Pete Rozelle

NFL: Facing Challengers

The National Football League itself played a role in the formation (and ultimate destruction) of the USFL. The NFL was, by 1983, a long established league with history going back over 60 years. It was also a league that had been challenged, again and again, during the course of those six decades. There had been several “American Football Leagues” before the one that started in 1960; these were leagues that were hoping to force a sort of two-league system that existed in Major League Baseball. None of them were particularly successful and none achieved their goal.

The first successful challenger was the All-American Football Conference (AAFC) that had launched in the heady days just after America’s victory in World War II. The league itself ultimately forced a merger with the NFL and though few today relate the teams to their AAFC origins, such stalwart NFL franchises as the Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers started out in the AAFC. The Indianapolis Colts trace their history back to the AAFC as well, but though the Colts did merge into the NFL, that original franchise folded after their first NFL season, and returned three seasons later, so the team may or may not be linked depending on how literal someone wants to be.

A decade after the 1950 merger, the most successful challenger to the NFL arose in the American Football League. This last iteration of the AFL was successful because the founding owners were willing to absorb some losses early on, but mainly for two reasons: the league was able to sign a lucrative TV contract with ABC (and later NBC) and it’s brand of football was more offensive-oriented than the more stodgy, old-school NFL flavor. The AFL was able to lure some NFL players, but built its own stars largely from the college ranks, signing top players (and missing out on others). The league prospered in markets where the NFL had no presence – places like Kansas City, San Diego, Denver and Boston drew in football hungry fans while the league got a marquee player in the nation’s top market when Alabama QB Joe Namath, with a huge personality, chose the New York Jets over the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals. With player salaries spiraling ever higher, the NFL agreed to merger talks and an agreement was reached in 1966. The Super Bowl was born and the AFL eventually folded into the NFL as the basis of the American Football Conference in 1970 (the Browns, Steelers and Colts switched to the AFC to balance out the conferences).

The most recent challenger to the NFL prior to the USFL was the World Football League. Announced in 1973 and starting play the following year, the league was the brainchild of Gary Davidson who was behind the American Basketall Association and World Hockey League, both of which were successful enough to get several of their teams into the established NBA and NHL respectively. The WFL would not be anywhere near as successful. Davidson felt that because both the NFL and Canadian Football League had gone through player strikes recently due to low wages (the NFL’s salaries were the lowest among the four major American sports) the new league would be able to poach players from both. John F. Bassett, who owned the Toronto entry (and would be a USFL owner as well) signed three Miami Dolphins (Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield) for a big $3.5 million combined contract for the 1975 season. In a precursor of what would help doom the USFL, this was a personal services contract payable even if the team – or league – folded.

The WFL season was 20 weeks long, six weeks longer than the-then 14-week NFL season and both started and ended earlier than the NFL season. The league also would not play on Sundays to

Larry Csonka, Paul Warfield and Jim Kiick in the WFL
Larry Csonka, Paul Warfield and Jim Kiick in the WFL

avoid direct competition during the NFL season. None of that really mattered – franchise shifts, poor financing, teams folding, all occurred too frequently for fans – or players – to find the WFL attractive. After a shortened second season in 1975, the league folded. Ultimately the WFL was a cautionary tale for David Dixon when he formed the USFL and should have been one for the owners. Unfortunately for them (and the USFL) they started making the same mistakes, even before the league played a down.

Throughout all of this the NFL always emerged in the prominent position and strengthened by the challenge. Sometimes this was by the addition of new franchises, and even in cases such as the WFL the league snatched up any promising players or coaches found by the challengers. By 1983 the NFL was a stable monolith with 28 teams spread across the nation. It had long-standing relationships and contracts with all three major television networks and a large and devoted following in nearly every team’s home city. And, aside from the ever-rebellious Al Davis who moved his Raiders from Oakland to Los Angeles in 1982 after fighting & winning a legal battle against the NFL, the league’s owners presented a united front behind commissioner Pete Rozelle.

But the league was not without its concerns. Just the previous year, the NFL Player’s Association had gone on strike for the second time in its history (the other being 1974 during the WFL’s challenge to the league). The players demanded a guaranteed percentage of gross revenue – 55% – in salaries. The owners refused and the players went on strike on September 21, 1982. The strike itself lasted 57 days and ended on November 16, wiping out seven weeks of games and shortening the season to just nine games. The playoffs were expanded into a “Super Bowl Tournament” with 16 teams – more than half the league’s membership – making the playoffs. During the strike broadcasters scrambled for content, trying Canadian and D-III college games while the NFL had two “All-Star” games with rosters of picket-line crossing players looking to make some money during the strike. All of the above – including the All-Star games – failed to draw much public notice or following.

Both sides were hurting during the strike, and the players began to crack first, forcing NFLPA Director Ed Garvey out, and replacing him with former player Gene Upshaw. The upshot of the strike was that the union would now get copies of all player contracts, and the players would receive severance pay, an increase in salary and post-season payouts, and bonuses based on years of service. But the players still felt underpaid and as of 1983, there would be a new place for them to ply their craft.

The USFL didn’t make a huge dent in the league in 1983. The biggest splashes in terms of players came via college with the biggest of all (Herschel Walker) being a player who was ineligible for the NFL until the 1985 season. The veterans who jumped were mostly just that – veterans nearing the ends of their careers. No established, in-his-prime star jumped that first season. Donald Trump’s money lured Brian Sipe from the Browns and Gary Barbaro from the Chiefs in 1984. Doug Williams, who had been lowballed into leaving the Buccaneers in ’82, joined the Oklahoma Outlaws for the ’84 season – and of course Jim Kelly, who had spurned the Bills in ’83, joined the Houston Gamblers in ’84. Three other future Hall of Famers – Steve Young, Gary Zimmerman and Reggie White – all came out of college into the USFL in ’84. The final USFL season of ’85 was even less impactful as teams started running out of money – only Doug Flutie of BC chose the USFL over the NFL and he was considered a marginal prospect by the NFL due to his lack of height at the QB position.

When the NFL lost (but really won) the anti-trust suit against the USFL in 1986 the war with the new league was over and the NFL again emerged stronger. All the USFL’s stars joined NFL teams. The league’s best coach, Jim Mora, agreed to coach the New Orleans Saints even before the lawsuit had been decided and Marv Levy, the last coach of the Chicago Blitz, returned to the NFL in 1986 and went on to coach the Bills to four Super Bowls, ultimately ending up in the Hall of Fame himself.

But how might the NFL been impacted if the USFL had adhered to David Dixon’s blueprint? Might the USFL have lasted longer – maybe even survived as a strong spring football outlet, coexisting with the NFL on some level?

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