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I'm not sure I like playing football in the spring. I still think of it as a fall sport.
So spoke the Himself of spring football last week—the USFL's centerpiece star, Herschel Walker. In expressing his own sense of displacement and vague discontent, he was speaking for millions of American football fans who apparently are also not sure they like football in the spring. Walker's remarks were underlined in bleak fashion the very night after he uttered them. His New Jersey Generals played the Birmingham Stallions and suffered their seventh loss in 10 games. Walker, who fell flat in his ballyhooed pro debut back in March and then exploded in an amazing streak of five games, during which he averaged 152.4 yards and took the league's rushing lead, suffered even greater humiliation by gaining a scant 28 yards in 11 carries against the Stallions. Except for one game at Georgia when he had a broken thumb, this was the lowest total of Walker's life.
You really can't blame that dismal performance entirely on the fact that the game was played in May instead of November. However, there's a question abroad in the land as to whether the whole idea of the USFL's Other Season is working any better than Walker did against Birmingham. Though the league is now entering only its 12th week, a lot of folks have been quick to answer in the negative. Particularly newspaper people such as Rocky Mountain News columnist Dick Connor, who wrote, "Bo-ring. The numbers are slipping, and as the weather warms, it could get worse. The USFL is suffering from a serious lack of interest." And John Schulian of the Chicago Sun-Times: "Would someone please tell me why the USFL hasn't vanished in the night like a platoon of shady rug merchants working out of the trunks of their cars?...What we're talking about here is terminal anonymity." And Glenn Sheeley of The Atlanta Journal: "People aren't talking about why they dislike USFL games. That's the problem. They aren't talking at all."
The funeral drums for the USFL beat louder every day. Given the grave statistical signs that have suddenly popped up, the situation does look deadly. Take television. The league's opening Sunday games, on ABC March 6, found the USFL riding a wave of national curiosity, primarily because of the signing of Walker 12 days before. That afternoon produced a spectacular rating of 14.2 (the percentage of all TV homes in the U.S. tuned to the games) and a share of 33 (the percentage of the TV sets on at the time that were tuned to the USFL). That was only a little less than an average NFL rating on CBS—16.5 last year. Since that first starburst statistic, ABC's Sunday game ratings and share have fallen steadily, dropping to 7.4/21 the second Sunday and to 5.0/14 on May 1 and a horrendous 4.2/12 on May 8, the most recent date for which national figures are available. ESPN, which beams prime-time games every Saturday and Monday, started with a 5.0 rating (extremely good for cable) and had a 2.2 last week, which, in fact, isn't bad.
As for attendance, again there's a falling barometer. The league totaled 235,023 the first week, a whopping 39,171 per stadium. Since then crowds have dwindled and dwindled. Games of the 10th week drew 128,059, a relatively pitiful average of 21,343 per game.
What's going on here? And, more important, what's going to go on next? Is the fate of the USFL already sealed? Well, if an early demise is the prognosis, the victim is certainly unaware of the seriousness of the illness. Chet Simmons, 54, the peripatetic former TV sports executive (ABC, NBC and ESPN) who was named USFL commissioner last summer, says, "When people ask me what's wrong with the league, I say, 'Well, it's not My Fair Lady but it's not "The Ugly Duckling" either.' Look, it's barely a year since formation of the league was even announced. Then ABC said it would cover us, then ESPN, then we hired name coaches, then we held the draft, then we signed Herschel—the timing was terrific. We were building up to the start of the season with incredible momentum. But the problem was that things were going too well. People expected the child to be born a full-grown adult. It didn't happen. This operation is in its infancy. People simply have been expecting too much."
Last week, even in the face of those ugly-duckling numbers, everyone with a stake in the USFL—from Simmons to the owners to the players to the folks at ABC and ESPN—everyone claimed that none of those numbers were as catastrophic as they seemed. Take the falling TV ratings. Jim Spence, ABC Sports senior vice-president, says with utmost tranquillity: "In the spring, ratings always fall. People go outside more as the weather gets better. There's no way to generate audience levels in spring and summer as we do in the fall. I can tell you now that our ratings will not go up in the last six or seven weeks of the regular season."
Despite the continuing drop, ABC's ratings for the first 10 weeks of the season averaged a relatively hearty 7.0. Even throwing out the monster rating of 14.2 that first big day, the network still boasts a respectable 6.7 for its Sunday afternoon football telecasts. By comparison, the same ABC time period on Sundays last year, pre-USFL, pulled a 5.6 average rating in March and April for a mix of sports events and shows such as Superstars. Then, bearing out Spence's thesis, the average fell in May, June and early July to a tepid 4.1. This year the NBA playoffs on CBS on Sunday afternoons through May 8 had been averaging 8.0, baseball 6.2 on NBC on Saturdays. At this point it seems very unlikely that USFL average ratings will fall below a mid-6 for the year—particularly with the expected rise in fan interest for the playoffs and the championship game in July. That's better than expected. ABC predicted an average 5 rating when it set its rate in selling commercial time to advertisers at $30,000 per 30-second spot. The network will make a profit on that figure and be able to raise its rate next season.
And what of ESPN's numbers? In cable television, a 2.0 rating is considered a sweet reward in prime time. Not sensational but very good. ESPN's ratings have ranged from a high of 5.3 (both on March 21 and April 25) to a low of 2.2 on May 7. As Scotty Connal, chief operating officer of ESPN, says, "Our live USFL telecasts rank as the highest regular programming on ESPN, and our 3.6 average almost doubles the rating average of all our prime-time programming."
And attendance? Simmons speaks with the optimism that his job requires: "Statistically, we are a success already. We have attracted more than a million and a half fans. I said when this thing started that if we were able to average 25,000 people per game this first year, we would be in good shape. For our first 10 weeks we averaged 25,377. If we start falling below a 25,000 average, O.K., it may show a problem. Look, if we were drawing, say, 5,000 to the average game and we were pulling 2 ratings on TV—then we might consider this a failure. But not now, not when we're doing better than any of us ever thought."