As the USFL begins its third, and presumably last, spring season, its life signs are not exactly robust. All told, team owners have lost $100 million, and, so far, the league has struck out in its attempts to get a crucial network TV contract for 1986, when it switches to a fall schedule (see page 28). But there is one tantalizing unknown—the Flutie Factor, Can seven-million-dollar-man Doug Flutie transfer his magic to the USFL and. Joe Namath reincarnate, lead it to full houses, new TV riches and perhaps a merger with the NFL?
Those who believe there will be an autumnal flowering of the USFL are counting heavily on Flutie and on the acumen of the league's new commissioner, Harry Usher. He, too, comes to the USFL trailing clouds of glory, having been Peter Ueberroth's right-hand man in the organization of the hugely successful Los Angeles Olympics.
But Flutie's miracle pass for Boston College against the University of Miami last fall was one thing. Salvaging a whole league is another. And it is a league that has been a house divided over a central issue—whether to move slowly, making prudent expenditures for players, or to engage in a superstar war with the NFL. "Crawling before we walked, walking before we ran, running before we flew" was the original credo, as John Bassett, the Tampa Bay Bandits' principal owner, expressed it.
Cracks in the facade appeared as the New Jersey Generals, Flutie's new team, plucked running back Herschel Walker out of school in Georgia. He has a $6 million, four-year contract. Then in 1984 came a 43-year, $36 million deal for quarterback Steve Young with the Los Angeles Express; $3 million from the Pittsburgh Maulers for Walker's successor as the Heisman Trophy winner, running back Mike Rozier; and $6 million from the New Orleans (now Portland) Breakers (see page 32) for Oklahoma dropout Marcus Dupree, still another heralded runner. Now it's Flutie himself.
"[Those owners] went to the hip too quickly," says Bassett. "But there is that psychic reward," says Usher, "a psychic income that comes from owning a pro football team."
Not entirely content with psychic revenue, the owners have brought a $1.32 billion antitrust suit against the NFL, charging it with monopolizing professional football.
Whether the suit will produce some black ink on the ledgers is debatable; what's not is that the USFL's growing pains have been painful indeed. The number of teams in the league has shrunk from 18 in 1984 to 14 today, and there are other concerns:
•The league has assumed ownership of the failing Express franchise and is keeping a close watch on the struggling Houston team.
•Only two teams, Tampa Bay and Birmingham, have the same coach, owner and home stadium they started with. The Michigan Panthers, the first-year champions, merged with Oakland. Oklahoma merged with Arizona, which had been the Chicago Blitz. Arizona coach George Allen retired and was replaced by Frank Kush, the former Arizona State (and Baltimore and Indianapolis Colts) coach, who is returning to Sun Devil Stadium. One wealthy owner, A. Alfred Taubman of Michigan, pulled out. Taubman, who bought Sotheby's auction house in London last year, is the low-profile type.
•The defending champion Stars, supposedly the league's epitome of stability, merged with Pittsburgh and moved from Philadelphia to Baltimore to Byrd Stadium in College Park, Md. in one eventful off-season.