert helped the Panthers win the first USFL championship and was named the game’s MVP. And Oklahoma Sooner great RB Marcus Dupree got a shot at professional football with the New Orleans Breakers after injuries plagued his career in college. Coaching legends Marv Levy and Steve Spurrier also spent time in the USFL. And the league also was the home for two former wrestling stars: Lex Luger and Ron Simmons.
The USFL’s legacy will always be remembered. The league’s use of the two-point conversion and instant replay can be seen in today’s NFL. ESPN released a great 30 for 30 documentary on the rise and fall of the league and footage can be seen all over today. From commercials to game replays to episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants, the rights to USFL footage is much cheaper than the NFL and is usually obtained more often.
Fans will always remember the USFL. It was about the closest a league has to come to reaching success. I think the main downfall of the league was the same problem that plagued many other leagues: over paying players to lure them away from the major league in the sports. The only difference was that the USFL was able to sustain the losses a little bit longer than others. If the league had stuck with a spring schedule, it may have survived even longer. But, in the end, the USFL has become just another lost league.
Daryl Karpinski Jr.