While football was the product, at its core the rise and fall of the United States Football League (USFL) is a business story.
The USFL started with 12 teams in 1983 and expanded to 18 teams in 1984. It secured multiple TV deals. Millions of fans attended games. Players included superstars like Herschel Walker, Doug Flutie, and Mike Rozier, and future NFL Hall of Famers like Steve Young, Jim Kelly, Reggie White, and Gary Zimmerman.
And yet after three years, the league folded.
Why? Jeff Pearlman, the author of Gunslinger (a biography of Brett Favre), Showtime (the story of the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980s), and Boys Will Be Boys (the story of the Dallas Cowboys), interviewed more than 400 people to find out.
Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL reveals the USFL had it all: sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll, backroom business deals, brawls on planes, deadbeat owners ...
If you like football -- and outrageous tales well told -- Football for a Buck is for you. Since the book comes out today, I asked Jeff to share a few interesting USFL stories.
And he more than exceeded my expectations.
First things first: Why a book about the USFL?
I grew up loving the league. I was 10 years old, and since Sports Illustrated was too expensive, I would go to the library to read it. Seeing Herschel Walker on the cover of SI in a New Jersey Generals uniform ... seeing the display of all the different USFL helmets inside ... my 10-year-old mind exploded. I remember that vividly.
And I got hooked on the league. Years later, for my final high school English project we were supposed to write a 20-page paper, and I wrote 40 pages on the downfall of the USFL.
I wish I still had a copy of that. [He laughs.]
Football is obviously king, but still. A book about the USFL couldn't have been an easy sell to a publisher.
You're right. I wanted to write this book for a decade but couldn't get a book deal. My agent said it wouldn't sell, different publishers said it wouldn't sell, but I knew it would be a great book. So when I pitched my last book about Brett Favre, I said, "What if I take less money to do Favre. and you also let me do a book about the USFL?" And, of course, at the time the Trump angle didn't exist to the extent it does now. [Donald Trump was a USFL owner and was arguably a major factor in the demise of the league.]
I just knew if I got to write it that it would be great.
So: Give me an example of the league's less-than-savvy business practices.
The USFL was not without its problems, as any new sports league tends to be. Ratings were up and down, attendance was up and down, yet a struggling league that started with 12 teams decides to expand to 18 teams.
Why? Franchise fees. Fees paid by new franchises meant guaranteed money.
That also created a huge problem. The original teams had successful owners with deep pockets. Myles Tanenbaum was a real estate mogul. Bill Daniels and Alan Harmon were early cable pioneers.
Then the league brought in new owners without doing great background checks. If you had a check, that was your background. [He laughs.]
Take Clinton Manges, the oil tycoon and owner of the San Antonio Gunslingers. He lives in a mansion, flies in on a private plane, talks about all of his holdings: He's in.
In 1984, he actually paid the players. In 1985, he started handing out promissory notes. The players would get their paychecks and after practice literally race one another to this little bank in Freer, Texas, because the first few checks would cash and the rest would bounce. So picture this derby of 50 or so cars speeding off to the bank.
Most of those guys never got paid. It got so bad the head coach, Jim Bates, quit because he didn't want to keep promising them they would get paid since he knew the owner was lying to them.
And here's the best part. The team played in Alamo Stadium. The USFL had a minimum capacity requirement saying the stadiums had to have at least 30,000-capacity seating. Alamo seated only 25,000, so they would bring in 5,000 folding chairs and spray-paint them blue so they looked like they were part of the stadium.
After the last game of the season, a defensive coach named Bill Bradley -- who hadn't been paid most of the year -- rented a U-Haul, stole the chairs, and drove to Austin and sold them. That's how he got his money.
I guess you do what you have to do.
It gets even better. Manges lived on a huge ranch he called the Magic Kingdom. He threw a party late in the 1985 season and invited the players. It was a big party with food, drinks, etc. So Bill and a bunch of guys bought the cheapest wine they could find, snuck into Manges's enormous wine basement, drank a ton of his expensive wine, and then poured the crappy wine they brought into the bottles -- which was then served to his guests.
Bill has this cool memory of how the guests were saying, "Wow, this wine is great ... " and it was Boone's Farm or something like that. [He laughs.]
My memory of the USFL was that often the play on the field was great, but clearly some of the owners weren't.
Here's another example. In 1983, the Chicago Blitz were owned by Ted Diethrich, a cardiologist who lived in Arizona. He didn't like having to fly to Chicago for home games. So heading into 1984, he traded teams with the Arizona Wranglers. Not just the franchise but also the players.
All because he didn't want to make a three-hour flight on his private jet for nine homes games a year.
Every single guy on the Chicago team got traded. Their lives were uprooted, kids changed schools, wives lost jobs. Just because the owner wanted to be closer to his Arizona home.
Keep in mind in 1983 the Blitz were one of the best teams in the league. For the 1984 season, Chicago hired Marv Levy -- later the Buffalo Bills head coach -- to coach the team. But Levy wasn't told all the players got swapped. So he shows up to coach the Blitz and he has a terrible roster.
That wasn't the team he signed up for. But that's the team he got. [He laughs.]
There's a 30 for 30 about the USFL. The USFL sued the NFL for monopolizing TV in the fall, and ultimately won but were only awarded $1. (Hence Football for a Buck.)
I talked with a juror from the trial. She said they found for the USFL because the league was right: The NFL was guilty.
But they also felt that ultimately the USFL was responsible for its own demise.
It just couldn't get ouf of its own way.