The USFL is relaunching in 2022, four decades after the spring football league’s short-lived run that featured such gridiron stars as Reggie White, Herschel Walker, Steve Young, Jim Kelly and future president Donald Trump.
The new USFL announced Thursday it will play next spring with a minimum of eight teams ‘and deliver high-quality, innovative professional football to fans.’
The original USFL was launched in 1983, but crumbled after three seasons because of out-of-control spending and an ill-conceived push led by Trump, owner of the New Jersey Generals, to compete directly against the NFL with a fall season.
Launched originally to serve as more of a complement to the NFL than a direct competitor, the USFL helped change professional football in its short lifespan.
Although those teams, along with the cities, head coaches and schedules won’t be announced until later, the league said it retains the rights to ‘key original team names.’
The new USFL also is using the same red, white and blue stars-and-stripes logo it did from 1983-85.
Fox Sports, which has a minority equity stake in the company that owns the new USFL, will serve as the league’s official broadcast partner.
‘I’m extremely passionate about football and the opportunity to work with Fox Sports and to bring back the USFL in 2022 was an endeavor worth pursuing,’ said Brian Woods, co-founder of the new USFL and founder and CEO of The Spring League.
‘We look forward to providing players a new opportunity to compete in a professional football league and giving fans everywhere the best football viewing product possible during what is typically a period devoid of professional football.’
Fox CEO and executive producer Eric Shanks called the USFL’s relaunch ‘a landmark day for football fans and Fox Sports.’
‘Football is in our DNA and the return of this innovative and iconic league is a fantastic addition to our robust slate of football programming,’ Shanks said.
The original USFL featured rules innovations, helped usher in underclassmen being drafted by the NFL and pushed the league to pay bigger salaries and create real free agency.
In the end, the USFL’s most enduring legacy was the $3 judgment it ‘won’ in an antitrust suit against the NFL, a ruling that finished off the league in 1986 before it carried out a Trump-backed move from spring to fall.
‘There’s no question everybody appreciated him coming into the league at the time,’ Canadian businessman and owner of the Tampa Bay Bandits John Bassett told Esquire in 2016. ‘They needed New York to succeed. Everybody really respected what he was doing in that second year of the league.
‘What caused tension was [Trump] began pushing the tape, saying we needed to be playing in the fall, we have to go for it. Some of the other owners in different markets said we need to stay in the spring, that they had too many guns in the NFL. To some degree, both were right.’
‘He was the Pied Piper and these other desperate owners went along for the ride,’ Charley Steiner, the radio voice of the Generals, told Esquire in 2016. ‘It all happened in a flash. Then the USFL was dead and gone and he moved on to the next thing, which was Atlantic City. Which didn’t work out too well, either.’
According to best-selling author Jeff Pearlman’s book about the defunct league, ‘Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL,’ the check was kept in a safety deposit box by Memphis Showboats general manager Steve Erhart.
More recently Erhart loaned it to the Pro Football Hall of Fame for the institution’s USFL exhibit. (The check was written for $3.76 to reflect the interest earned during litigation)
‘Basically what the jury decided was that the USFL was right in everything they were saying, that the NFL had a monopoly on TV and that the NFL was actively trying to kill the USFL, but ultimately the jury decided that it was the USFL’s fault and that they couldn’t get out of their own way,’ Pearlman told DailyMail.com in 2019.
Most significantly, the jury did not find that the NFL attempted to force networks to drop USFL coverage.
The USFL’s truncated history is defined by several clear mistakes, like the decision to add six new franchises after a promising inaugural season in 1983. But perhaps the bigger misstep was choosing to move its season to the fall in 1985 and challenge the NFL directly – a decision that was influenced heavily by Trump.
‘In the lead-up to buying the team, he was all about spring football and how great the league was, and, “I love what the USFL is doing and blah blah blah,” Pearlman said. ‘He gets approved as an owner, he buys the team, and immediately: “We need to move to fall; we need to take on the NFL.”‘
‘His big line was: “If God wanted football in the spring, he wouldn’t have invented baseball.”‘
Trump famously tried and failed to purchase NFL franchises on several occasions – first in 1981 with the Baltimore Colts and most recently with the Buffalo Bills in 2014 – but in the early 1980s, he saw the USFL as a backchannel towards ownership in the more popular league.
According to interviews conducted by Pearlman, Trump’s initial plan was to have the USFL fold and the NFL absorb the Generals as an expansion franchise.
However, during a meeting with then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle in New York City’s Pierre Hotel in 1984, that plan was foiled.
‘He basically said to Rozelle,’ Pearlman explained, ‘”I don’t really give a s*** about the USFL. I want an NFL team. What do I have to do to get in the NFL?”‘
‘It was basically an offer to throw the USFL under the bus.’
Trump did not get the answer he was looking for.
‘Rozelle said to him, “As long as I’m the commissioner, you’re never going to have a team,”‘ Pearlman continued. ‘He didn’t trust him. He thought he was a scumbag. He didn’t say, “I think you’re a scumbag,” but Rozelle made his feelings toward Trump very well known. [Rozelle] also made them well known during the trial when he testified.’
That testimony came about in 1986 after Trump had convinced his fellow USFL owners to file an anti-monopoly lawsuit against the NFL.
When called to the stand, Trump had claimed that Rozelle promised him an NFL franchise at that 1984 meeting if he could persuade the USFL to stick with a spring schedule and refrain from filing the antitrust suit.
Rozelle testified that Trump’s claim was untrue, but one former USFL owner used a different term to describe the real estate mogul’s testimony.
‘I got an email from another USFL owner,’ said Pearlman. ‘And this is a guy that actually voted for Trump – and he said to me: ‘I read the book. I wish you would have talked more about how Trump lied under oath because that always pissed me off.’
According to Pearlman, Trump had assured his fellow owners that the USFL would win the suit, pointing to his choice of notorious former Senator Joseph McCarthy attorney Roy Cohn. Technically Trump was right, the NFL lost, but the USFL’s efforts were ultimately doomed by several costly errors.
‘One of the other owners, Jerry Argovitz of the Houston Gamblers, begged Trump not to file the suit in New York,’ Pearlman said. ‘He said [the jury] wouldn’t be sympathetic to plaintiffs… Trump says: “No, no, New York’s my home town. I know it well.”‘
Trump was apparently wrong.
Even before the jury decided to reduce the settlement to $1, Trump’s testimony and even his presence in the courtroom seemed to irk one juror.
‘I interviewed one of the jurors,’ Pearlman said. ‘She was saying how Trump was just the worst witness of all time.
‘The whole goal of the USFL was to paint the NFL as the bully,’ Pearlman continued. ‘Trump goes on the stand and he’s a bully, he’s a thug. She told me she vividly remembered Trump trying to intimidate the jurors from the stand by staring them down.
‘His testimony was disastrous,’ Pearlman continued. ‘He wasn’t believable. He lied under oath about Pete Rozelle offering him a team. It was really David vs. Goliath. But the NFL was somehow able to turn the USFL into the Goliath and Trump into this unbelievable charlatan. And [the USFL] ended up winning a dollar.’
Unable to pay its bills, the league folded before the 1986 season, which was crushing to Pearlman, a devoted fan.
‘I grew up loving the league,’ said Pearlman. ‘It’s a book I wanted to write really forever and ever and ever – way before Trump was a political figure. When I was a kid, I just absorbed everything about the league for its three years.’
Interestingly, Pearlman, a native New Yorker, was a major fan of Trump’s Generals, and even Trump as an owner.
‘Not only was I a fan – he was a great owner,’ said Pearlman. ‘If you weren’t thinking about the league’s overall health, if you were just a fan of the Generals, he was the best owner in the USFL because he was bringing in big-name players and he was paying them all. A lot of the owners couldn’t afford their bills. He could and always paid for everything.’
Well, almost everything.
In 1985, after signing former Boston College star and Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie for $7 million over five seasons, Trump wrote a letter to the league asking the other owners to shoulder the cost.
‘I would appreciate your putting on the next agenda the allocation of Doug Flutie’s costs to each team,’ read the letter addressed to USFL commissioner Harry Usher. ‘The money will be returned when he plays at away games and fills additional seats.’
Trump was not the original owner of the Generals, but bought the team from Oklahoma oil tycoon J. Walter Duncan, who only purchased the franchise as a favor when Trump initially backed out before the 1983 season.
As Pearlman explains it, the league had an owners meeting in San Francisco in 1982 that Trump was expected to join as the presumed owner of the New York franchise – the team in the USFL’s largest media market.
‘[The other owners are] waiting and waiting and he doesn’t show up,’ Pearlman said. ‘Finally the phone rings in the conference room and it’s Trump and he’s basically like: “Yeah, so I’m not coming. I got some other stuff I got to work on. I decided I’m not going to do this, but good luck to you guys. I hope it all works out.”
‘And they’re like, “S***!” Pearlman said. ‘”There goes our New York team.” People were really devastated.’
Curiously, some of the sources for Pearlman’s book remember Trump sitting throughout the national anthem – an obvious departure from his stance during his presidency, when he heavily criticized NFL players for protesting during The Star-Spangled Banner.
‘I’m sure sometimes Trump stood and sometimes he didn’t stand, but it’s just funny that he’s calling out all these guys for kneeling during the anthem when it was well known – and not even a big deal – that Donald Trump would sit during the anthems,’ Pearlman told DailyMail.com in 2019.
‘[He would] do work, take calls, conduct interviews,’ Pearlman continued. ‘Probably never gave it a second thought.’ (This claim echoes that of the Philadelphia Daily News’s Paul Domowitch, who Tweeted in May that he once saw Trump spend ‘the entire anthem berating’ the president of the USFL’s Philadelphia Stars.)
The Trump White House did not respond to DailyMail.com’s request for comment at the time.