The United States Football League, Debuting this Weekend, is Modeling a Spring/Summer Experiment First Tried in 1983

What Alfred Taubman’s Experience as Owner of the Michigan Panthers of the Original USFL Tells Us about the Prospects for the New League’s Success

4/16/22 – – Are you ready for some football? Ready or not, the United States Football League debuts this weekend on NBC and FOX. Saturday night’s game between the Birmingham Stallions and New Jersey Generals kicks off the league’s inaugural season.

Modeled after the spring/summer professional football league by the same name that enjoyed fleeting success in the 1980s, USFL 2.0 features eight teams competing over 10 weeks (all regular-season games will be played in Birmingham, Alabama), culminating in a championship game to be played in Canton, Ohio, on July 3. 

I’ll be taking special interest in the success of the league in general and its Michigan Panthers franchise in particular. Back in the days of the original USFL, I headed communications for The Taubman Companies, a diversified investment company owned by entrepreneur A. Alfred Taubman. In addition to our shopping malls, the international auction house Sotheby’s, the Woodward & Lothrop and Wanamaker’s department store chains and A&W Restaurants, our holdings included the Michigan Panthers of the USFL. So, I lived through the ups and downs of the experiment the new USFL’s owners are attempting to reformulate.

To get some insight into what the owners of USFL 2.0 might be thinking as they watch their teams take the field  for the first time, I thought it would be interesting to share an excerpt from Alfred Taubman’s 2007 memoir, “Threshold Resistance – The Extraordinary Career of a Luxury Retailing Pioneer.” He talks about the rationale for spring football, the challenges and joys of being a start-up owner, and the league’s experience with a young owner from New York who went on to be the president of a much larger enterprise.

Mr. Taubman passed away in 2015, but I’m sure he’ll be watching from above, anxious to see if this group of investors can pull it off.

Excerpt from Chapter 12 — “Selling Art and Root Beer”               

Advertisers longed for more television sports aimed at men 18-54 years old, especially in the spring and early summer months after the end of the hockey, basketball and football seasons. There was no NASCAR on TV to speak of in those days, and golf, in its pre-Tiger era, had limited appeal. So only baseball provided content over the summer for the companies advertising to guys who drink beer, chew tobacco, use razor blades, and buy cars (which sell best in the spring and summer months).

I love football, especially University of Michigan football . . . so I was interested in 1982 when a friend from Detroit, Judge Peter Spivak, introduced me to the concept of a spring/summer professional football league, the United States Football League (USFL).

Each team would operate under a reasonable annual salary cap (initially just $1.8 million) and control drafting rights to players from nearby colleges. Because our league would be active after the NFL season, stadium facilities were available. The Michigan Panthers would play in the Pontiac Silverdome (then home to the Detroit Lions), which was just a few minutes from the home I was born in on Ottawa Drive. Along with my friend and fellow college football fan Max Fisher — Max, who had attended Ohio State on a football scholarship, sat with me at just about every Ohio State-Michigan game for 30 years — I took the plunge.

We never thought we would make a lot of money. But we did hope to have some fun. Our first season, in 1983, started out miserably. Before we knew it, we were 1-4, tied for last in the league. Detroit-area fans are very loyal, but we were testing their patience and dampening their enthusiasm for spring football. You have to remember that the Lions had not fielded much of a team for many years (they still haven’t). We had to do something, or even more of the Silverdome’s 80,000 seats would be empty.

In desperation, I asked Shire Rothbart, my trusted, talented finance guy who helped convert all those ground leases on the Irvine Ranch, to take over operations for the Panthers. I wanted to win, and Shire, who had no football or sports experience, was a smart, competitive guy with a knack for finding creative solutions to difficult problems. The first call he made after learning about his new assignment was to an agent he had been introduced to at one of our earlier games.

“What’s keeping the Panthers from winning games?” asked Shire.

The agent said we had a good coach and good players at the skilled positions, but a lousy offensive line. “You can’t win if you don’t give [quarterback] Bobby Hebert time to throw to [star receiver] Anthony Carter. Shire, I’d go out and get some new tackles and guards.”

“Where do I get them?”

“For the last five years, the Pittsburgh Steelers have fielded the best offensive line in football. They’ve got a lot of depth at those positions. We might be able to sign a couple of those guys. Who knows?”

Shire made a few calls, and before the sixth game of the season we assembled a new-look offensive line, complete with three former Pittsburgh Steelers: Tyrone McGriff, Ray Pinney and Thom Dornbrook. We won our next six games, put as many as 60,000 fans in the Silverdome seats, made the playoffs, and defeated the Philadelphia Stars 24-22 in the first-ever USFL Championship game in Denver’s Mile High Stadium. The deciding 48-yard touchdown pass was thrown by Bobby Hebert, who was given plenty of time in the pocket by our offensive line, to Anthony Carter with three minutes remaining in the game. Shire’s buddy was right.

We were having lots of fun, and so were the sports fans in Detroit.

One great story I’ll never forget took place during the off-season after our championship victory. Our head of personnel at the Taubman Company, Tom Bithell, came up with a terrific program to offer Panthers to local high school football teams as assistant coaches — at no cost to the high schools — during the fall. This kept our guys out of trouble and gave youngsters the opportunity to learn from gifted professional athletes. After Tom presented the program to the Panthers at an all-team meeting, his assistant received a phone call from a player who had been unable to make the meeting and wanted to sign up.

“No problem,” said Tom’s assistant. “Just give me your number and I’ll have Tom call you right back.”

“Great,” responded the player. “My number is 54.”

As it turned out, our fun was short-lived. The league began to unravel when a majority of the other owners voted to abandon our unique spring schedule, shift to the fall in 1986, and compete directly against the NFL. They initiated a lawsuit challenging the NFL’s monopolistic hold on professional football. While we prevailed in court — winning damages of just $3 — no merger ever took place. My friend Donald Trump, who joined the league in September of 1983 as the owner of the New Jersey Generals, was an enthusiastic supporter of the fall schedule. He also blew through the team’s salary cap and the USFL’s unique economic structure with the signing of players like Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie. I like and respect Donald very much, but in his youth, he could be a bit impatient.

We hired Vince Lombardi Jr., son of the legendary Green Bay Packers coach, as president of the Panthers to allow Shire to return to his financial duties. Vince was a terrific guy, but the league was imploding all around us. My beloved Panthers played out the last season in California as the Oakland Invaders. Bobby Hebert and Anthony Carter went on to have standout careers in the NFL with the New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings respectively. And Max and I came away with a clearer understanding of how to make a small fortune: start with a large fortune and buy a football team.

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