Shortly after the news hit the national wires last week that Herschel Walker had signed an umpteen-zillion-dollar contract with the New Jersey Generals of the U.S. Football League, a strange, almost unnoticed, mock protest took place on the Generals' practice field at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.
Most of the defensive backs wore a single strip of white tape on a sleeve of their jerseys, high up near the shoulder pad. Why? "Because," one General said, "they realized that the starting defensive backfield would only make about one percent of what Herschel signed for. That was their protest."
They probably got the numbers a bit wrong. They were going with one of the earliest and wildest estimates of Walker's package, the $16.5 million figure that made the rounds for a while before settling down to a more reasonable $3.9 million, three-year contract, with incentive bonuses that could push the total up to $4.5 million. But the message was clear nevertheless. Walker, the most famous college football player since Red Grange, represents the fledgling USFL's hope—but, as we shall see, he also poses a dilemma.
Will the USFL make it? The issue is not only the survival of a league, but of a brand-new concept: football in the spring and the early summer. Football vs. the NBA playoffs and the Stanley Cup, the Indy 500 and the Kentucky Derby; football while you're sniffing the spring blossoms with your best girl; football while sailboats are on the bay and runners are on first and second; football while the beaches beckon; football, football, football; Herschel Walker in a funny uniform during a funny season. Is America really ready for this? Are we a nation of football junkies, ready to be hooked by one superstar, a few notables of lesser magnitude and 500 guys named Marvin?
Can one man grab an entire league and force it into our lives, never mind the season or the reason? The early headlines regarding the USFL after Walker's signing—INSTANT CREDIBILITY, INSTANT SUCCESS, etc.—seemed to say so. But let's look at the history of new leagues and their superstars.
Sunday, Nov. 22, 1925: Grange, after having played the day before for Illinois in its final game of the season, against Ohio State, appears on the Chicago Bears' bench for a game with Green Bay. There are 7,500 spectators in the Wrigley Field stands. Four days later, Thanksgiving Day, he plays his first game for the Bears, against the Chicago Cards. Some 36,000 fans jam Wrigley to watch the redhead rush for 36 yards in a 0-0 tie. Ten days after that a pro football record crowd of 73,000 shows up at the Polo Grounds in New York to watch Grange and the Bears beat the Giants 19-7. This has officially been described as the day pro football escaped from the dark ages, made it, established itself in the U.S.A. Not entirely true.
All in all, Grange played in eight games for the Bears in 12 frantic days and drew 218,000 fans. Take away that Giants game and you've got an average of 20,713. His final outing, in Pittsburgh against something called the Barney Dreyfuss All-Stars, attracted a meager 5,000 fans, which was about the NFL average in those days.
The next year Grange jumped to the New York Yankees of the new American Football League. The NFL bulked up to 22 teams. Twelve of them died after the season. Four AFL teams went under before their schedules were completed. The rest of the league followed at the conclusion of the season. Almost everyone lost money. So much for the savior.
Joe Namath didn't save the latter-day AFL when he signed his $427,000 contract with the Jets in 1965. A year before that the league had made a five-year, $36 million NBC-TV deal that ensured its survival. Namath raised the salary structure throughout pro football and he put more people in the stands, but with or without him the AFL would have made it. The World Football League failed to last even one season after Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield came to play.
Then there's the case of the Cosmos in the NASL. The theory was to pack the world-renowned soccer superstars into the league's keynote franchise, backed up by its wealthiest owners, Warner Communications. Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia—they all came for the big bucks—and the fans came too, for a while. The Cosmos had the big attendance numbers, while the rest of the league lagged behind. The NASL is now barely hanging on.