Since Donald Trump is getting so much attention these days, I thought I’d take a quick look at what’s been said about his tenure as a professional football owner. For two glorious years, in 1984 and 1985, Trump owned the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League. The Generals, who played in Giants’ Stadium, averaged a very respectable 41,000 fans per game in their final season, 1985. Among their players were two newly-minted Heisman Trophy winners, Herschel Walker and Doug Flutie (Walker signed with the team under the team’s first owner, Oklahoma oil magnate, J. Walter Duncan, who sold the Generals to Trump after the league’s inaugural 1983 season).
The Generals never won a playoff game, but they were a competitive team in a league that assembled a very impressive talent pool, including future NFL superstars Jim Kelly, Reggie White and Steve Young.
The USFL last only three seasons, despite decent television ratings and attendance and a reported offer in 1986 by ABC and ESPN (which was just breaking into football coverage at the time) to broadcast USFL games in the spring for the next four years at a combined quarter of billion dollars (a very nice sum of money in 1986).
The main reason for the league’s implosion, it’s generally been acknowledged, was that despite the USFL’s relative success in meeting football fans’ demand for high quality professional football during the NFL off-season, the USFL decided to try to take on the NFL head to head. In other words, it wanted to move to the fall and establish itself as an equal of the NFL. And the man behind that move was Donald Trump (Chicago Blitz owner Eddie Einhorn was also a strong advocate).
While a number of owners were reticent about, or actively opposed to the move, Trump cajoled, badgered and harangued his co-owners into making it.
As plans to move to fall football began to unravel, the USFL went into federal court to sue the NFL as a monopoly. Indeed, it seems that this was always Trump’s and Einhorn’s strategy – to force the NFL to accept at least some USFL teams in a merger. In the event, while the USFL technically won its case – a six-person jury declared the NFL an illegal monopoly – it lost everything that mattered.
The jury found that the USFL had changed its strategy to a more risky goal of forcing a merger with the NFL. Furthermore, the switch to a fall schedule caused the loss of several major markets (Philadelphia, Denver, Houston, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Miami, the Bay Area). It has been established that Trump specifically wanted to force a merger knowing that the majority of teams would be eliminated.
Most importantly, the jury found that the NFL did not attempt to force the USFL off television. In essence, the jury felt that while the USFL was harmed by the NFL’s de facto monopolization of pro football in the United States, most of its problems were due to its own mismanagement. It awarded the USFL nominal damages of one dollar, which was trebled under antitrust law to three dollars.
Out of cash, with players fleeing to the NFL and with several franchises folding, the USFL was forced to suspend operations for the 1986 season. It never returned.
In 2009, Mike Tollin made a documentary about the USFL as part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series (here’s a trailer).
Tollin, who worked for the USFL equivalent of films during its existence, not surprisingly, has not had charitable things to say about Trump:
Originally, Donald refused my requests for an interview, then ultimately decided he might as well add his spin. His advance person dictated that the cameras favor the right side of Trump’s face (and hair), which by the way is the first time I’ve had that request in something like 10 thousand interviews! We decided to roll the three cameras from the time he walked in the room until the time he left. I can’t tell you how much fun that was for me, watching him spin and squirm and talk in circles. He was gruff, impatient, condescending … which I guess is to say “presidential”!
(the quote is from 2011, during the Donald’s first, abortive, presidential run).
It’d be easy to say that everything we know about Trump today – the absurd ego, the cartoonish bluster, the abject lack of self-awareness or modesty, the contempt for almost everything and everybody – was evident in his USFL shenanigans.
One thing we can say about Trump, though, is that he is never phased by whatever smoldering wreckage he leaves behind.
Heads-I-win, tails-you-lose – the creed of the super-wealthy and super-connected in America, in sports as in life.