SOMETIMES FOR A BUSINESS TO SUCCEED, a venture requires being in the right place, at the right time, with the right product and the right people behind it.  In launching the United States Football League, founder David Dixon felt he had each of these firmly in place by May 11, 1982.  Unfortunately, over the course of its existence the USFL managed to take each of these elements - one by one - and toss them aside.

The concept of the USFL was born from the mind of a Louisiana antique dealer who believed America's appetite for professional football was insatiable.  David Dixon wasn't your typical dealer of knick-knacks and old porcelain statuettes, however.  Dixon brought some measure of credibility with his idea.  He had been involved in pro football before, having been instrumental in the founding of the NFL's New Orleans Saints, as well as with the construction of the Louisiana Superdome.  So while some might have thought the concept of a pro football league that played its games in the spring was "crackpot" in nature, David Dixon's track record gave him credibility that wouldn't have been afforded others who had the vision.

Originally conceived in 1965, Dixon's concept for the USFL was shelved for a decade and a half.  During that time, Dixon closely followed the paths of two other pro football leagues that had come and gone:  the American Football League of the 1960's, which waged war head-to-head with the established NFL and finally joined it on equal terms, and the World Football League of the 1970's, which attempted to wage war with the NFL but was the football equivalent of trying to take down a battleship with spitballs.

The study in contrasts between the AFL and WFL was striking, and it was one from which Dixon learned a great deal.  The AFL was well financed from its inception, with owners willing to take financial hits for the long haul to establish their league in the marketplace.  The WFL was poorly financed from its inception, with owners unable to take financial hits and hoping to make a quick buck.  The AFL placed its teams for the most part in markets where the NFL didn't have a presence; the WFL did the opposite, only to have teams move out of those markets with disastrous results.  The AFL landed a network television deal, giving it credibility.  The WFL didn't, and seemed to lose credibility almost daily from its inception.  The AFL was well planned, the WFL wasn't. 

Pro football in 1980 was undergoing a surge in popularity, and Dixon felt the time was right to launch the USFL.  Commissioning a survey on the subject of spring pro football by Frank Magid Associates, the results were what Dixon wanted:  there was, per the study, "substantial support to the prospects for the USFL - at the gate and in delivering television viewers to advertisers."  The report went on to say that "in the fact of a long-standing reality (the existing NFL), the idea of the USFL does very well."  Armed with what became known as the "Magid Study," Dixon began to woo potential franchisees.

Dixon also had formulated a blueprint for the league's operations.  The USFL, playing in the spring, would need early television exposure and revenue, sound financial management through disciplined spending, owners willing to absorb losses for several years in anticipation of long-term financial success, and playing in a mix of cities with NFL teams and without.  Playing a spring schedule, Dixon surmised, would allow USFL teams to play in NFL cities, as there was no direct competition between them.  Dixon subsequently focused on putting teams in markets that would be attractive to a potential television partner:  New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, the Bay Area in California, Florida, Washington DC, the deep south.  With teams in these locales, a national television deal could be more easily secured.

Dixon's history with the Saints and the Superdome notwithstanding, he knew that to open doors and add credibility, the USFL concept would need the aid of football-minded men who also saw his vision.  He found one such man in former Denver Bronco and Stanford University head coach John Ralston, whom Dixon hired as the USFL's first full-time employee.  Respected in football circles, Ralston brought further credibility to presentations made to potential franchise owners, answering many of the "nuts and bolts" football operations questions that would be asked.

In Dixon's original plan a league of at least 8, but no more than 12 teams was envisioned in its first year.  With Ralston on board, the question of how many teams there would be, and who would own them, started to take shape.  Myles Tanenbaum came on early and would head up the Philadelphia franchise, former WFL owner John Bassett agreed to own a team on the proviso that he could have exclusive rights to Florida, a partnership of George Matthews and Randy Vataha took the Boston franchise, and Oklahoma oilman J. Walter Duncan was awarded the New York market following an abortive effort to get 35-year old real estate mogul Donald Trump on board.  Former Swiss ambassador Marvin Warner would bring the USFL to Birmingham, while real estate magnate A. Alfred Taubman would launch a team in Detroit.  Fellow real estate mogul Ron Blanding would own the franchise in Denver, with respected attorney Berl Bernhard heading up the Washington franchise.  Phoenix cardiovascular surgeon Dr. Ted Diethrich was awarded the Chicago franchise, while Alex Spanos would be the USFL's man in Los Angeles.  Tad Taube and Jim Joseph would team up in California's Bay Area, and cable television pioneers Bill Daniels and Alan Harmon would head up California's third franchise in San Diego.  Dixon also held a franchise for himself - payment for his involvement in organizing the league.  But Dixon opted to keep his team inactive for 1983, desiring instead to serve as the USFL's shepherd in its maiden season; ultimately he would sell it to those who would organize the Houston Gamblers for 1984, never putting a team on the field himself.

But almost as soon as the lineup of initial USFL owners was in place, it was breaking apart.  The first chink in the proverbial armor came when Spanos withdrew from the group, opting instead to purchase a minority stake in the NFL's San Diego Chargers (he would later become the team's majority owner).  Los Angeles was seen as a cornerstone market for the USFL in terms of television, and having no team in the city just wouldn't do.  The owners of the Bay Area franchise (later the Oakland Invaders), Jim Joseph and Tad Taube, came up with a resolution:  they'd flip a coin, with the winner getting the L.A. franchise, the loser staying in the Bay Area.  Joseph won the toss, and the Los Angeles franchise was his - for the time being.

Soon however another problem arose that put Los Angeles in play.  Bill Daniels and Alan Harmon, who had been awarded a franchise for San Diego, were denied permission to lease Jack Murphy Stadium for their team's games.  Having two moguls of the cable television industry placing a USFL franchise in the nation's second largest television market made more sense than having Jim Joseph owning a team there, so Joseph, who had began his USFL journey as a part-owner in his home area of San Francisco and took ownership of the Los Angeles franchise, suddenly found his franchise on the move again - this time to Phoenix, Arizona.  It was far from what Joseph had envisioned, but he remained committed to the concept of spring football.

In September 1981, the owners named Detroit minority owner and former judge Peter Spivak as interim commissioner, and retained Mike Trager, a senior partner at Robert Landau Associates, to negotiate with television networks regarding a potential USFL package.  Trager was an excellent choice, not only for his extensive background in the television industry but also due to his relationship with Chet Simmons, who was then the President of a fledgling cable network, Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN).  Trager's efforts garnered interest not only from ESPN on the cable side but also Turner Broadcasting System (TBS), and on from over-the-air broadcast networks such as ABC and NBC.  Trager ultimately recommended that owners reach agreement with ABC and ESPN, surmising that in ABC's case the USFL would replace a stale Sunday afternoon sports lineup, while in ESPN's case it would create "destination" programming - giving the young cable network a flagship product that would bring in viewers.


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