Donald Trump will once again be presented on NBC this fall as the as an incredibly successful businessman and host of a so-called “reality” show, The Apprentice.
There is no such thing as “reality” on “reality TV” despite the publicity surrounding programs like Trumps’, however, since the show features a man who has been anything but successful with the failure of his football team and his casinos in Atlantic City, New Jersey, his airline and other ventures.
Trump probably doesn’t like to be reminded of this, but people who were connected with the United States Football League will tell you Trump, more than anyone else, was the leader in destroying the league which last played on July 14, 1985. While Trump wasn’t the only poor businessman in the endeavor; he just led the owners down the path to ruin.
On July 29, 1986, Trump’s football aspirations came to a crushing end. A Federal Court jury in New York couldn’t figure out the football business and handed him both a win and loss.
A quarter of a century later, The Donald is not a beloved football icon.
To this day, Trump is remembered as the pied piper who failed USFL people. Former USFL personnel are not impressed with The Apprentice, Trump’s golfing exploits, his boxing ventures, his character on wrestling or his licensing of his name to businesses.
He failed at a business that should have worked. Spring football in the United States should have been foolproof, as it came with a TV deal with ABC and a separate deal with the Getty Oil owned ESPN (Getty sold ESPN to ABC in 1984).
The United States Football League started at a swanky New York hotel on May 11, 1982 and died in New York in a court house in Foley Square about four years later. The league had franchises in Arizona, Birmingham, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, Los Angeles, New Jersey, Oakland, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay and Washington and had a two-year TV agreement with ABC and ESPN and a national radio contract with ABC.
Eleven days prior to the league’s first games, Heisman Trophy winner and underclassman Herschel Walker signed a deal with Walter Duncan’s New Jersey Generals. That signing would eventually change National Football League eligibility rules. Duncan would sell the franchise to Trump on September 22, 1983 after the first season was complete. The team cost Trump a reported six million dollars. Trump had originally sought a USFL team when Dixon was planning the league but had some financial problems and didn’t go through with purchase.
The USFL had strong franchises and as many weak ones, like the Boston Breakers. The Breakers encountered stadium problems and moved to New Orleans in 1984 and then to Portland in 1985. Like a good number of USFL teams, financial problems beset them.
Oddly enough, while the USFL was going through financial woes, another group of businessmen led by Californian Alex Bell decided 1984 would be a good year to start yet another spring football league.
The International Football League announced its official formation on July 1, 1983, at Donald Trump’s Grand Hyatt Hotel next to Grand Central Terminal. It is unknown whether the check cleared for the IFL banquet and meetings at Trump’s hotel.
The news conference was a big party that featured cheerleaders, lots of food and drink and IFL hats. It would be the only “official” function the league would hold.
The IFL’s twelve charter franchises included Chicago, Florida, Honolulu, Houston, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina (Charlotte), Ohio, San Jose, and Tennessee. The league would also play in the spring, like the USFL.
Yet, the IFL faded away by 1984.
Years later, another group of businessmen were poised to start a league in the 1990s called the Professional Spring Football League. Again there was a New York news conference to alert the world that a new league was coming. The league even brought in ex-Jets and ex-Generals coach Walt Michaels to head up a New York entry, but all that is left of the league are some baseball caps with the letters PSFL. Michaels decided not to discuss his years with Trump that day.
Following the first season, the USFL added six teams in Pittsburgh, Houston, San Diego, Jacksonville, San Antonio and Memphis. Trump purchased the Generals on September 22, 1983. Chicago and Arizona swapped franchises. San Diego never played a game and moved operations to Tulsa. Boston became the New Orleans Breakers.
The league continued to be beset with financial problems in 1984. Chicago and Pittsburgh folded. The Tulsa based Oklahoma Outlaws merged business operations with Arizona who had been Chicago in 1983; the Detroit based Michigan Panthers hooked up with the Oakland Invaders. Philadelphia moved to Baltimore to play home games but the Stars trained in Philadelphia. Washington relocated to Orlando, New Orleans ended up in Portland and the USFL took over the Los Angeles Express, who among other contracts gave Steve Young a $40 million contract.
The Express owner William Oldenberg spent wildly on players and lost $15 million. Oldenburg had major financial problems as well and left the team a financial ruin. The ABC deal required the league to have teams in New York (New Jersey), Los Angeles and Chicago. Chicago folded, the league kept Los Angeles going in 1985 because of the ABC deal and Trump, well Trump was talking about building a condominium stadium in the Flushing junk yards across the way from Shea Stadium in Queens, New York. Trump, to his credit, was the first to publicly talk about a plan that required customers to buy a seat license and then pay for a ticket. It is a concept that many NFL teams use today.
The spring league had plans to compete with the NFL in the fall of 1986. Led by Trump and Eddie Einhorn, who promised to take over the defunct Chicago franchise if the league abandoned the March to July schedule, the league started making moves.
The USFL filed an anti-trust suit against the National Football League, charging in part that the NFL monopolized the fall football television schedule. Trump somehow convinced his fellow owners that the league would thrive by going head to head with the NFL in the fall. Originally the USFL brought in famed attorney Roy Cohn to handle the case but settled on Harvey Myerson was their lead attorney. According to Carl Peterson, who ran the Philadelphia-Baltimore Stars franchise for Myles Tannenbaum, the NFL wanted to avoid a court case and offered to take two unnamed USFL franchises, presumably Baltimore and Oakland (to replace the departed Oakland Raiders and Baltimore Colts in the NFL) but USFL owners like Trump and Einhorn balked at the possibility and demanded that the NFL take at least four and possibly as many as six USFL teams and decided that an antitrust suit against the NFL was the way to proceed.
Baltimore had a USFL championship caliber team in the Stars and had an owner who probably would have made the cut in the NFL, Myles Tannenbaum. Oakland did not do well financially however the NFL spent a lot of money and time in court fighting Raiders owner Al Davis’ right to relocate his team from Oakland to Los Angeles which made the city a lead candidate for NFL inclusion. The NFL had passed on Birmingham and Memphis in 1976 after the World Football League folded and it was unlikely those two USFL cities were on the short list of towns the NFL wanted. Other USFL cities that might have piqued the NFL’s interest from the USFL could have been Jacksonville and Phoenix. The NFL had no desire to take Trump’s franchise.
There were other bad owners like the San Antonio Gunslingers Clinton Manges who had no money. The late Harry Usher, the USFL Commissioner who presided over the league in the Trump days. Manges once threw a pair of guns on the table at a USFL meeting in Teaneck, New Jersey for some reason and Usher politely asked Manges to put his toys away. Peterson remembers a meeting where Manges was being asked about lack of payments to players and Manges told Usher to line up with all the others who were suing him.
“We had a real good season with the Breakers in Boston,” recalled Dick Coury who made the cross continent trip between 1983-85 with his team in Boston, New Orleans and Portland. “It was three great experiences. It was different. In the National Football League, when you change cities, it means you got fired.
Coury admitted that the strain of financial uncertainty certainly played a role on his teams. The moves affected families, in terms of setting up homes, doing banking, and other day to day tasks. That affected the team that was 11-7 in 1983, 8-10 in 1984 and 6-12 in 1985.
“It was difficult and most of our players did go to all three cities,” he recalled. “When we moved, the team did house the coaches until the players got there. We moved in the off-season, so most of players just came into town and found apartments for the season. It was not easy, but our players took it well. It was trying for some of the families. We had to be ready to move, we didn’t unpack in any city, we just kept our clothes in a suitcase, in case we had to move we were ready to go.”
Coury had been with the Portland World Football League franchises in the 1974. The World Football League somehow lasted until 1975.
“In the World Football League, we had players mostly at the end of their career. I had players like Ben Davidson and Pete Beathard, who could still play but were on the downward side. In the USFL, we had some great players like Herschel Walker, Jim Kelly, Marcus DuPree.”
“Had we stayed in the spring, we would still be playing in the USFL,” he said.
But his former Breakers owner Randy Vataha said it was just not that simple. He remembered an owner’s dinner prior to the start of the league when Tampa Bay owner John Bassett was asked about how a league operated as Bassett was the only USFL owner with previous ownership experience with the WFL, and the World Hockey Association Toronto Toros/Birmingham Bulls.
“Bassett said, we will have 12 teams, six games a week. Six teams will win, six will lose and we need to understand that to be a successful league,” said Vataha.
“Our payrolls were about $1.5 million a year. The NFL was around $6-7 million. As teams started to lose, they went after NFL players and brought the average to $5 million.
“That was $42 million more than we had budgeted.”
To offset the 1983 losses, the league expanded to six cities and got some $36 from expansion monies to split between the 12 original teams. One of those new owners was Trump.
“Trump lobbied for one year to move to the fall, and so we suspended the league during the antitrust law suit and we would have started in the fall of 1986,” said Vataha.
Only July 29, 1986, a jury declared that the NFL was an illegal monopoly but they could not figure out what to pay the USFL in damages. They decided to give the USFL a dollar and hoped that the Judge Peter K. Leisure would adjust the figure. Apparently the jury did not understand Judge Leisure’s instructions on monetary damages.
Myerson and the league won the case, but were awarded just $3 in damages. Vataha said the real cause of the league’s demise was not NFL owners but USFL owners who didn’t pay attention to what Bassett said.
“No matter what you spend, there are six teams that win and six teams that lose every week. We could have been successful if we stayed a spring football league, had a budgetary restraint and didn’t compete with the NFL. But some of the owners decided they had to win and went out of business,” said Vataha.
“The salaries went up; we expanded too fast and decided to play in the fall. We went out of business.”
The end of the USFL meant Jim Kelly, Herschel Walker, more than 100 players would join the NFL player ranks. Three players would contribute to the Giants 1986 Super Bowl victory, offensive lineman Bart Oates, running back Maurice Carthon and punter Sean Landeta.
“I just kind of laughed a little bit after months and months of high profile courtroom proceedings ended up in a $3 outcome. I thought that was kind of funny,” said Landeta. “Other than that, I thought a lot of fun like that went down the drain.”
Donald Trump never owned another football team and within a few years of the demise of the USFL faced severe financial problems. Chances are pretty good Trump will never own an NFL team. The USFL should have said to Trump, “You’re Fired” back in 1984 or 1985. But Trump does have a TV show, and has proven what comedian Billy Crystal once said about him when he walked it a room at a 2008 golfing event. Crystal in his Howard Cosell voice announced, here he comes ladies and gentlemen: P. T. Barnum.
Barnum was the king of the side show as is Trump today.
Evan Weiner is an author, radio and TV commentator and speaker on “The Politics of Sports Business” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.