USFL Commissioner Chet Simmons

USFL Origins: The Dixon Plan

David Dixon, a New Orleans businessman, had been around pro sports – and especially football – since the early 1960s. He had an agreement in 1961 to purchase the fledgling Oakland Raiders with plans to move them to New Orleans. But the mayor of Oakland interceded and the rest as they say, was history (writ large by Al Davis).

A few years later, Dixon was integral in bringing pro football to his hometown. The NFL granted a franchise to Dixon and partner John W. Mecom in November of 1966. The team began play the next season as the New Orleans Saints. That same year Dixon convinced friend (and AFL founder/Kansas City Chiefs owner) Lamar Hunt to finance World Championship Tennis (WCT). WCT signed seven of the top ten male players and had a key role in the rise of popularity of professional tennis over the next decade.

By the start of the 80s, Dixon was no longer an owner of the Saints and revisited an idea he had conceived back in 1965 for a pro football league that would play its games in the spring and early summer instead of the traditional fall/winter football season. In 1965 he called his proposed circuit the United States Football League. When he returned to the idea 15 years later, he resurrected the moniker.

Dixon had a front row seat to the trials and successes of the two most recent challengers to the National Football League’s dominance of pro football: the American Football League (of which he almost became a franchise owner) and the World Football League in the 1970s. The success of the AFL and the spectacular failure of the WFL gave him some significant insight into how a successful pro football league should be launched.

He paid for a study by Frank Magid Associates in 1980 to test the ground for a spring/summer football league. The results were promising. He had also devised a blueprint, based on his experience and observations, for his proposed league’s operations. This blueprint included:

  • A national television contract to raise the league’s visibility across the country and provide guaranteed income during the tenuous early years
  • Teams located in sizable media markets (which would help in securing that national TV contract)
  • Heavy local promotion by the individual teams
  • Owners willing to absorb financial losses while the league grew towards stability and profitability
  • A modest cap on player salaries – key to keeping financial losses manageable
  • As a corollary to the above: no bidding wars with the established (and much wealthier) NFL for players

It took almost two years from his initial study to the announcement at New York’s 21 Club on May 11, 1982, but Dixon’s United States Football League would begin play in the spring of 1983. The spring and summer schedule precluded direct competition with the NFL’s entrenched fan following in the fall and winter months. The league would start play with twelve teams – nine of them in NFL markets and all of them in the top 13 media markets in the U.S.

The first commissioner of the USFL would be ESPN president Chet Simmons. This announcement was soon followed by the signing of television contracts with both the ABC network and the still-new ESPN that would cover both over-the-air and cable outlets, but more importantly provide $13 million for the 1983 season and $16 million for 1984 with ABC holding a $14 million option for ’85 and an $18 million option for ’86.

Dixon’s blueprint outlined an expansion to no more than 16 teams for the 1984 season. Dixon held an option for a team of his own, but decided to not exercise that option for 1983 in order to concentrate on helping get the league launched. For the sake of the league, Dixon now had to hope that his owners would follow the blueprint and avoid “big splash” type signings and head-to-head bidding wars with the NFL as he realized that would be the road to ruin.

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