The MMQB presents NFL 95, a special project running through mid-July detailing 95 artifacts that tell the story of the NFL, as the league prepares to enter its 95th season. See the entire series here.
The NFL wasn’t always the cash cow that ruled over all other professional sports like it does today, even after the AFL and NFL merged in 1966. The World Football League appeared in 1974-75 as a potential rival, but it wasn’t until the founding of the United States Football League, in 1982, that the NFL had a true challenger. The brainchild of New Orleans businessman David Dixon, the USFL signed television contracts with ABC and then-neophyte ESPN and began play in 1983 by fielding 12 teams, with 10 residing in the top 13 TV markets.
The USFL would play in the spring and summer, not head-to-head with the NFL, and feature a salary cap for each team. It targeted big-name players both from the college ranks (Kelvin Bryant, Herschel Walker, Jim Kelly, Reggie White, Steve Young, Gary Zimmerman, Anthony Carter, Craig James, Mike Rozier) and the NFL (Doug Williams, Brian Sipe, Joe Cribbs), as well as future Hall of Fame coaches Marv Levy and George Allen.
The league was well received by fans, who enjoyed the forward-thinking game. Not only did the USFL have two-point conversions, instant replay and true free agency well before the NFL, but it featured African-American quarterbacks. And even though the league struggled—as all new ventures do—it appeared that the USFL might survive as a spring alternative to the NFL. However, when then-New York/New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump convinced the rest of league to compete head-to-head with the NFL starting in the fall of 1986 and to file an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL (eventually won, for a grand total of $1 in damages), the downfall began. The ’86 season would never be played, and the league’s three-year history would end up little more than a footnote to some great NFL careers.
— Greg Bedard