Now a leading Republican presidential candidate, Trump has shown the same combativeness and showmanship in the campaign — and proved yet again that he will not hesitate to confront an established order.
But 30 years after the USFL’s demise, whether Trump killed the league or nearly saved it remains contested among those involved.
One point of agreement: “Donald was the big, crazy-spending owner, and the NFL guys were scared to death of him,” said Bill Tatham Jr., who owned the USFL’s Arizona Outlaws along with his father and came to admire Trump’s tactics. “But he wasn’t the half-cocked guy his enemies try to portray him as.”
Another similarity that USFL observers see to today: Trump set himself up to come out on top regardless of whether his presidential campaign succeeds.
Before the USFL, “I was well known, but not really well known,” Trump told The Associated Press. “After taxes, I would say I lost $3 million. And I got a billion dollars of free publicity.”
A roaring start
The USFL was founded with an explicit goal: avoid fights with the NFL. Games would be played in the spring. Each team could pick up a few stars. Rigorous salary caps would rule out an inter-league bidding war.
Though the new league sought to stay out of a duel, it was in a good position to capitalize on some of the NFL’s weaknesses.
A 1982 players strike cut the NFL’s season from 16 games to nine, owners were feuding over franchise locations and antiquated rules discouraged obvious crowd-pleasers such as post-touchdown celebrations.
Thanks to novelty and a few marquee players — most notably the Generals’ Hershel Walker, a Heisman Trophy winner — the league got off to a promising start. But by the end of the inaugural season, the initial enthusiasm had ebbed and some cornerstone franchises were struggling.
Trump not widely known at the time
The original owner of the Generals, an understated Oklahoma oilman named Walter Duncan, had enough of the league after just one year and sold the team to Trump.
To people who cared about sports — as opposed to New York development deals — Trump’s name wasn’t widely known at the time. But the team proved to be a perfect vehicle to carry him and his then-wife Ivana Trump into the public eye.
The tryouts for the Brig-A-Dears earned coverage in The New York Times, the New York Daily News and the New York Post, with a Post reporter even auditioning for the squad herself.
The cheerleading squad was just the beginning.
During the first six months of his ownership, Trump’s name appeared 161 times in newspapers tracked by the Factiva research service — more than it had appeared in the prior four years.
“He didn’t want to be in the Daily News’ real estate section,” said Kevin MacConnell, the Generals’ former director of public relations. Thanks to the Generals, he said, “he was on the front page of The New York Times and the Post.”
Some of the publicity came from Trump’s pricey acquisition of marquee players such as quarterback Doug Flutie. Yet much of the attention came at no cost.
There’s something about Shula
Shortly after buying the Generals, Trump began publicly courting legendary Miami Dolphins Coach Don Shula, insinuating that serious contract talks were under way.
Hiring away the NFL’s top coach was never a serious possibility, those involved at the time said. But Trump stoked talk of a deal for weeks, “not thinking Shula would ever accept it,” said Gary Croke, the Generals’ assistant head of public relations.
Such sports-page dramas were good for the team’s ticket sales, which surged after Trump bought the team. But many in the Generals’ front office became convinced that Trump’s interest in publicity did not always align with the team’s interest.
Around the time of the Shula play, Trump began talking up moving the team to Manhattan — anathema to the New Jersey residents who were the team’s fan base.
“I called him and said, ‘What are you doing? People are trying to sell tickets here,’” said Kathy Fernandes, executive assistant to the team’s president. “He said, ‘I just sold five apartments in the Trump Tower this week.’”
‘Fueled my empire’
The team provided Trump with a calling card of sorts for his other endeavors. When Trump’s ambitions to build a casino empire in Atlantic City necessitated friends in New Jersey politics, the state’s governor, Thomas Kean, declared a “New Jersey Generals Day” in 1985, appearing on field with Trump to give him an award.
State troopers in Kean’s protection detail came out to meet Trump and his own security crew, Magrish said, “and, boy, did he love that.”
“I think the Generals were very helpful in getting approvals I never would have gotten without them,” Trump said of his efforts to break into the New Jersey’s regulated gaming industry. “Atlantic City sort of fueled my empire.”
Trump’s push into the fall
The USFL bled money during its first two years. Owners overspent on talent and the league expanded at a rate that its audience could not justify. Whether fixing these mistakes would have been enough to make a spring league viable remains the subject of heated debate decades later.
An eventual study by consulting firm McKinsey and a poll of the league’s fans both suggested that the USFL should stay in the spring. Had the league kept its head down and built up its spring operations, “it would’ve had staying power,” Croke said.
Former owners such as Tatham and Steve Ehrhart, who was also the USFL’s general counsel, disagreed, citing the collapse of teams in major markets such as Los Angeles and Chicago.
“We couldn’t make it work financially or break through the power of the NFL and baseball,” Ehrhart said.
Trump came to the league already convinced of that conclusion.
‘If God wanted football in the spring’
While one contingent of the owners had deep enough pockets to weather several more money-losing seasons, another group of owners was nearly bust. At one away game, Trump says, he had to pay $25,000 to cover his rival owner’s unpaid stadium rental fees before the Generals could play.
But even if a spring football season were viable, Trump didn’t have much interest in a league that was going to be “low class, all third-rate players” anyway. Just days after buying the Generals, Trump suggested the new league could start playing in the fall — and winning against NFL teams — within a few years.
“If God wanted football in the spring, he wouldn’t have created baseball,” Trump told ABC News.
Generals staff and fellow owners say Trump’s strategy for the team was geared toward eventually forcing the NFL into a merger, or at least into picking up a few of the USFL’s most successful franchises.
‘No different than the debate stage now’
Trump started lobbying other owners to switch to the fall season, cajoling and bludgeoning as needed, Tatham said.
“It was no different than the debate stage now,” Tatham said, referring to the 2016 presidential campaign. “You’re not going to embarrass him.”
Trump, by his own admission, embarked on a campaign of humiliating the NFL. He signed a player from the Seahawks during the team’s 1983 playoffs, guaranteeing that the raid would be the talk of NFL pregame shows.
When the New York Giants got into a public contract dispute with star Lawrence Taylor, Trump wired $1 million into the linebacker’s bank account and signed Taylor to play with the Generals in 1988 — five years off.
The Giants had to pay Trump to nullify that contract just weeks later.
“They gave me a million dollars and hated me ever after,” Trump recalls gleefully. “The Giants went nuts when I signed him — it was huge publicity.”
The art of the insult
With much of the league exhausted and in debt, Trump’s advocacy for a frontal assault on the NFL paid off. Following the 1984 spring season, the owners voted to move the USFL to the fall in 1986, filing an October federal antitrust lawsuit against the NFL in New York. The lawyer handling the case for the USFL, combative showman Harvey Myerson, was Trump’s pick.
Moving to the fall cost the USFL its spring television contract, leaving the league without vital support. After a lame-duck spring season in 1985, the USFL pinned its future on its case against the NFL.
One welcome outcome for the USFL would have been a legal settlement that brought a handful of new teams into the NFL. If any team were to make that cut, it was likely to be Trump’s, based on Generals attendance and its strong roster of players.
“He had New York, he had the leverage,” Tatham said.
But Trump himself — and his delight at getting under the NFL’s skin — may have foiled prospects for a deal. Years after the USFL’s failure, Croke said he asked Ralph Wilson, then owner of the Buffalo Bills, whether the NFL had considered a merger.
“He said, ‘We actually thought about that, and your team was one that interested us. But Trump pissed us off so much that we didn’t want him in the league,’” Croke recalled.
Court rules NFL a monopoly
Trump says he’s convinced that a merger would have ultimately happened if the USFL owners had enough money to bargain from a position of power. But with some USFL owners nearly broke, the NFL saw no need to bargain. The case went to a jury — where the NFL painted Trump as the villain.
Jurors unanimously upheld the USFL’s contention that the NFL was a monopoly. But with the USFL asking for $1.3 billion in damages, the jurors split.
They awarded the USFL one dollar.
“What the NFL did was smart,” Trump says now. “They purely said this is a Donald Trump thing, and he doesn’t need the money.”
‘I’m not a minor league kind of person’
While the USFL appealed the judgment, Tatham worked to put together a coalition of owners willing to keep their teams playing in the meantime, but Trump wouldn’t bite.
“It was a very calm discussion, he was a very calm thinker,” Tatham said. “If Donald was this emotional, crazy guy, we’d have played. But he really isn’t.”
In 1988, the appellate court refused to alter the jury’s original $1 verdict. The league voted to disband.
Trump says he has no regrets.
“I’m not a minor league kind of person,” Trump said. “I came in on the basis that I wanted to challenge the NFL, and maybe there’d be a merger, maybe there wouldn’t be.”
Thirty years after the USFL’s collapse, many who participated in league see Trump’s presidential campaign as a replay of his football days. Some in lower perches in the league say Trump suckered the league into self-destruction by supporting his attempt to break into the clubby world of the NFL.
Doug Allen, who was the players’ union representative in contract talks with the USFL, says Trump’s initial infusion of charisma and money into the league turned from blessing to curse.
“Even if the league wasn’t going to make it, that wasn’t the way to go out of business,” Allen says. “He didn’t care if he wrecked the league, or what happened to players in the long run.”
‘The United States like his franchise’
But Tatham and Ehrhart — who supported the USFL’s move to the fall — saw Trump’s effort as a savvy gamble that brought the USFL within a hair’s breadth of busting into the country’s biggest sporting monopoly. They see a parallel in Trump’s current campaign, with his unconventional strategy and ability to run circles around rival candidates.
“I said before the first debate that it was going to be Trump and the seven dwarfs,” said Ehrhart.
Said Tatham: “I think Donald Trump looks at the United States like his franchise in the USFL.” He added, “Don’t ever think he doesn’t know what he’s doing.”