When I recently read David Cay Johnston’s excellent new book, The Making of Donald Trump, I learned about his involvement in the United States Football League or, as it is normally referred to, the USFL. I did know that Trump had something to do with the league, but not much else. I did not know that he was likely the single biggest reason for the failure of the league.
According to Johnston, the USFL was formed largely to appeal to the vanity of rich men. It was a way for rich men who weren’t rich enough to buy into the NFL to have their own professional football teams. But that doesn’t mean that the project itself wasn’t financially viable. The USFL was set up to play in the spring. It didn’t directly compete with the NFL. So for people who just couldn’t get enough football, it was there. Also, ticket prices were cheaper, so that was good. Games averaged about 25,000 people in attendance in the first year. That’s shockingly good.
What’s more, the league was formed at roughly the same time as ESPN. So they were able to get television contracts worth millions. There seems to me no doubt that had the USFL taken things slowly as it was originally conceived, it would either now be huge or have merged with the NFL. Instead, the league existed for only three seasons.
This is shocking given that the first season had been so good and the future looked so bright at that point. There was just one problem: Donald Trump bought one of the teams, the New Jersey Generals, after the first season. It’s amazing to me that so many people think Trump is good at business. As most people around here know: I don’t think that much of supposed business acumen in general. I think there really are only two things: competent management (which can easily be learned) and dumb luck. Trump has none of former.
Trump started his ownership as you might imagine. He immediately crushed the salary cap. He wasn’t the first to cross it but he really accelerated it, making what should have been a conservative business (at that point anyway) into a high risk gambit. At first, this helped attendance. And certainly having Trump around didn’t hurt the profile of the USFL. But by the third season, some teams were losing money.
This provided a great opportunity for Trump. You see, he wasn’t interested in the USFL. He later claimed that it would always have been “small potatoes.” He appears to have only been interested in using it to get into the NFL. So he convinced a number of team owners to sue the NFL. They claimed that the USFL wanted to play in the fall and that they couldn’t because the NFL had them frozen out because it had a lock on all the television contracts.
So they were making an antitrust case against the NFL. And they won! The jury claimed that the NFL did indeed have a monopoly. And they awarded the USFL $1 in damages. That’s not a typo. Apparently, the jury wasn’t too happy about the case. And when the USFL appealed the award, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld it and indicated that it knew the case was just a cheap attempt to use the courts to get into the NFL without having to earn it.
Note: such an antitrust case might have worked after 10 or 15 years when the USFL was bringing in 60,000 in attendance. But this was a case where the league had just started. As it was, attendance went up in the second season, but it was back down to where it started in the third season. So there is the answer to question in the headline: Donald Trump killed the USFL.
The following ESPN documentary from 2009 is about this whole thing. It is called, Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL? I recommend watching it. I’m not interested in football, but I found the film fascinating.