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Commentary : The USFL: It's Almost Forgotten, but It Isn't Gone Yet

May 05, 1985|TONY KORNHEISER | Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Players, quickly now; we've only got one minute left in "Double Jeopardy."

The one category left on the board is, "It Seemed Like A Good Idea at the Time."

And the answer is: "Forgotten, but not gone."

Bzzztt!

Yes, Berl Bernhard, you buzzed. What is the question?

"Who am I?"

No, I'm sorry, Berl. You are gone, but not forgotten.

Bzzztt!

Yes, Mr. Big Shot Miami Hotel Man Woody Weiser. The question, please.

"Who am I?"

Sorry, Woody. The judges have ruled that you are gone and forgotten.

Bzzztt!

Yes, Craig James. Quickly, please.

"What happened to the trained gerbil I left in my Federals helmet?"

Good try, Craig. But we know that Ray Jauch took it home as a souvenir. And let me tell you Craig, this New England thing has really caught on for you; you look mah-velous.

Sorry, players. The answer was: "Forgotten, but not gone."

And the question is: "What happened to the USFL?"

You want to talk coma?

The USFL season is more than half over. Teams have already played 10 games. One of those teams--the defending league champion--is playing in College Park, Md., not 10 miles from the Washington Monument. And no one seems to give a damn about it, or the league it rode in on.

Friends, neighbors, people at the dry cleaner, just to make conversation they might ask me a question about sports. Maybe about the Redskins, or the Bullets, or the Capitals. Or something more general: boxing, tennis, golf, tractor-pull, whatever. As bad as they were, I can remember being asked about the Federals. Although they were an embarrassment, people at least recognized their existence and expressed some sympathy for their ineptitude. This season I have not been asked anything--not a single thing--about the College Park Stars or the USFL.

It's like the league did a Harvey. Only an occasional weirdo still sees it. Live attendance is down. Ratings on ABC are down 26%. Franchise shifting has cost the USFL local rooting interest in six major markets: Chicago, Boston, Detroit, Philadelphia, Washington and Pittsburgh. The USFL seems to be evolving rapidly into a Sun Belt Conference; more than half of the 14 teams play in the South or Southwest. There are sports bars in this city that don't even show the Sunday afternoon USFL game to their patrons. I've got it on good authority that one local bar showed a taped tennis match rather than the live USFL game. Taped tennis! If that isn't the ultimate put-down of the league, what is? Where do you go from there? Legends of Bowling?

Pop quiz: Go ahead, name all 14 teams. Okay, name 10.

Eight offensive linemen?

Six head coaches?

Anyone who played on Boston, New Orleans and Portland?

Let's put it this way: I say, "Doug Flutie, Herschel Walker and Jim Kelly." And you say . . .

Goodnight, Gracie.

The Los Angeles franchise is being financed by the league. William Oldenburg, the man who signed Steve Young to a $40-million contract, awoke one morning and found that he didn't have sufficient funds to meet the payroll, which is what a $40-million contract will do to you these days. The Birmingham Stallions are in financial jeopardy, needing $2.2 million to meet their expenses for the rest of the season. They are also without an owner; Marvin Warner walked away after the collapse of his bank in Cincinnati. Payroll checks given to San Antonio players have bounced. The owners of the Houston Gamblers have said they do not have the money to either pay off a $1.5-million loan that comes due in September or to fund the team next year.

On top of this, by reaffirming its intention to shift to a fall schedule in 1986, the USFL seems to be jettisoning one of its most stellar franchises. John Bassett, who owns the Tampa Bay Bandits, has announced that he'll withdraw from the league rather than play in the fall. Bassett claims he has "10 or 11 teams" ready to start another spring league, which is, of course, just what we need. I find it amusing that the Redskins are said to be competing with the Bandits for Tory Nixon, Washington's top draft choice. What league are the Bandits going to be in next year? The South American Football League? Spring football down there is fall football up here. Is everybody happy?

You want an example of what's wrong with the USFL?

Take the Stars. Please.

They decided to move to Baltimore to avoid confronting the Eagles in the fall. But for this last spring season they had to find temporary lodging in College Park. Granted they want to build an identification with Baltimore; that's good and right. But to christen the team the Maryland Stars for this one transitional season might have been a savvy, albeit cosmetic, marketing strategy. Then, people in Washington would not have been so specifically alienated, and might have felt more inclined to go to their games, which are, after all, played a lot closer to Washington than to Baltimore.

Recently, Myles Tanenbaum, the owner of the Stars, said of College Park: "I don't want to sound like a total ingrate, but there is no there there." Nice touch, Myles, you're beautiful. Who does your public relations, J.R. Ewing?

Just the other day in the NFL draft, Dallas picked Herschel Walker and the Rams picked Doug Flutie. Right now, those look like wasted moves. In two years they may look so much wiser.

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