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USFL Shrinks, but Still Has a Large Problem : It's Not Lack of Money or Quality of Its Players, It's Convincing Television That There Are Fans

February 04, 1985|BOB OATES | Times Staff Writer

As the United States Football League begins its third season this month, it has a new symbol, Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie.

At 5-9 3/4, Flutie is a scaled-down quarterback. And the USFL has become a scaled-down league:

--It has shrunk from 18 to 14 teams.

--It has quit raiding the National Football League for players.

--It has signed no new big-name draft choices, with the exception of Flutie from Boston College.

--It has dropped all pretensions of being a nationwide league and has become largely a sun-belt league, with three franchises in Florida, for example, and none in the Midwest.

--It has abandoned some of the country's largest markets, such as Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit and Washington.

--It has happily settled in a number of minor-league cities, such as Portland, Orlando, Memphis and San Antonio.

--And, otherwise, it is consolidating its resources to make a run at the NFL in 1986, when, its leaders insist, the USFL will give up its spring format and emerge as a competing fall league.

But will it survive until 1986?

Some people think so. Most of them are USFL people. No NFL executive would comment publicly on the USFL, citing the lawsuit the USFL has filed against it as the reason.

The USFL's most successful owner, John Bassett of the Tampa Bay Bandits, sees an interminable future for what he calls the checkbook league.

"We'll be all right as long as we keep writing checks, although (as a business method) that's a pain in the neck," Bassett said.

For those who work and play in the USFL, it apparently isn't too painful.

"Our owners are the strength of this league," said John Ralston, president of the Portland Breakers. "Most of them treat it as seed money when they lose $1 million to $1 1/2 million a year."

Actually, they lost a bit more than that. The USFL's franchise holders set the all-time American one-year record for sports leagues in 1984 when they dropped an estimated $65 million. Some say it was $75 million.

In any event, the franchise holders could obviously afford those losses. Still, the owners have decided not to throw any new money at new players, with, possibly, an isolated instance or two. They have voted not to expand. They have determined that this is the time for the USFL to retrench and down-size.

"The USFL has gone back to its original concept," said Leigh Steinberg, an agent who represents players in both leagues. "You'll remember, the USFL began in 1983 with a philosophy of hiring mostly journeyman players with only a few box-office types. They soon got away from that idea, and in 1984 the USFL spent a lot of money for a lot of players. This year, they're back to Square 1."

The USFL's 1984 expansion from 12 teams to 18 also is viewed as a mistake.

"We should have stayed at 12," said Ralston, who coached one of the charter clubs, Oakland, before moving to Portland. "The league was too ambitious last year--adding too many teams and spending too much for player salaries. This year you can say the USFL is back on track."

But will it last?

"I'm still impressed with the basic stability of this league," former Commissioner Chet Simmons said.

Said Steinberg: "I don't see the USFL collapsing ever. It may be in a merger someday . . . but this is the most successful new league we've had in this country in any sport."

It is also a fact that the USFL can't compare with the NFL.

"The USFL shouldn't be judged with the NFL," Steinberg said. "It is meaningless to compare USFL attendances and TV ratings with the NFL's. The NFL is the most successful league in the history of man. By any other test, the USFL has done really well. There are great players on every club. The USFL is the league that keeps signing the Heisman Trophy winners. USFL attendances are higher than the AFL's. Its TV ratings are good by comparison with everything but NFL ratings. And its consolidations this year weren't a defeat. They've made the USFL stronger."

Relatively stronger, that is. The USFL is still not a strong, vibrant league. It may never be. And, there remains the question of whether the public wants a second pro football league, regardless of what season it plays in.

HARRY USHER

When Los Angeles lawyer Harry L. Usher, 45, was named the USFL's new commissioner two weeks ago, some said he was was brought in to save the league. Others have speculated that he would be trying to force a merger with the NFL.

Asked if he feels like a savior, Usher, who formally took command Friday, said: "Well, I'm not here to arrange the deck chairs on the Titanic."

He views the job as a personal challenge.

"And I'm attracted to that," he said at his office in New York. "I love the idea that I can make a difference."

It was only last summer that Usher made a difference in the staging of the Olympic Games as Peter Ueberroth's deputy on the organizing committee.

Many believe Usher is properly placed as a commissioner.

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