Donald Trump, right, attends the February 1985 signing ceremony that brought Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Doug Flutie, center, to his New Jersey Generals. The fledgling USFL team’s head coach, Walt Michaels, is on the left. (Marty Lederhandler/Associated Press)
Donald Trump was 37 years old. He already had it all. But he wanted more.
It was 1983, and the mogul had just opened his eponymous tower on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, with plans for major construction projects on the Upper East Side and in Atlantic City. But Trump didn’t feel as though he was getting the attention he deserved.
So he bought a football team.
“I hire a general manager to help run a billion-dollar business and there’s a squib in the papers,” he lamented to the New York Times. “I hire a coach for a football team and there are 60 and 70 reporters calling to interview me.’’
For a reported $9 million, Trump became the owner of the New Jersey Generals, a flailing team in the fledgling United States Football League. Within one year, he turned the team into one of the best in the USFL. Two years later, the league was dead, and Trump was the prime suspect.
“He was the air pump into the tire,” said Charley Steiner, a sports broadcaster who early in his career did the play-by-play for the Generals. “He gave the league the air it needed, elevated it to another level, pumped it up real good, and kept pumping till it exploded.”
The story of Trump the football owner feels familiar today in light of Trump the Republican presidential candidate. Thirty years later, the billionaire still has the same knack for grabbing headlines, focusing on what’s good for the Trump brand and steamrolling anyone in his way. Anyone surprised by his candidacy probably wasn’t watching much football in the spring of 1984.
“This campaign brings me back,” Steiner said. “It’s the same M.O., just replace USFL with GOP, and you’ve got the same exact thing.”
But Trump, who declined to be interviewed for this article, is certainly hoping for a different outcome this time. His fling with football ended embarrassingly, after he and the USFL fought for a payday of $1.69 billion — and reaped a mere $3.76.
The $1 League
The business model for spring football was simple: Without competition from the National Football League, the USFL could play in NFL stadiums and have television audiences to themselves.
The games were broadcast on ABC and a new network known as ESPN, and they regularly nabbed better television ratings than Major League Baseball. People tuned in for name-brand players, the wildly choreographed celebrations, and new gimmicks such as instant replay and the two-point conversion. During one halftime, boxing legend George Foreman officiated during a wedding at the 50-yard line.
“The whole environment was exciting,” said Gary Barbaro, an NFL veteran who ended his career playing for Trump’s Generals. “It made football fun again.”
The USFL launched future stars such as Reggie White, right, who started with the Memphis Showboats before going on to a storied career in the NFL. (Peter Morgan/Associated Press)
Trump, right, pictured with New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean at a 1985 USFL playoff game between his own Generals and the Baltimore Stars, had a knack for grabbing headlines and garnering publicity for the fledgling league. (Paul Spinelli/Associated Press)
It was never as successful as the NFL, but for a while it seemed to have potential. In recent years, Trump has said that the league was failing when he got involved and that he decided to buy a team “for peanuts” and place a long-shot bid that he could turn the whole thing around.
“Without me, the USFL would have been dead immediately,” he told the New York Daily News in 2014.
Exactly how big of a bet he placed is open for debate. News reports estimated that Trump bought the Generals for about $9 million. Trump said he paid $5 million.
“This at a time when prospective investors were being told that the going price for a team was between $6 [million] and $9 million,” former communications director Jim Byrne wrote in his book “The $1 League: The Rise and Fall of the USFL.” “He understood that he was devaluing all USFL franchises, but refused to budge on the issue.”
In another way, Trump provided an incredible amount of value.
“As a new league we were just starving for attention, and he got us attention,” said Mike Tollin, who ran the league’s highlight show before making an ESPN documentary about who killed the USFL. (Trump, in his view.) “I was as guilty as anyone. I featured him more prominently than any other owner. He was the equivalent of good copy — he was dazzling.”
Trump was thinner then, his hair a more natural brown, and he had the bluster of a frat boy who can afford his own butler to play beer pong for him. But beyond Trump’s ability to draw media attention was his willingness to spend big. He recruited NFL stars including former MVP Brian Sipe and the three-time Pro-Bowler Barbaro. One year after signing Sipe, Trump grew bored of the quarterback and lured Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie with the then-largest contract in professional football: $7 million over five years.
He even tried to woo legendary Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula, reportedly offering him $1 million a year. Shula told reporters he lost interest after Trump touted it as a done deal on national television. Trump blamed Shula, saying the coach demanded a home in Trump Tower.
“I could not have done the deal. I could not have given him an apartment in Trump Tower,” Trump told the Palm Beach Post at the time, showing a flair for product placement. “Money is one thing. Gold is another.” (Shula declined an interview request about the episode.)
The same guy who today brags about having the biggest crowds at his political rallies crowed about getting 60,000 butts in the seats for his first home game.
“He was able to generate so much publicity and respect for the league,” said Steve Ehrhart, a former executive director of the league. “I was very appreciative to that approach.”
Even before Trump bought in, his fellow owners had given up on a proposed $1.8 million salary limit. But Trump reignited a bidding war, and not all of the owners were thrilled with the new sky-high prices required to play. Philadelphia Stars owner Myles Tanenbaum, voiced this concern to Trump, according to Byrne’s book.
“I’m in the media capital of this country,” Trump said. “When you’re in New York you have to win.”
“Donald, in Philadelphia you have to win, too,” Tanenbaum replied. “You have to win every place.”
“Oh,” Trump said. “I have to win more.”
And win he did, taking his team from a paltry 6-and-12 record to 14 and 4.
‘Biggest fear’ of NFL
But victories in a spring league were small potatoes for Trump. He urged his fellow owners to go head-to-head with the NFL in the fall.
“If God wanted football in the spring, he wouldn’t have created baseball,” Trump told ABC News in July 1984.
It was a power move that he cast as the “biggest fear” of the NFL. “We’re going to have a league that’s going to be just as valuable as the NFL, or we’re going to have a merger,” he predicted in a closed-door meeting with fellow owners, according to transcripts presented in court.
Trump, pictured talking to reporters during a break from an USFL owners’ meeting, pushed the league to compete head to head with the NFL in the fall. (Todd Lillard/Associated Press)
A merger would have turned Trump’s relatively small investment into a brilliant success. But not everyone who had entered into the USFL was willing to take that risk. John Bassett, the owner of the Tampa Bay Bandits, called Trump’s plan “irresponsible and a detriment to everything we are trying to do.”
Still, the owners decided to form a committee and study the decision. (“To me, committees are what insecure people create in order to put off making hard decisions,” Trump wrote later in “The Art of the Deal.”) They came back with a recommendation to delay a move to the fall, citing a poll saying that the majority of USFL fans wanted them to stick to the spring. (“You can probably guess how much stock I put in polls,” he wrote.)
But ultimately, Trump persuaded the owners to follow his gut. They voted to move to the fall.
Taking NFL to court
Getting their games televised in the fall of 1986 was the first hurdle. The NFL had wrapped up contracts with the three big networks. So the USFL filed an antitrust lawsuit seeking $1.69 billion.
Trump was not solely responsible for the decision to take the NFL to court, but he did provide the lawyers: first Roy Cohn, Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s counsel, and then Harvey Myerson, who was later convicted of bilking clients out of millions of dollars. Trump told reporters that if his side didn’t win, his team would not bother playing the next season.
The trial was a national sensation. At one point, the NFL’s attorney accused Trump of paying waiters and busboys to spy on NFL owners when they stayed at his hotel.
“That’s such a false interpretation, it’s disgusting,” Trump said.
The USFL pointed to documents that seemed to prove that the NFL was keeping it from being competitive. Trump told a story about the NFL commissioner promising him an NFL team if the USFL just stayed in the spring and dropped the lawsuit.
After more than two months of testimony, the jury returned with a decision. Yes, the NFL violated antitrust law by acting “to exclude competition within major league football.” The owners cheered — until they read all the way through the decision. The jury awarded the USFL only $1 in damages. The antitrust claims tripled that award to $3. With interest — that was $3.76.
If anyone was still hoping for a merger, their leverage was gone.
“We’re lost now,” said Rudy Shiffer, the vice president of the Memphis Showboats, according to the Los Angeles Times. “We’re dead.”
In “The Art of the Deal,” Trump admitted some responsibility.
“As a witness, I was well spoken and professional . . . but that probably played into the NFL’s hands. From day one, the NFL painted me as a vicious, greedy, Machiavellian billionaire, intent only on serving my selfish ends at everyone else’s expense.”
In other words: Trump, says Trump, was just too Trump for his own good.
‘Just a little investment’
Trump, left, pictured with Mets owner Fred Wilpon, Jets owner Sonny Werblin and Yankees owner George Steinbrenner in 1983, craved attention: “I hire a coach for a football team and there are 60 and 70 reporters calling.” (David Pickoff/Associated Press)
Embarrassed by their losses — even before the court ruling, the league had hemorrhaged an estimated $200 million over three years — the owners decided not to play at all in 1986. As the most visible owner, Trump caught a lot of the flak. Some think it was misplaced.
“I honestly think Trump was really good for the league,” said Jim McVay, who did communications work for the Tampa Bay Bandits. “There were so many problems, much of which happened with the increased spending on players even before Trump even was part of the league.”
Ehrhart, the former executive director, thinks that if the league had kept playing in 1986, it could have survived. It did, after all, have contracts locked up with ESPN, later the biggest media powerhouse in sports. “It wasn’t Donald that killed the league,” he said.
But Tollin, who made the documentary for ESPN, sees a league that, had it continued on its original path, would have lasted longer than three years. And it was Trump who pushed it off course.
“The thing to me that was so distressing,” Tollin said, “is that none of it ever seemed to matter to Trump. It was just a little investment that didn’t work out too well, so he moved on to the next thing. Didn’t matter that hundreds of people lost hundreds of jobs, from the peanut vendors to ticket takers on up.”
The USFL changed the way football is played and helped launch the careers of several greats. It may never have had such an effect without the mind, money and media attention that came with Donald Trump. And yet many still consider him the villain.
“I think at the end of the day, if you write the history of the USFL, he took it down,” said Byrne, who did write the history of the USFL. “He wouldn’t admit to that ever, but he took it down.”
Trump owned up to only one major error in the entire endeavor.
“If there was a single key miscalculation I made with the USFL,” he wrote in his book, “it was evaluating the strength of my fellow owners.”
Ben Terris is a writer in the Washington Post's Style section with a focus on national politics.
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