Test begins for new football league
Premise: pro football fans want more games. Believing that to be true, the newly minted United States Football League will start delivering them on Sunday. And it won't stop until after the USFL championship game on July 17, when the established National Football League will be in pre-season training.
Spring football may fly in the face of tradition, but the idea has been swept along by television and its programming needs, regardless of seasonal considerations. Today's highly competitive TV market, coupled with pro football's popularity on the tube, led ABC to scoop up the coverage rights. Granted, $20 million over two years is a mere pittance compared to what the NFL receives, but no other new sports league has had a network contract in its inaugural season.
The exposure this will afford lends the league a degree of instant success. In part, it has attracted a number of college stars, including prolific running back Herschel Walker, Georgia's Heisman Trophy winner. When the New Jersey Generals signed Walker last week, the news captured headlines everywhere and underlined the USFL's willingness to take bold steps.
Some criticized the league for plucking Walker out of college before his senior year, but the coup has generated fan enthusiasm in a key market.
Major newspapers in the New York metropolitan area immediately dispatched extra reporters to the team's Orlando, Fla., training camp, and season ticket sales soared. Within a week of Walker's announcement, an additional 7,800 admissions had been sold, bringing the Generals' total to 26,000.
Other teams that have experienced a boom at the ticket window are the Oakland Invaders, Tampa Bay Bandits, and Denver Gold, the league leader with 31,000 season tickets sold according to the latest figures. Of the USFL's 12 franchises, the only ones to lag behind in this area are the Michigan Panthers and Boston Breakers.
For the most part, the USFL has put down roots in NFL cities with large TV markets, Birmingham (Ala.) and Phoenix (home of the Arizona Wranglers) being the only new frontiers. The March-to-July schedule, however, is designed to allow USFL clubs to avoid direct competition with their NFL counterparts and allow for somewhat peaceful coexistence.
In fact, the so-called ''other season'' allows many USFL teams to occupy stadiums left vacant by the NFL. The Generals, for example, will play in the New Jersey Meadow-lands, home of the NFL's New York Giants. Among seven other NFL stadiums in use will by RFK in Washington, Soldiers Field in Chicago, and the Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich.
Beyond the shared stadiums, the new league has sought respectability by hiring a handful of ex-NFL coaches, including Chuck Fairbanks and Red Miller. The most notable of these, however is George Allen, who fell out of favor with NFL owners and has not coached for five years. But he once worked wonders with the Washington Redskins and now has the chance to do the same as coach and part-owner of the Chicago Blitz.
The hiring of ''name'' coaches was a way of building a major-league image before USFL rosters were stocked. This latter task, however, held more interest for avid fans curious about who would take the field in football's brave, new world.
During the World Football League's brief existence in the mid-1970s, an effort to lure established NFL stars for astronomical salaries was partly to blame for the WFL's demise. Committed to avoiding that pitfall, USFL clubs have generally placed emphasis on signing ex pros, players who never made it in the NFL, and collegians who either suspected their chances were better in the USFL or liked the money offered them.
The idea has not been to raid the NFL, but to find the highest-caliber players available while holding the line on spending. And until recently, most teams seemed determined to keep to projected operating budgets in the neighborhood of $6 million.
The competitive juices have begun to flow, however, and teams are sinking big money into signing college players before the NFL can secure their services. Allen, never known as a pennypincher, helped get the ball rolling by inking Ohio State's Tim Spencer, the Big Ten rushing leader, and Tim Wrightman, an All-America tight end out of UCLA. ''I didn't get into this to be a minor league,'' he explained. Other collegians who've signed for large sums are quarterbacks Reggie Collier with Birmingham and Tom Ramsey with Los Angeles, wide receiver Anthony Carter with Michigan, and running backs Craig James with Washington and Kelvin Bryant with Philadelphia.
These players bring the flower of youth to a league that wants to exude freshness. But will people really care about watching them blossom during a time traditionally reserved for other sports?
Chet Simmons, the USFL commissioner and a past president of NBC Sports and ESPN, thinks so. He has a TV marketing study to back him up, which indicates demand for football outstrips the current supply (the NFL's 16-game season). And as for the on-air competition? ''From an economic point of view, baseball doesn't really get going until the All-Star game,'' he observes, ''and hockey and basketball don't get great ratings on TV. . . .''
Be that as it may, the USFL will not go in for gimmickry to sell its product. There will be no orange footballs or guards in motion. There is only one rule difference that clearly distinguishes play on the field from the NFL, and that's the two-point conversion option, which of course is a staple of the college game.
If there is to be any toying around, ABC may do it. The network has sought permission to do sideline interviews during the game and place cameras in the locker room at halftime.
Slick packaging aside, the league ultimately must stand on the merits of its football. Will the games provide exciting competition? Frankly, no one knows yet, but the 18-week season should provide some answers.