Remember When Donald Trump Took Down a Whole Football League?

Remember When Donald Trump Took Down a Whole Football League?
Photo by Mikel Galicia

My fellow Texans, it is our patriotic duty to vote in the Texas primary election next week. And as we get closer to the March 1 primary, I ask this question: Do you really want the next president of the United States to be the guy who destroyed a football league and caused the destruction of perhaps the best pro football team in Houston history?

Serious football fans may remember the United States Football League, the March to June football league that existed from 1983 through 1985 (if not, check out ESPN's 30-for-30 documentary on the league called Small Potatoes). The premise of the USFL was simple: Fans loved football and they wanted to be able to watch it year-round. The plan involved placing teams in major cities that were top TV markets and which contained NFL-caliber stadiums for the teams to play in. The league would not compete at the same time as the NFL, but would hopefully offer up a similar product.

Teams were based in cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Denver, Oakland and Tampa Bay, playing in the same stadiums as NFL teams. Most important, the league was able to sign relatively large TV contracts for 1983 with ABC and with the then-fledgling ESPN. The next season saw the birth of the Houston Gamblers, owned by former dentist and sports agent Jerry Argovitz, coached by Jack Pardee and featuring a rookie QB known as Jim Kelly who ran the then revolutionary run-and-shoot offense. And the home stadium was the Astrodome.

The 1984 season also saw the entrance of one Donald Trump, who became an owner of the New York Generals and hatched a plan to move the league to the fall, where it would compete with the NFL. Amazingly, Trump was able to convince the others to move to the fall, which the league vowed to do by 1986. The fact that some teams would not be able to compete because of stadium availability, fan loyalty to existing NFL teams, and lack of support from ABC and ESPN for televising fall games was apparently not among Trump’s concerns. A key part of Trump's strategy involved suing the NFL on antitrust grounds, claiming that the older league was conspiring with the television networks, advertisers and stadiums to put the USFL out of existence if it moved its games to the fall and tried to compete with the NFL.

The Gamblers didn’t last past the 1985 season, as Argovitz knew his team would never be able to compete with the Houston Oilers if the games were played at the same time. But those two years that the Gamblers existed were a glorious time for Houston football fans.

The Gamblers played a fast-paced, high-scoring brand of football that featured Kelly, who would go on to stardom and induction into the Football Hall of Fame as the quarterback of the Buffalo Bills. In two seasons, Kelly threw for 9,842 yards, 83 TDs with only 45 interceptions. He completed 63 percent of his passes for 8.58 yards per completion. He was also the USFL’s MVP in 1984 when he threw for 5,219 yards and 44 touchdowns.

The Gamblers were everything that Houston’s current NFL franchise is not. Well run, employing smart coaches willing to utilize revolutionary strategy focused around a high-flying offense. It was a fun, exciting team to watch. 

Trump’s strategy failed, of course. The league never played another game after the 1985 season. And as for the grand lawsuit strategy, that failed, too. The jury technically found in the USFL’s favor, stating that the NFL’s monopolistic tendencies helped to force the league out of existence. But the jury only awarded the league three dollars in damages because it concluded that the league’s own mismanagement was the true reason it went out of existence.

That mismanagement included moving the league to the fall so as to compete with the NFL in the first place, despite the knowledge that many of the league’s franchises would fail and despite the fact that ABC expressed no interest in airing fall games — the network, along with ESPN, however, was still interested in a spring league.

So when you hear Donald Trump promising things like forcing Mexico to pay for the wall he wants to build across the southern border, remember how he tried, and failed, to get the NFL to pay to have the USFL move to fall. But if anything, my fellow Texans, just remember this guy robbed Houstonians of the Gamblers and perhaps stuck us with the continued and never-ending sadness that is the Houston Texans, and no one should be rewarded for that.


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