Springtime pro football is not a mirage. The United States Football League has now played 14 weeks of its inaugural 18-week season, and shows no signs of disappearing.
This isn't to say that people are breaking down doors to see USFL games, just that the new league has a reasonable-size constituency of hard-core fans. Through 84 games the average crowd has been 25,375 spectators.
Not surprisingly, attendance and TV ratings dropped off radically after the season's euphoric opening week in March, when the curiosity factor was at its height and the baseball season hadn't yet begun. Things have now reached their more natural levels. And in both cases the league is encouraged. USFL crowds have outstripped by 8,000 those in the first year (1960) of the American Football League, and the league's TV rating is running above ABC's pre-season projection.
The league has generally experienced its greatest success in cities without major league baseball, such as Denver and Tampa, and struggled where there has been competition from pro baseball and basketball, such as in Philadelphia and Boston. Baseball-less Washington is something of an exception, but D.C. fans are not about to get interested in a losing team (the Federals) as long as their beloved Redskins are NFL Super Bowl champs. Grand tennis confusion
After winning the French Open, Chris Evert Lloyd said she wouldn't bother figuring out her status vis-a-vis a Grand Slam. The subject is fraught with confusion. The International Tennis Federation has adopted a liberal interpretation of what constitutes a Slam - successive victories at the four traditional major championships, Wimbledon, plus the US, Australian, and French Opens. The victories can span two years, a ruling that US Tennis Writers Association has refused to acknowledge, preferring the purity of a calendar-year Slam.
Even using the ITF's definition, however, Evert Lloyd is not really on the brink of capturing the $1 million prize that now goes to a Slam winner. That's because the ITF didn't announce its ruling until September 15, after Evert Lloyd won the US Open. Tennis's international governing body will retroactively recognize Evert Lloyd's feat (last achieved by Margaret Court in 1970) if she goes on to win Wimbledon, but not with the cash bonus. Prizes spur Oilers
Most National Football League players view their required attendance at minicamps, which package workouts and fitness testing, as a necessary evil. But the Houston Oilers, 1-8 during last year's strike-shortened season, don't think these sessions should be drudgery. In May, they turned the testing part of their three-day camp into an exhilarating competition - with prizes, big prizes. The biggest was a one-week trip for two to Tahiti and Bora-Bora, won by second-year linebacker Robert Abraham. There were also prizes by position, such as 10-inch color TVs and microwave ovens, and dinners for two in a ''big guys vs. little guys'' contest.
Bill Allerheiligen, the Oilers' strength and conditioning coach, thought up the incentive plan as an alternative to paid participation in off-season conditioning programs. ''It perked things up, and some players really surprised themselves,'' Allerheiligen said. The winners weren't known until a computer, using an involved system of handicapping, had spent nine hours digesting the results. Touching other bases
* Retired home run king Hank Aaron would like to be the next commissioner of major league baseball. He currently serves as the vice president of player development for the Atlanta Braves. Although seldom mentioned as a serious candidate for baseball's highest job vacancy, Aaron does have a platform for pursuing the post. He told the New York Times he favors interleague play, realignment of teams, salary ceilings, and revenue sharing. The owners decided not to rehire Bowie Kuhn, whose contract expires in August. Kuhn has been commissioner since 1969.
* The world of auto racing is one of stark contrasts. Witness the differences between events in Indianapolis and Detroit a week apart. Tom Sneva's winning speed was 162.117 m.p.h. at Indy, while Michele Alboreto's was 81.1 m.p.h. in the Motor City. The twists and turns of Detroit, of course, make the Indianapolis 500 look like a closed track version of the Bonneville Salt Flats. The Detroit race, which is run over downtown streets, is one of the most successful of a new breed of urban Formula One events.