Donald Trump: When the US president bought an American football team

USFL team New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump, shakes hands with star player Herschel Walker
Donald Trump, owner of USFL team the New Jersey Generals, shakes hands with star player Herschel Walker

As the 45th president of the United States is sworn into office, American football fans of a certain age may recall witnessing a different kind of inauguration nearly 34 years ago.

On 6 March 1983, the Los Angeles Express took on the New Jersey Generals at the LA Coliseum, and the United States Football League (USFL) was born.

It wasn't long before a tycoon named Donald Trump was adding a franchise to his burgeoning portfolio, driving the league forward with his ambitious vision.

But within three years the league had collapsed following a legal battle - instigated by Trump - with the longer-established NFL.

Those involved in the USFL saga have been telling the BBC World Service's Sportshour just what part the billionaire businessman played - and wondering whether the characteristics he displayed can tell us anything about the kind of president we can expect.

What was the USFL?

Trump had coveted an NFL team to add to his burgeoning brand, but having been thwarted in his attempts, the USFL provided the perfect vehicle.

The league offered televised professional football in the spring, in contrast to the NFL, which played in the autumn/winter.

"The league was an enormous amount of fun," says radio broadcaster Charley Steiner. "There was an anarchist quality about it going against the established NFL. Fans were really into it and the players were terrific."

The league's first game was on Sunday, 6 March, 1983. Attendances in the first season were encouraging, and owners ploughed money into the teams.

Hollywood actor Burt Reynolds invested in the Tampa Bay Bandits, while Lee Majors, famous for The Six Million Dollar Man, became a part-owner in the Los Angeles Express.

The league was attracting star players, with Herschel Walker, the top college football star at the time, choosing the USFL over the NFL when he signed for the New Jersey Generals.

But things were to change when franchise owner Walter Duncan sold the Generals to Trump.

Ice cream helps bring in Trump

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Documentary-maker Mike Tollin explains why Donald Trump was so keen to become involved with the USFL

Duncan offered Jimmy Gould commission of $300,000 to sell the team. He told him to call 10 people worth more than $100m to sell the team for $8.5m.

"I called Donald Trump on the phone and he wouldn't take my calls," says Gould, one of the USFL founders. "I finally figured how to get through to his secretary by sending 10 pints of the famous Graeter's ice cream - and that got him on the phone.

"He chastised me for disrupting his office by sending ice cream to everyone in his office. He asked me what I wanted. I said: 'I thought you might want to own a football team in New York.' We needed a strong visible owner in New York who was willing to open his chequebook. Mr Trump was it."

'Building Brand Trump'

Former USFL television producer Mike Tollin remembers Trump's arrival in the USFL. "This guy with funny hair, which was not yet orange, a tortured bowl of insanity, entered the picture," he says. "He had just built the Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in New York.

"At that point he was a Donald, but not the Donald," says Steiner. "He was young, flamboyant, it was New York high society in more ways than one. He had a vision that between football, his real estate entrepreneurship and his social climbing, the USFL and a sports team was the perfect fit for his portfolio.

"On a good day he would have the back page of tabloids, he would be living on page six with the first of his three wives, and on a really good day he would have the front page. It was all part of the plan for Donald to expand the Trump brand."

'The players loved him'

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Determination and ice cream played their part in persuading Donald Trump to buy the New Jersey Generals.

Steiner says the Generals players "loved" playing for Trump.

"He overpaid them and, secondly, and more importantly, Trump so loved the attention, so when he walked into the locker room, all of the reporters who were busy bothering the players, would just gravitate towards Donald," he adds.

"He absorbed all the press attention, which he loved and craved and lived for. The players were saying, 'this is good, they are paying me a lot of money and I do not have to worry about the media'."

Trump ups the stakes

Having invested his money in the spring league, Trump wanted a return and looked enviously at the hugely successful NFL.

"As soon as he bought the Generals, he started to call them the New York New Jersey Generals, which they were not," says Steiner. "He was expanding his brand, that is where he started to say we have to go head to head with the NFL."

But Tollin has a different view of Trump's motives.

"He would say if God wanted football to be played in the spring, he would not have invented baseball," added Tollin.

"We all scratched our head and said, 'why on earth are you crashing our party? You don't believe in the concept, why have you joined forces with us?' We should have known right then that the writing was on the wall. What became enormously apparent was Trump had no interest in being in a secondary or alternative league.

"He didn't have the patience or vision to watch something grow organically and develop. The NFL owners were not interested in inviting him to their party, this was his back door to engineer his way into the NFL and force their hand. He forced the USFL owners into confronting the NFL, which ultimately led to a lawsuit and the demise of the league."

Did Trump destroy the league?

By the time the USFL's third season climaxed in 1985, the league was haemorrhaging money and most of the team owners looked for a solution. Trump's plan was to prove in court that the NFL had a monopoly on winter football, one that was unfairly restricting the success of the USFL. It was the start of the end of the league.

"Who was driving the car? Thelma or Louise? I think Trump was Thelma and the other owners were Louise," says Steiner.

On 29 July 1986, a jury found in favour of Trump and the USFL, declaring the NFL was an illegal monopoly. But it was a hollow victory as, just six days later, the league effectively collapsed. Although it proved the NFL held a monopoly, it had failed to convince the jury the USFL had been restricted with the all-important and highly lucrative television rights. Instead of millions of dollars expected in damages, it was awarded just $3.76.

Steiner says: "The league, which got off to a reasonably good start and had a reasonable chance down the road, instead disappeared for a cheque for $3.76 which still exists in a safety deposit box in Memphis, Tennessee.

"If the USFL had waited one more year to go after the NFL, they would have had a far better chance of success because the NFL collective bargaining agreement was up with the players.

"So one of two things would have happened - there would have been a mass exodus from the NFL to the USFL, where there would be no strike, or the NFL would have been so frightened of the USFL, they would have had to absorb this new league.

"But neither happened, the USFL disappeared and Trump went on to his next thing and that is the thing that will always stick in my craw."

Trump's version of events? When speaking about his involvement in the USFL to the Associated Press last year, he explained how before the USFL he "was well known, but not really well known".

"After taxes, I would say I lost $3m. And I got a billion dollars of free publicity."

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Mike Tollin explains what happened when he contacted Donald Trump about his documentary 'Small Potatoes: Who Killed The USFL?'

Would the league have thrived without Trump?

"It's the great if only," says Tollin, who believes the league's expansion from 12 to 18 teams in the second season, and focusing on ABC instead of ESPN for TV rights, contributed to its downfall.

"The answer is a very strong 'maybe'. It is possible the league could have thrived.

"The owners can't be entirely held blameless, they got greedy and impatient themselves, unrelated to Donald's efforts. Whether it would have survived or not, the demise was hastened by Trump."

But Gould disagrees: "The most critical component was how much money was being lost by the USFL. When you are losing $100m a year, you are going to do something about it.

"He's not responsible, it wasn't working in terms of making money, the idea that if Trump stayed in the spring we would have been OK is not true."

President Trump

So what, if anything, that happened with the USFL tells us about the type of president Trump might be?

Tollin and Steiner are not hopeful.

"He will get whatever he wants out of his project and it doesn't matter one iota what happens to those who have been victimised," says Steiner.

Tollin went on to make a documentary about the USFL which angered Trump - he called the film "extremely dishonest" and Tollin "a loser" in a letter to him.

The film-maker says he finds it hard to be positive about Trump, given their USFL experiences. "What we saw then is increasingly apparent today on a much larger and, dare I say it, a dangerous level," he says. "Character comes out and what I saw in the 80s, which is apparent today, is narcissism gone wild and self-aggrandisement at a level which I have never experienced before or since."

Gould, who says he became very close to Trump during their time together, is optimistic for his presidency.

He says: "I saw a different side to him. I have never seen a racist bone in his body, he is tough, he is smart, he studies everything, he is not afraid to ask for advice. I don't agree with everything he says, but from the standpoint of knowing him as a person, I am very fond of him. If he gives you his word, he will live up to it.

"With what we are seeing in the world today, you need somebody with a strong vision who is not afraid to be politically incorrect - that is a terminology for if you believe in something strongly enough, you go after it regardless whether it is popular or not."

You can listen to the full episode of Sportshour on the BBC World Service on Saturday, 21 January at 10:06 GMT, download the podcast or listen to it here.

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