Larry Brodsky, the leading receiver of the USFL's Tampa Bay Bandits—the team that has promised to secede from the league on July 14 rather than play fall football in '86—thinks he has a handle on where he'll be next spring. "With Tel Aviv."
Zenon Andrusyshyn, the 37-year-old, German-born, Canadian-reared kicker for the Bandits, has a line on a team in the hinterlands. "Pencil me in with the Antarctic Stiffs," says the Z-Man. "They're in a winter league. They play year round."
Defensive end James Ramey will be packing for a much longer trip. "I'll be playing in the semidusk region of the planet Nemular," says Ramey, who has traipsed through the Florida bush in the middle of the night, a wire coat hanger attached to his head, searching for UFOs and listening to "communiqués" from other beings. "Nemular is near Zorn, on the other side of the moon. It's a lot cooler there than it is in Tampa. Besides, they play football without clothes on."
Pretending they'll be banished to outpost franchises in farfetched leagues is one of the ways the Tampa Bay Bandits stay sane these days. Ever since April 29, when John F. Bassett, the team's principal owner, said he would strike out on his own and prove that spring football can work, the Bandits have been unsure about the future. Here they are, members of the most successful and best-marketed franchise in the USFL—on Sunday they were tied for second in the Eastern Conference with a 9-5 record and averaging 32,000 fans per home game—and suddenly they feel as if they're wearing black hats, that they're outcasts, rebels, for their owner's cause. Marcus Quinn, the free safety, says, "We call Mr. Bassett 'the Al Davis of the USFL.' "
Bassett claims he's taking his team elsewhere, to a place where they play spring football. Where that is, only Bassett knows. He talks about "the new league," a yet-to-be-named, still-in-the-conceptual-stage, made-for-TV, worldwide sports and entertainment extravaganza. But to get a peek at the papers for Bassett's "new league," you've got to sign a confidentiality agreement—in triplicate. He says he has commitments from potential owners in 10 American cities. But he won't name the cities. He has no commitments from sponsors, and although sources say Bassett has shown his plan to ABC, no network has agreed to come aboard.
"To the outsider, this all looks like a lot of trauma," says Andrusyshyn, playing the part of team philosopher. "But we know we will determine our own fates. We've got to live for today, because who knows about tomorrow? Goals should be set in concrete, but plans should be sketched in sand."
Bassett remembers the day eight years ago when he promised his wife, Susan, that he wouldn't get involved in another sports venture. He had just survived a bout with skin cancer, and he had decided to mellow out—grow a beard, spend more time with his family, guide the tennis career of his daughter Carling and, above all else, get out of pro football.
He had grown up in Toronto, in a fiercely driven family that many consider to be Canada's Rockefellers. The family had made its fortune in newspapers, radio and television. John W., Bassett's father, was part owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1961 to '69, and until 1974 was the principal owner of the city's CFL Argonauts. John F, a member of the Canadian Davis Cup team in 1959, shared his father's taste for pro sports franchises; he served on the board of the Argonauts for several years and then was the owner of both the Birmingham Bulls of the WHA (1973-79) and the Memphis Southmen of the WFL (1973-75).
But when he made that promise to Susan, Bassett didn't figure the USFL would come along in 1982. "I wasn't even going to get involved," he says. "But I remember when I first met the other owners. I looked around the table. In the WFL, I was the richest owner, but in this league, I was among the poorest. That made me feel good, confident. I thought they'd really be astute, budget-conscious guys."
Bassett couldn't resist. He loved the USFL's concept: spring football on a shoestring budget. Pay big bucks to a superstar or two; pay the rest about $30,000 each. He wooed the Tampa fans. He was the People's Owner, and his Bandits were the People's Team. He created Bandit Ball—a wide-open, adventurous game on the field, complete with crazy marketing schemes off it. He burned mortgages. He gave away cars and a $1 million annuity. He kept his payroll in the bottom half of the league, and he stayed within his budget.