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Football: A Rite Or Wrong Of Spring?
William Oscar Johnson
May 23, 1983
Warm weather is here and attendance and TV ratings are falling, but the USFL is hardly withering
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May 23, 1983

Football: A Rite Or Wrong Of Spring?

Warm weather is here and attendance and TV ratings are falling, but the USFL is hardly withering

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One thing that has hurt attendance is the ABC contract, which gave the league such a formidable boost in its formative days. The deal provides for no TV blackouts for any home games, and this automatically undermines the stadium turnout. In Chicago, where the Blitz has produced a crazily disparate attendance pattern, ranging from a mere 10,936 in a March rain and sleet storm to 32,182 against the Generals, the team has had four of its last five home games on TV and is averaging 19,323 at the gate. Blitz President Ted Diethrich says, "The blackout is our problem. The network's position is: 'What you really want are visibility and exposure, don't worry about what happens at the stadium.' Our position is, yes, we do want visibility, but it would be nice to have fans in the seats, too."

The non-blackout provision was something the league itself suggested to ABC. Simmons says with a shrug, "We have to suck it up and do it. TV sells your product. The more people who see teams on TV, the more will become season-ticket buyers. It's the best promotional medium ever invented." However, USFL projections call for a whopping 70% of revenues to come from stadium attendance, with 30% from TV, a ratio that is just about exactly opposite that of the NFL. Thus, the revenue sacrifice over the two-year stretch of the ABC contract could be hefty if some easing of the no-blackout rule doesn't occur.

But then, none of the USFL's owners expected to make a profit for at least three seasons. Steve Ehrhart, the league's director of administration, says, "The estimate when we started was that each club must be ready and willing to lose as much as $6 million in the first three years. I think at this point there are some clubs that are precisely on that schedule: They will lose that amount of money. The rest won't do that badly." Jim Foster, director of marketing for the Arizona Wranglers, says, "Maybe it's a question of how long some of our owners will go with the flood of red ink. It's a great tax write-off for two, three years, but then the IRS comes tapping on your shoulder. Generally, our owners have very deep pockets. They're in it for the duration."

Obviously, some clubs look to be in for a longer duration than others. The moribund Boston Breakers, for example, are trapped in the rather suffocating and hostile confines of Boston University's 20,535-seat Nickerson Field, where they are averaging a pathetic 12,454 per game. Residents of the area surrounding the field are enraged over football fans parking on their streets, and local cops turn out in hordes oh game days to ticket and tow every illegally parked car they can find. The owners of the Breakers, including former Patriot Wide Receiver Randy Vataha, are said to be looking for another place to play. At the other end of the scale are the Tampa Bay Bandits, widely considered the USFL's "model franchise." It's owned by John Bassett, the Canadian sports and entertainment entrepreneur who was the only owner to rise unscathed out of the wreckage of the World Football League, which failed in 1975 after two years. Playing an exciting, pass-oriented brand of football called Bandit Ball and well managed in everything from souvenir marketing to halftime shows, the Bandits have drawn an average of 40,319 at home. The Bandits are one of three teams—the others are the Denver Gold and the Oakland Invaders—that could turn a profit this first season.

But as USFL folks keep telling us, money is no object. And for the moment at least, they may be right, because however pessimistic the sports-page Cassandras may be, a franchise in the league is now considered a precious prize. Indeed, the USFL office in Manhattan has received no fewer than 20 applications for expansion franchises. The price of applying is a refundable $50,000. The price of a franchise will be $6.25 million, and an additional $1.5 million letter of credit must be filed with the league office to underwrite any unforeseen crises—such as bankruptcies or unmet payrolls.

But wait a minute. Expansion? Expansion in a 12-team league where all forms of spectator involvement are falling off, where the average loss this year will be around $1.5 million per team? Can this be? Yes. And the increase next season will be at least four teams and very likely six.

The league already has announced it will have a team in Pittsburgh in 1984. The franchise will be owned by none other than Edward J. DeBartolo Sr., who was behind son Ed Jr.'s purchase of the NFL's San Francisco 49ers in 1977. The arrival of DeBartolo has been greeted with huzzahs by USFL men. Philadelphia Stars owner Myles H. Tanenbaum says, "There are different kinds of credibility for this league. One was ABC's business decision to buy rights to our games. Another is Ed DeBartolo's coming into our league. ABC and Ed have made the two most significant business judgments so far in regard to the future of this league." Besides Pittsburgh, there will be new teams in Houston and San Diego, and USFL insiders say Minneapolis, San Antonio, New Orleans, Miami, Jacksonville and Memphis are also in the running for new franchises.

The expansion isn't a bullish show of optimism but rather a matter of dollars and sense. "One big reason we're doing it is scheduling," says Simmons. "With 12 stadiums, it's an absolute bitch to set dates. We are the last tenant in all of our stadiums. Everyone is ahead of us: soccer, baseball, high school graduations. Also, we need more Sun Belt cities for the better weather in early spring. Besides that, we need to expand exposure of the league beyond the markets we're in now, which should increase the ratings. And even though we are financially solid, there's the matter of the revenue we get from the start-up money for these new franchises."

All right, so the USFL brand of football will reach out and touch more Americans than ever next season. But do Americans want to be touched by it? The real question about USFL football is one of quality, not quantity. As Simmons puts it, "Whether we succeed or fail depends on how people perceive the game we play. If there are constant bad games, dull games, low scores, slow decisions by officials, unimaginative play-calling—that'll kill us before anything else. No one expected us to play NFL-caliber ball, and we certainly aren't. Of 600 players in the USFL, I think 500 are either rookies or players with one year of pro experience. We have more rookies than the AFL had when it started in 1960. But we are also in far better shape than the AFL was in its early years. People thought they were much more rinky-dink than we are, a total Mickey Mouse operation. I was at ABC and we televised those first AFL years. I know what I'm talking about. The USFL is light-years beyond the AFL in its first year."

Ah, yes, the American Football League. This is the league the USFL is most often compared with these days—not with that more recent suicidal mess, the WFL. This in itself puts the USFL in a much better credibility bracket. And using numbers alone, the USFL even seems to be substantially ahead of where the AFL was in its earliest days. Whereas the USFL averages more than 25,000 in attendance, the AFL had a 17,000 average in its first year, 1960—these were pro football's pre-boom days; the NFL drew 42,000 a game that season—and didn't average 25,000 until its fourth year. As for TV ratings—all in the much riper autumn/winter viewing season, remember—the AFL averaged 5.8 its first year (while the NFL was getting 10.6), and for its first five years on the tube it averaged 6.6 (the NFL over that span: 13.4).

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