The United States Football League was a professional league which played its games from 1983-1985 during the spring and summer months. Founded by David Dixon, a New Orleans art and antique dealer, the USFL announced its formation on May 11, 1982, at the 21 Club in New York City. Judge Peter Spivak, part owner of the Detroit team, was announced as the president of the league, an interim position until a commissioner could be found. The league announced that it would be made up of 12 teams in major markets across the country. Franchises would play in New York (the Meadowlands, NJ), Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Boston, Tampa, Oakland, Denver, Washington, Philadelphia, Birmingham and San Diego (eventually switched to Phoenix). Not long after the press conference, Chet Simmons, a broadcasting executive with ESPN, was named the league's first commissioner.
The USFL made its debut in 1983 with a dozen teams and national television contracts with both ABC and ESPN. Much of the early news about the league centered on running back Herschel Walker, the Heisman Trophy winner who left Georgia a year early to sign with the New Jersey Generals. Despite Walker's presence the Generals were also-rans and watched the resurgent Michigan Panthers nip the Philadelphia Stars in the 1983 championship game.
Although play was often uneven during the inaugural year, most teams showed steady improvement. The league averaged more than 24,000 fans per game, which was very close to what Dixon originally forecast. Both ABC and ESPN were very pleased with the ratings generated by the circuit. Unfortunately, only the Denver Gold, who topped the league in attendance, and the Tampa Bay Bandits managed to escape large financial losses. Most of the shortfalls were due to larger than expected expenses for player salaries.
The year 1984 is perhaps best known as a year of change for the young circuit. Expansion, new owners and new players highlighted the USFL's second season. Joining the league were the Houston Gamblers, Memphis Showboats, Pittsburgh Maulers, San Antonio Gunslingers, Oklahoma Outlaws and the Jacksonville Bulls. Not even the addition of six more teams and another Heisman winner, though, could stop the Stars in 1984. Philadelphia blew through their league schedule before handling the Arizona Wranglers in the title game. Mike Rozier, college football's top player, was just one of many quality players to sign with the league in just its second season. The league also inked Jim Kelly, Reggie White, Steve Young and a host of college football's best along with former NFL starters. In addition, it picked up real estate tycoon Donald Trump as the new owner of the New Jersey Generals. Following the season, the embattled Simmons was replaced by Harry Usher as commissioner. Usher had been instrumental in the success of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Although league attendance remained solid, rising player costs forced many teams deeper into the red.
Prior to the 1985 campaign, the USFL announced it's intention to switch to a fall schedule beginning in 1986 and to file an antitrust lawsuit against the National Football League. The change of playing season had severe ramifications for several franchises, many of which faced direct NFL competition in their cities. Fresh off their championship season, the Stars left their growing fan base in Philadelphia for the recently-vacated Baltimore. The Michigan Panthers threw in the towel and merged with the Oakland Invaders. The Pittsburgh Maulers called it quits after just one season. The Breakers were forced out of their new-found home in New Orleans and made Portland, Oregon their third city in as many years. All four moves were a direct consequence of the league's intentions to play in the fall. The Chicago Blitz also suspended operations, the Oklahoma Outlaws and Arizona Wranglers merged to form the Arizona Outlaws and the Washington Federals headed South to become the Orlando Renegades.
On the field in 1985, the relocated Stars overcame a slow start and won their second title. Doug Flutie became the third consecutive Heisman winner to sign with the league, and league play improved dramatically due in large part to the preseason consolidations. Several franchises did not fare very well, though. The San Antonio Gunslingers, Los Angeles Express and Houston Gamblers struggled to make it through the year. Negative headlines and near financial ruin plagued the league even as it was showcasing its best football.
In July of 1986, about a month before the league was to begin its first fall season, the USFL won its suit against the NFL, but incredibly was awarded just $1 (trebled to $3 under antitrust law) in damages. More than $160 million in debt, the league folded before beginning its first fall campaign.