Of all the mournful aspects of the USFL, this one gets the prize: The networks have told the league to drop dead if it insists on moving its '86 season to the fall. Eddie Einhorn, the owner of the Chicago Blitz, who will not operate this season, was talking big a few months ago about landing a long-term network deal for a fall schedule, but last week he turned over his TV negotiator's hat to new USFL commissioner Harry Usher. "I'm sure a lot of guys are disappointed with me that I didn't come back with a deal," Einhorn says, "but I never promised them a rose garden." Trouble is, he didn't even deliver a rock garden. Network interest in the USFL, at least as a fall league, is nil. ABC will pay $14 million to broadcast 22 1985 USFL games, beginning Sunday. Feb. 24, and then the plug apparently will be pulled.
Where does this leave the first-ever made-for-TV football league? In search of its raison d'�tre, not to mention hundreds of millions of dollars. True, ESPN will pay a total of $70 million for at least 50 games in each of the next three seasons. But to cover their shamefully undisciplined spending, the USFL prodigals need a chunk of the $500 million or so the networks annually pay the NFL. The justification for the USFL's money grab is appalling. We just couldn't control ourselves, some of the owners are saying in effect, so let us in on the big action in the NFL.
In five months Einhorn failed to connect on a single pass in his talks with the networks. Every time he fired, the ball went out of bounds or was intercepted. His principal scenario was for CBS and NBC to alternate coverage of a single USFL game on successive Sunday afternoons (currently, the two networks alternate coverage of an NFL doubleheader, leaving a single "window" for a weekly USFL game). Einhorn had reasoned that the USFL would be a powerful lever for the networks to use against the NFL in their TV negotiations next year. Forget it, the networks said.
Einhorn, who as co-owner of the Chicago White Sox helped negotiate a $1.2 billion TV deal for baseball in 1983, then began to play the other cards in his hand. He tried to peddle the USFL on Saturdays. He offered it exclusively to ABC on Sunday afternoons, hoping ABC might bite because it has no pro football in that time slot. He offered it for $36 million in '86 to any two networks that would commit to $75 million in '87. He tried to swing deals in which rights payments would be tied to the ratings. He came down to $8 million and then $4 million for '86, and finally offered the 1986 playoffs to CBS for free if the network would sign on for '87. No one even nibbled. "I started to feel like a pest," Einhorn says.
The USFL's ratings went from 6.0 in the inaugural year of '83 to 5.5 in '84 (the NFL's composite '84 season rating was 14.0), but ratings weren't the real reason for the freeze-out. The problem was football glut; there's already too much football on the tube in the fall. An additional football package, the network executives felt, would depress the market even more, drive down advertising rates and erode their revenue bases.
Einhorn, a successful packager of college basketball games before buying into the White Sox, says he knew he was in deep trouble when CBS rejected his offer of free playoff rights for '86. He claims the NFL and its "unwilling accomplices," the networks, have rigged the market. "Hey, I'm not stupid," Einhorn says. "I know the scene. When the product getting better doesn't make any difference, when the price of the rights doesn't make any difference, when the fact that I've got a Saturday opening doesn't make any difference, do you need a picture, do you need a Degas painting, to tell you what's happening? The fix is in."
Of course, an equally plausible explanation is that not enough viewers give a holler about the USFL to justify fall coverage by the networks. Einhorn's charges of network price fixing are "totally absurd," says ABC Sports vice-president Jim Spence. As for the advertisers, they're essentially asking, "Who wants this?" according to Backer & Spielvogel's Steve Leff, who handles the sports-oriented Miller Beer account. "Believe me, if a whole pile of advertisers were all over ABC saying, 'Put this on Sunday, we're gonna sponsor it!' they'd do it so fast your socks would drop."
Whatever the case, the networks have put out the NO VACANCY sign for USFL telecasts in the fall. Usher will try to reopen discussions with the networks. He's not exactly a novice in TV matters. His best hope, though, may be Congress and the courts. Conceivably, they may do for the USFL what Einhorn couldn't: force the NFL back to two networks. As for a merger, Einhorn turns cheerful: "They can take us in. and that will be the end of it." Of course, Fast Eddie and his flamboyant peers would then be joining the alleged monopoly they now find so repugnant.