ESPN 30 For 30 Series: #3 : Small Potatoes: Who Killed The USFL.

  • Directed by Michael Tollin
  • 51 Minutes
  • Premier Date: October 20, 2009
  • Grade: B
  • The United States Football League was a professional football league that played during the spring for three seasons- 1983-85.
  • The director of this film Michael Tollin had a connection with the USFL it was his film company which gained the rights to the filming of the USFL- they were what NFL Films has been to the NFL.
  • Note that this documentary was made in 2009- years before Donald Trump ran for and won the presidency. Trump is a main figure in this documentary.
  • While this documentary does give highlights of the three year history of the league its main concern is why did the once promising league fail and what was the cause of the failure- or who caused it to fail.
  • There was room for another professional football league in the early 80’s- and the USFL came into being due to three factors- 1- the 1982 NFL strike 2- the rise of Cable television- a lot of new cable networks and a demand for programming and 3- football which was the #1 sport in America since at least the late 60’s was still growing in popularity. There was an appetite for more football.
  • In May 1982 they announced the USFL’s birth- 12 franchises and play would start the next spring. They were not going to take on the NFL and play in the fall. A wise move. The USFL got a big break- first a two year deal with ABC Sports for $20 million to televise their games and then ESPN came aboard with a contract. Television money was a necessity and they got it.
  • Play started on March 6, 1983 and there were large crowds and big television ratings that first week. Again they made the right move in starting league play in March- the NFL was over, baseball had yet to begin- weekend afternoons were open for this league.
John Bassett - USFL (United States Football League)
  • The two key figures in this documentary are Tampa Bay Bandit owner John Bassett, a Canadian. Bassett was in favor of slow growth, keep player contracts reasonable which meant no big raids on the NFL and bidding wars for players. He was sensible and was well respected around the league by the other owners. Tampa Bay quickly became the model franchise. Bassett also made a great move in hiring Steve Spurrier as head coach [ Spurrier would later go on to great success with the University of Florida} Spurrier was an offensive genius and the Bandits would play highly entertaining football.
  • The documentary does focus a lot on John Bassett and Donald Trump and some of the star players that the league had- including Steve Young but it also focused on a workingman’s type player one named Chuck Pitcock who was given the opportunity to play professional football only because of the USFL. Even when interviewing Pitcock 25 years after the league folded you could tell the playing in the USFL was a highlight in Pitcock’s life. {The USFL also opened the gates for Pitcock he played a couple years in the NFL after the USFL folded. Sadly, Pitcock died at the age of 57 in 2016} His story was one of the memorable segments in this film.
  • While I wasn’t a die hard USFL fan I did watch a lot of games back then- and the league was exciting, it was a fun league where at the time and even now the NFL has been called the No Fun League. The USFL had the two point conversion and instant replay before the NFL adopted those changes.
  • At the end of year one the league was averaging 25,000 a game in attendance and had a 5 rating for television which was respectable. The first year of the league the Michigan Panthers would defeat the Philadelphia Stars in an exciting title game 24-22. The Stars would become the most successful franchise in league history. There seems to be some thought that the Stars could have been a competitive team in the NFL- they would go on to win the USFL Championship in seasons 2 and 3. Year one was rated a success.
  • In year two things changed with The Donald buying the New Jersey Generals franchise. Trump’s entrance into the league was a game changer. He was the opposite of Bassett. Bassett, a sportsman always had the best interests of the league in mind, Trump- would always have his best interests in mind. Bassett still wanted spring ball and gradual growth where Trump wanted to move the league to play in the fall against the NFL. Trump already had a big star in former Heisman Trophy winner Hershel Walker who the previous owner signed. Trump’s Generals improved from 6-12 in their first year to 14-4 in Trump’s first year as owner. Just as important for Trump owning the Generals gained him a lot of attention in the New York City media.
  • A big mistake was made in year two- the league went from 12 to 18 teams. They weren’t ready to expand. They also started signing big name college players who chose to go to the USFL instead of the NFL due to the big money- Jim Kelly, Reggie White and a couple more Heisman winners would sign- Doug Flutie with Trump’s Generals and Mike Rosier with Pittsburgh.
  • The USFL didn’t do well in Los Angeles who had two NFL teams at the time. They couldn’t draw flies even though they had future Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young.
  • The players in this league -everyone interviewed for the program spoke of how much fun they had.
  • Off the field it became Trump vs Bassett. One thing though Trump whose behavior we have seen daily as President the past four years- did have a lot of respect for Bassett. They disagreed but Bassett did have some influence on him. Then something terrible happened- John Bassett fell ill with brain cancer and as his health deteriorated Trump took control of the league. A lot of the owners followed Trump thinking they could trust him. Mistake. Trump was looking for one thing- to get his Generals into the NFL one way or another. He didn’t have the interests of the league as a whole in mind as Bassett did.
  • The 3rd season 1985 was to be the last year for spring ball- they would be scheduled to go against the NFL in the fall of 1986. The networks didn’t want this -they had a hard enough time selling advertising in the fall for the NFL- let alone two leagues.
  • The USFL sued the NFL claiming the NFL was a monopoly. They actually won the verdict the jury ruled in favor of the USFL but awarded them only $3 in damages. The lawsuit was seen by most as an effort by Trump to get the NFL to let a few teams from the USFL into the NFL- including his Generals of course. This wasn’t happening.
  • The the trial began John Bassett died.
  • The NFL had to pay the lawyers fees for the entire trial but the league was over. It suspended play and released all of their players.
  • In the end the USFL was a big positive for players. Salaries sky rocketed in the NFL due to the competition for their services. 187 players who played in the USFL ended up playing in the NFL.
  • The famed sportscaster Keith Jackson who announced USFL games said it best the league failed due to greed and he pointed the finger at Donald John Trump as the main reason. Seems like most interviewed for the program did.
  • How did Trump respond? In typical Trump fashion. He did allow himself to sit down and be interviewed by Mike Tollin- but he was short with him and didn’t seem very interested in discussing it saying it was a long time ago- and the whole thing – the documentary was “Small potatoes.” He really didn’t answer anything or surprise!- admit to having made any mistakes during his time in the league.
  • The documentary overall was very good. The two impressions I walk away with are it was a fun league- and exciting league where the players enjoyed playing and that if they had followed John Bassett’s lead and stayed a spring lead it would have succeeded. Also that the entrance of Donald Trump into the league ultimately doomed it.

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