Fumbled: The Story of the United States Football League

davi_deste via eBay
davi_deste via eBay

There were supposed to be 44 players marching to the field when the visiting Los Angeles Express played their final regular season game against the Orlando Renegades in June 1985.

Thirty-six of them showed up. The team couldn’t afford more.

“We didn’t even have money for tape,” Express quarterback Steve Young said in 1986. “Or ice.” The squad was so poor that Young played fullback during the game. They only had one, and he was injured.

Other teams had ridden school buses to practice, driven three hours for “home games,” or shared dressing room space with the local rodeo. In August 1986, the cash-strapped United States Football League called off the coming season. The league itself would soon vaporize entirely after gambling its future on an antitrust lawsuit against the National Football League. The USFL argued the NFL was monopolizing television time; the NFL countered that the USFL—once seen as a promising upstart—was being victimized by its own reckless expansion and the wild spending of team owners like Donald Trump.

They were both right.


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Spring football. That was David Dixon’s pitch. The New Orleans businessman and football advocate—he helped get the Saints in his state—was a fan of college ball and noticed that spring scrimmages at Tulane University led to a little more excitement in the air. With a fiscally responsible salary cap in place and a 12-team roster, he figured his idea could be profitable. Market research agreed: a hired broadcast research firm asserted 76 percent of fans would watch what Dixon had planned.

He had no intention of grappling with the NFL for viewers. That league’s season aired from September through January, leaving a football drought March through July. And in 1982, a players’ strike led to a shortened NFL season, making the idea of an alternative even more appealing to networks. Along with investors for each team region, Dixon got ABC and the recently-formed ESPN signed to broadcast deals worth a combined $35 million over two years.

When the Chicago Blitz faced the Washington Federals on the USFL’s opening day March 6, 1983, over 39,000 fans braved rain at RFK Stadium in Washington to see it. The Federals lost 28-7, foreshadowing their overall performance as one of the league’s worst. Owner Berl Bernhard would later complain the team played like “untrained gerbils.”

Anything more coordinated might have been too expensive. The USFL had instituted a strict $1.8 million salary cap that first year to avoid franchise overspending, but there were allowances made so each team could grab one or two standout rookies. In 1983, the big acquisition was Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker, who opted out of his senior year at Georgia to turn pro. Walker signed with the New Jersey Generals in a three-year, $5 million deal.

Jim Kelly and Steve Young followed. Stan White left the Detroit Lions. Marcus Dupree left college. The rosters were built up from scratch using NFL cast-offs or prospects from nearby colleges, where teams had rights to “territorial” drafts.

To draw a line in the sand, the USFL had advertising play up the differences between the NFL’s product and their own. Their slogan, “When Football Was Fun,” was a swipe at the NFL’s increasingly draconian rules regarding players having any personality. They also advised teams to run a series of marketable halftime attractions. The Denver Gold once offered a money-back guarantee for attendees who weren’t satisfied. During one Houston Gamblers game, boxer George Foreman officiated a wedding. Cars were given away at Tampa Bay Bandits games. The NFL, the upstart argued, stood for the No Fun League.

For a while, it appeared to be working. The Panthers, which had invaded the city occupied by the Detroit Lions, averaged 60,000 fans per game, higher than their NFL counterparts. ABC was pleased with steady ratings. The league was still conservative in their spending.

That would change—many would argue for the worse—with the arrival of Donald Trump.

Despite Walker’s abilities on the field, his New Jersey Generals ended the inaugural 1983 season at 6-12, one of the worst records in the league. The excitement having worn off, owner J. Walter Duncan decided to sell the team to real estate investor Trump for a reported $5-9 million.

A fixture of New York media who was putting the finishing touches on Trump Tower, Trump introduced two extremes to the USFL. His presence gave the league far more press attention than it had ever received, but his bombastic approach to business guaranteed he wouldn’t be satisfied with an informal salary cap. Trump spent and spent some more, recruiting players to improve the Generals. Another Heisman winner, quarterback Doug Flutie, was signed to a five-year, $7 million contract, the largest in pro football at the time. Trump even pursued Lawrence Taylor, then a player for the New York Giants, who signed a contract saying that, after his Giants contract expired, he’d join Trump’s team. The Giants wound up buying out the Taylor/Trump contract for $750,000 and quadrupled Taylor’s salary, and Trump wound up with pages of publicity.

Trump’s approach was effective: the Generals improved to 14-4 in their sophomore season. But it also had a domino effect. In order to compete with the elevated bar of talent, other team owners began spending more, too. In a race to defray costs, the USFL approved six expansion teams that paid a buy-in of $6 million each to the league.

It did little to patch the seams. Teams were so cash-strapped that simple amenities became luxuries. The Michigan Panthers dined on burnt spaghetti and took yellow school buses to training camp; players would race to cash checks knowing the last in line stood a chance of having one bounce. When losses became too great, teams began to merge with one another: The Washington Federals became the Orlando Renegades. By the 1985 season, the USFL was down to 14 teams. And because the ABC contract required the league to have teams in certain top TV markets, ABC started withholding checks.

Trump was unmoved. Since taking over the Generals, he had been petitioning behind the scenes for the other owners to pursue a shift to a fall season, where they would compete with the NFL head on. A few owners countered that fans had already voiced their preference for a spring schedule. Some thought it would be tantamount to league suicide.

Trump continued to push. By the end of the 1984 season, he had swayed opinion enough for the USFL to plan on one final spring block in 1985 before making the move to fall in 1986.

In order to make that transition, they would have to win a massive lawsuit against the NFL.

In the mid-1980s, three major networks meant that three major broadcast contracts would be up for grabs—and the NFL owned all three. To Trump and the USFL, this constituted a monopoly. They filed suit in October 1984. By the time it went to trial in May 1986, the league had shrunk from 18 teams to 14, hadn’t hosted a game since July 1985, kept only threadbare rosters, and was losing what existing television deals it had by migrating to smaller markets (a major part of the NFL’s case was that the real reason for the lawsuit, and the moves to smaller markets, was to make the league an attractive takeover prospect for the NFL). The ruling—which could have forced the NFL to drop one of the three network deals—would effectively become the deciding factor of whether the USFL would continue operations.

They came close. A New York jury deliberated for 31 hours over five days. After the verdict, jurors told press that half believed the NFL was guilty of being a monopoly and were prepared to offer the USFL up to $300 million in damages; the other half thought the USFL had been crippled by its own irresponsible expansion efforts. Neither side would budge.

To avoid a hung jury, it was decided they would find in favor of the USFL but only award damages in the amount of $1. One juror told the Los Angeles Times that she thought it would be an indication for the judge to calculate proper damages.

He didn’t. The USFL was awarded treble damages for $3 in total, an amount that grew slightly with interest after time for appeal. The NFL sent them a payment of $3.76. (Less famously, the NFL was also ordered to pay $5.5 million in legal fees.)

Rudy Shiffer, vice-president of the Memphis Showboats, summed up the USFL's fate shortly after the ruling was handed down. “We’re dead,” he said.

Star Wars Fans Digitally Inserted Harrison Ford Into Solo: A Star Wars Story

Jonathan Olley, Lucasfilm Ltd
Jonathan Olley, Lucasfilm Ltd

While hardcore fans thoroughly enjoyed ​Solo: a Star Wars Story for its dedication to the series's internal lore, wider audiences felt indifferent toward the film. It was a much-needed reminder that while nerd culture has effectively become mainstream, it is not so encompassing that audiences will accept any offering from a well-known sci-fi franchise.

For most people, Han Solo is cool because Harrison Ford had an effortless charm that made him instantly iconic. While actor ​Alden Ehrenreich did an admirable job in Solo, bringing the space smuggler to life, he was no Ford. Fortunately, technology might have the answer to tweaking the film.

Derpfakes is a YouTube channel that uses AI to digitally transpose new features over existing performances. In this instance, they used footage of a ​young Harrison Ford from his early films American Graffiti and The Conversation to eerily bring his presence to Solo. The composing software doesn't quite clear the uncanny valley, but the end result is impressive nonetheless.

8 Haunting Horror Movie Gimmicks

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

In the 1950s and 1960s, horror movies were making studios huge profits on shoestring budgets. But after the market hit horror overload, directors and studios had to be extra creative to get people to flock to theaters. That's when a flood of different gimmicks were introduced at movie theaters across the country to make a film stand out from the crowd. From hypnotists to life insurance policies and free vomit bags, here's a brief history of some of the most memorable horror movie gimmicks.

1. PSYCHO-RAMA // MY WORLD DIES SCREAMING (1958)

In order to truly become a classic, a horror movie can't just work on the surface; it has to get deep inside of your head. That's what Psycho-Rama tried to achieve when it was first conceived for My World Dies Screaming, later renamed Terror in the Haunted House. Psycho-Rama introduced audiences to subliminal imagery in order to let the scares sink in more than any traditional film could.

Skulls, snakes, ghoulish faces, and the word "Death" would all appear onscreen for a fraction of a second—not long enough for an audience member to consciously notice it, but it was enough to get them uneasy. Obviously Psycho-Rama didn't really catch on with the public or the film industry, but horror directors, like William Friedkin in The Exorcist, have since gone on to use this quick imagery technique to enhance their own movies.

2. FRIGHT INSURANCE // MACABRE (1958)

Director William Castle didn't make a name for himself in the film industry by directing cinematic classics; instead, he relied on shock and schlock to help fill movie theater seats. His movies were full of what audiences craved at the time: horror, gore, terror, suspense, and a heaping helping of camp. But his true genius came from marketing—and the gimmicks he brought to every movie, which have since become legendary among horrorphiles.

His most famous stunt was the life insurance policy he purchased for every member of an audience that paid to see Macabre. This was a real policy backed by Lloyd's of London, so if you died of fright in your seat, your family would receive $1000. Now who wouldn't want to roll the dice on that type of deal? Of course, the policy didn't cover anyone with a preexisting medical condition or an audience member who committed suicide during the screening. Lloyd's had to draw the line somewhere, right?

3. HYPNO-VISTA // HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM (1959)

How do you make your routine horror movie stand out from the crowd? Hypnotize your audience, of course. Thus Hypno-Vista was born. For this gimmick, James Nicholson, president of American International Pictures, suggested that a lecture by a hypnotist, Dr. Emile Franchel, should precede Horrors of the Black Museum, which had a plot focusing on a hypnotizing killer.

For 13 minutes, Dr. Franchel talked to the audience about the science behind hypnotism, before attempting to hypnotize them himself in order to feel more immersed in the story. Nowadays it comes off as overlong and dry, but it was a gimmick that got people into theaters back in 1959. Plus, writer Herman Cohen said that eventually the lecture had to be removed whenever the movie re-aired on TV because it did, in fact, hypnotize some people.

4. NO LATE ADMISSION // PSYCHO (1960)

Though this isn't the most gimmickiest of gimmicks, Alfred Hitchcock's insistence that no audience member be admitted into Psycho once the movie started got a lot of publicity at the time. The Master of Suspense's reasoning is less about drumming up publicity and more about audience satisfaction, though. Because Janet Leigh gets killed so early into the movie, he didn't want people to miss her part and feel misled by the movie's marketing.

This publicity tactic wasn't completely novel, though, as the groundbreaking French horror movie Les Diaboliques (1955) had a similar policy in place. This was at a time when people would simply stroll into movie screenings whenever they wanted, so to see a director—especially one so masterful at the art of publicity—who was adamant about showing up on time was a great way to pique some interest.

5. FRIGHT BREAK // HOMICIDAL (1961)

Another classic William Castle gimmick was the "fright break" he offered to audience members during his 1961 movie, Homicidal. Here, a timer would appear on the screen just as the film was hurtling toward its gruesome climax. Frightened audience members had 45 seconds to leave the theater and still get a full refund on their ticket. There was a catch, though.

Frightened audience members who decided to take the easy way out were shamed into the "coward's corner," which was a yellow cardboard booth supervised by some poor sap theater employee. Then, they were forced to sign a paper reading "I'm a bona-fide coward," before getting their money back. Obviously, at the risk of such humiliation, most people decided to just grit their teeth and experience the horror on the screen instead.

6. THE PUNISHMENT POLL // MR. SARDONICUS (1961)

The most interactive of William Castle's schlocky horror gimmicks put the fate of the film itself into the hands of the audience. Dubbed the "punishment poll," Castle devised a way to let viewers vote on the fate of the characters in the movie Mr. Sardonicus. Upon entering the theater, people were given a card with a picture of a thumb on it that would glow when a special light was placed on it. "Thumbs up" meant that Mr. Sardonicus would be given mercy, and "thumbs down" meant … well, you get the idea.

Apparently audiences never gave ol' Sardonicus the thumbs up, despite Castle's claims that the happier ending was filmed and ready to go. However, no alternative ending has ever surfaced, leaving many to doubt his claims. Chances are, there was only one way out for Mr. Sardonicus.

7. FREE VOMIT BAGS // MARK OF THE DEVIL (1970)

Horror fans are mostly masochists at heart. They don't want to be entertained—they want to be terrified. So when the folks behind 1970's Mark of the Devil gave out free vomit bags to the audience due to the film's grotesque nature, how could any self-respecting horror fan not be intrigued? It wasn't just the bags that the studio was advertising; it also claimed the film was rated V, for violence—and maybe some vomit?

8. DUO-VISION // WICKED, WICKED (1973)

Duo-Vision was hyped as the new storytelling technique in cinema—offering two times the terror for the price of one ticket. Of course Duo-Vision is just fancy marketing lingo for split-screen, meaning audiences see a film from two completely different perspectives side-by-side. In the 1973 horror film Wicked, Wicked, that meant watching the movie from the points of view of both the killer and his victims.

Seems like a perfect concept for the horror genre, right? Well, Duo-Vision wasn't just employed during the movie's most horrific moments; it was used for the movie's entire 95-minute runtime. The technique had been used sparingly in other films—most notably in Brian De Palma's much better film Sisters (1973)—but it had never been implemented to this extent. A little bit of Duo-Vision apparently goes a long way, because it fell out of favor soon after.

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