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Did Trump's Greed/Mismanagement Cause the USFL to Fold?

Since the old American Football League merged with the National Football League (NFL) in the mid-1960's, it could be argued that the NFL has been unchallenged as the predominant professional sports enterprise in the United States. It generates billions of dollars of revenue every year; its franchises are worth hundreds of millions of dollars apiece, with some now worth over a billion dollars; and its annual championship game, the Super Bowl, has become a cultural institution with close to a third of the country regularly watching the game.

And despite various scandals involving its players (drugs, domestic violence, even the occasional murder) and the league itself (refusal to acknowledge the game's responsibility for long-term brain damage), the NFL still reigns supreme. Various other indoor and outdoor football leagues have come and gone over the years, but none has successfully challenged the NFL. Except for one.

The United States Football League (USFL) was formed in the 1980's and, for three years (1983-1985), it threw a scare into the NFL hierarchy. It had aggressive owners who signed high profile players and coaches, tweaked the game's rules to make the game even more appealing to the fans, and was smart enough not to go head to head with the NFL, but to schedule it's season during the spring, a period of time during which the NFL was dormant. The league attracted many fans, fans who bought seats in the stadiums and fans who watched the games on television.

So what went wrong? Some of the USFL teams did have financial issues but, according to the ESPN 30-for-30 documentary, Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?, the main culprit in the league having folded was the second owner of the league's New Jersey Generals franchise, Donald Trump.

(Generals' Coach Walt Michaels, Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie, Owner Donald Trump; image from AP)

Trump purchased the Generals in 1984 but most observers who studied the Generals think he didn't understand either the sport or the business of football and the consensus appears to be that he didn't really care about the long-term viability of the USFL. He used the ownership of the Generals as another means of doing what he always has done well, promoting himself. As the very visible owner of the Generals, he was adept at getting himself in the news, whether by signing star players or pontificating on how the USFL as a league should be run.

But the ESPN documentary also argues that one of Trump's primary goals was to parley his ownership of a USFL franchise into the ownership of an NFL franchise, and to get that NFL ownership for pennies on the dollar. In other words, Trump saw professional football as another way to make money and he wanted to do it quickly.

Given the success that the USFL was having, Trump was hoping that the NFL would offer to merge the most financially secure USFL teams into the NFL, much as the AFL teams had been merged into the league during the 1960's. And as a carrot to join the NFL, the thinking was that those USFL franchise owners would have to pay only a minimal entrance fee to convert their franchises into NFL franchises. Once in the NFL, the value of those franchises would jump dramatically. So Trump would have his valuable NFL franchise for just a fraction of its actual value.

The Trump strategy to force the NFL to offer a quick merger was two-fold: sue the NFL on anti-trust grounds and move the USFL season from the spring to the fall in order to challenge the NFL head-to-head. Most of the people who understood the sport thought the latter was foolish. They recognized that, while the USFL had made some high profile signings of college and NFL players, the league did not yet have enough quality players to challenge the NFL. The league's success primarily was due to the fact that the USFL played its games in the spring when the NFL was not playing. If the league continued to build on what it already had achieved, it might reach a point where a merger would become viable. But that was years away and Trump didn't want to wait.

Rather, ESPN says that Trump pushed forward and used his reputation and bullying tactics to force the other USFL owners to move the 1986 season from the spring to the fall. And once again, Trump had luck on his side. The owner of the USFL's Tampa Bandits franchise, John Bassett, was adamantly opposed to the idea of a fall season and was not afraid to push back against Trump. But Bassett was struck with inoperable brain cancer and was unable to participate in the in-fighting necessary to oppose Trump.

(Generals' running back and another Heisman winner, Herschel Walker; image from Pinterest)

The other league owners eventually agreed to the Trump proposal of a fall season. But then, not surprisingly, the league began having trouble finding a television network to cover its games. The networks knew that it was the spring season that made the USFL viable, and that viewership of the USFL would plummet if its games were played during the NFL and college football seasons.

Without a television contract and, almost simultaneously, with the league winning its anti-trust lawsuit against the NFL, but only being awarded damages of $3.00, the USFL closed operations even before starting the 1986 season.

Instead of being a smart businessman and taking the time necessary to continue building up the league and thereby becoming a viable competitor to the NFL, Trump decided to roll the dice in an all-or-nothing bid to immediately force a merger. He lost and the USFL went the way of the Trump Shuttle, Trump Vodka, Trump Steaks, and the many other Trump ventures that have failed over the years.

The NFL rolls on, however, a powerhouse that no one has come close to challenging since the 1980's when an upstart league with an initially smart business plan threw their hat into the ring.

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