March 6, 1983, 40 years ago today: The first games in the history of the United States Football League are played. It would be a short history, as the circuit that was supposed to make football a year-round sport lasted only three seasons. The USFL faced resistance from the NFL from the get-go, especially with home stadiums, forcing some franchises to set makeshift arrangements in order to get that first season underway. At first, league owners had agreed to a cost containment plan. But temptation was too great, and teams soon found themselves in bidding wars with each other and with the NFL.
As a result, the USFL attracted some talent, including three straight Heisman Trophy winners: Herschel Walker of Georgia, Doug Flutie of Boston College and Mike Rozier of Nebraska. Reggie White, Jim Kelly and Steve Young also starred in the USFL. In 1984, Young signed a guaranteed $40 million contract coming out of BYU with the Los Angeles Express. That deal would be a catalyst in the implosion of the USFL, as Express owner William Oldenburg, accused of lying about his net worth, stopped paying the team’s bills after the season.
Still, eager to cash in with the NFL, USFL owners voted to move to a fall schedule for the 1986 season to compete directly with the NFL. The decision was made in August, 1984, at the urging of New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump, who was hoping for a merger between the two leagues. But plagued by financial losses, stadium problems and folding franchises, the league ceased operation after the 1985 season and never played in the fall. The USFL lost an estimated $613 million during its three-year history.
The new iteration of the USFL (with no legal connection to the old one) began operation in 2022, with all games being played in a “bubble” in Birmingham. There are eight teams this season, but only four home stadiums. The strangest arrangement is in Canton, OH, where the Pittsburgh Maulers and New Jersey Generals will play their home games. All eight franchises bear the locations and nicknames of teams from the original USFL. Houston is the western-most city. Training camp begins March 21, and the regular season runs April 15-July 2.
(Tom Scott hosts the Scott Slant segment during the football season on KTVB’s Sunday Sports Extra. He also anchors four sports segments each weekday on 95.3 FM KTIK and one on News/Talk KBOI. His Scott Slant column runs every Wednesday.)