The United States Football League was founded in 1982 by David Dixon, an art dealer from New Orleans. With an ABC
television contract, and Heisman Trophy
winner Herschel Walker
signed on, the USFL opened its inaugural season with twelve teams in three divisions:
Atlantic Division Central Division Pacific Division
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Boston Breakers Birmingham Stallions Arizona Wranglers
New Jersey Generals Chicago Blitz Denver Gold
Philadelphia Stars Michigan Panthers Los Angeles Express
Washington Federals Tampa Bay Bandits Oakland Invaders
The first season was a successful one, from a football standpoint. The Michigan Panthers beat the Philadelphia Stars in the championship game. ABC and ESPN were both happy with TV ratings, and the league averaged 24,000 fans per game. Things were much different from a financial aspect, however. Only Denver and Tampa Bay made a profit, as competing with the NFL for top players cost more money than originally forecasted.
The USFL pressed onward, expanding to four divisions and adding six more teams for 1984: the Houston Gamblers, Memphis Showboats, Pittsburgh Maulers, San Antonio Gunslingers, Oklahoma Outlaws, and the Jacksonville Bulls. Donald Trump took control of the Generals franchise, the Breakers moved to New Orleans, and the league added marquee players like Mike Rozier, Jim Kelly, Reggie White, Steve Young, and Maurice Carthon. The Philadelphia Stars won the 1984 championship, but the league continued to plunge deep into the red...
The Breakers relocated (again) to Oregon. The Stars moved to Baltimore to fill the gap left by the Colts, and to avoid competing with the Eagles. Chicago and Pittsburgh folded, Oklahoma and Arizona merged, Washington moved to Orlando, and Michigan merged with Oakland. The USFL announced an $1.7 billion antitrust lawsuit against the NFL. Under shaky footing, the 1985 season began.
The USFL had scored another coup, signing its third Heisman Trophy winner, Boston College's Doug Flutie. Despite putting its best product yet on the field, several teams struggled just to print paychecks. The Baltimore Stars beat the Oakland Invaders for the '85 title, and the league awaited the court's decision.
In July of 1985 the decision was handed down... in favor of the USFL. But while the court ruled that the NFL had violated the Sherman Antitrust Act, the jury could not find that the NFL had financially damaged any of the USFL owners. The USFL was awarded $1. Yup, one dollar. Anti-trust laws tripled that amount to three dollars, and with interest the total amount came to $3.76, the check for which still sits in a desk in Memphis. The league folded immediately. Players signed on with the NFL, and although the USFL would later win about $10 million in an appeal, the league was dead forever.