The United States Football League was a professional American football league that played three seasons between 1983 and 1985, in the process presenting the rival National Football League with its greatest competitor since the 1960s version of the American Football League.
The USFL was the brainchild of David Dixon, a New Orleans entrepreneur who in the 1960s envisioned football as a possible spring and summer sport. In the early 1980s, Dixon gathered a group of owners from twelve cities and announced the league's launch on May 11, 1982, to begin play in 1983.
While no teams folded during any season of the USFL, it was a close call in many cases. The league experienced a great deal of franchise instability, relocation, and closure:
Competition vs. NFL
Competing by not competing
At first the USFL competed with the older, more established National Football League by trying "not" to compete directly with it, primarily by playing its games on a March-June schedule but also having different playing rules, most notably:
- The two-point conversion (since adopted by the NFL, in 1994).
- A method of challenging officials' rulings on the field via instant replay (using a system that is almost identical to that used by the NFL today).
Initially the league was viewed as innovative and a serious challenger to the establishment NFL thanks to its willingness to sign marquee talent such as Herschel Walker, Doug Flutie, Mike Rozier, Reggie White, Jim Kelly, Steve Young and other young stars of the day.
Spring vs. fall
In 1984 the league began discussing the possibility of competing head-to-head with the NFL by playing its games in the fall beginning in 1986. Despite the protestations of many "old guard" owners within the league, the voices of New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump and others would eventually prevail. On October 18, 1984, the league's owners voted to begin playing a fall season in 1986. It would prove to be the league's death knell, and the USFL would never play a fall game.
USFL vs. NFL
In another effort to keep themselves afloat while at the same time attacking the more established National Football League, the USFL filed an anti-trust lawsuit against the older league, claiming it had established a monopoly with respect to television broadcasting rights, and in some cases to access of stadium venues.
Each NFL franchise was named as a co-defendant, with the exception of the then-Los Angeles Raiders; Raiders owner Al Davis was a major witness for the USFL. Howard Cosell was also a key witness for the USFL.
The case went to trial, and while the USFL won the battle—the court held that the NFL was a "duly adjudicated illegal monopoly"—it lost the war. The jury, unsure of how to proceed awarding damages and thinking the judge was empowered to award a greater amount, awarded the USFL a token judgment of $1.00, tripled under anti-trust law to $3.00.
Despite the post-trial statements of several jurors indicating that they wished to award much greater sums to the USFL (one juror alone stated a $100 million award, tripled to $300 million, was what he thought appropriate), the USFL was never able to get the amount increased during a lengthy appeals process that went well into the early 1990s, during which time the league had "suspended operations".
Though the NFL would be loathe to admit it during the remainder of the 1980s and 1990s, it is widely acknowledged that the USFL had a dramatic impact on the National Football League both on the field and off.
Almost all of the USFL's on-field innovations were eventually adopted by the older league, and a multitude of star players would go on to very successful careers in the NFL.
The NFL would also eventually have franchises in some of the markets where the USFL proved fertile or renewed interest in the game, including Arizona (the St. Louis Cardinals moving there in 1988), Baltimore (the Baltimore Ravens joining the league in 1996, with the original Cleveland Browns franchise having moved there), Jacksonville (the Jacksonville Jaguars being awarded as an expansion franchise for the 1995 season, and Tennessee (the Houston Oilers, before making Nashville their permanent home, spent a year in Memphis).
The last remaining active USFL players are quarterback Doug Flutie of the San Diego Chargers and punter Sean Landeta of the St. Louis Rams.
Prior to the jury award in USFL v. NFL, the league had planned to go forward with a 1986 season comprising eight teams, divided into a "Liberty Division" and "Independence Division":
- Chester R. "Chet" Simmons (1983-1984; resigned under pressure from owners)
- Harry L. Usher (1984-1989; league ceased operations)