History of the USFL: What it is, how it started, and its demise

With the announcement that the United States Football League would return in 2022, what is the history of the USFL, and who were the teams?

On Thursday, June 3, Doug Flutie made an announcement — the United States Football League (USFL) would return in 2022. Before spring football once again graces our televisions, let’s look at what the USFL is, the history of the league and its teams, its origins, and how the league’s demise came about.

The 18 different USFL teams

Over the course of its three-year history, the USFL had a total of 18 teams. The league had 12 founding teams before adding six expansion teams in 1984.

The 12 original USFL teams

  • Arizona Wranglers – Arizona Outlaws in 1985
  • Birmingham Stallions
  • Boston Breakers – New Orleans Breakers in 1984 and Portland Breakers in 1985
  • Chicago Blitz – Folded in 1984
  • Denver Gold
  • Los Angeles Express
  • Michigan Panthers – Folded in 1984
  • New Jersey Generals
  • Oakland Invaders
  • Philadelphia Stars
  • Tampa Bay Bandits
  • Washington Federals – Orlando Renegades in 1985

The 6 USFL expansion teams

  • Houston Gamblers
  • Jacksonville Bulls
  • Memphis Showboats
  • Oklahoma Outlaws – Folded in 1985
  • Pittsburgh Maulers – Folded in 1985
  • San Antonio Gunslingers

USFL History: When did the league begin?

The first season in USFL’s history came in the spring of 1983. However, the concept was first conceived as far back as 1965 by businessman David Dixon. Dixon believed there was a market for another football league to fill the gap left when the NFL and college football was in their offseason. Dixon did not rush the USFL to begin. Instead, he spent the next 15 or so years studying the two previous challengers to the NFL — the American Football League and the World Football League.

Dixon originally signed up 12 cities to begin the USFL. He purposely targeted the top media markets in order to attract significant interest from television networks. Ahead of its launch, the USFL signed contracts with ABC and ESPN, with at least one nationally televised game each week. Despite several issues before the inaugural season began, the USFL launched with the original 12 teams.

History of the USFL: How it started and it's demise
Former Tennessee star Reggie White, center, a member of the Memphis Showboats of the USFL, attends the matchup with Florida at Neyland Stadium on October 13, 1984.

What rules did the USFL use?

The USFL largely used similar rules to the NFL but combined them with college football rules to try and find a good mix. The main example was the clock stopping after a first down following the two-minute warning, but not before. The USFL was also the first professional league to utilize the two-point conversion. At the time, only college football used the two-point conversion. Additionally, the USFL introduced a rule challenge procedure for its final season in 1985.

USFL History: What led to the demise of the league?

The USFL struggled throughout the three years with instability. However, this was no different from the struggles experienced by the NFL in the early years. The demise of the league began with the discussion of moving the league season to the fall. The theory behind the move was that it would force the NFL to merge with the USFL, similar to what happened with the American Football League. However, the USFL owners were not all in agreement, and a consulting firm even recommended they stay with a spring schedule.

The owners agreed in 1984 to move the schedule to the fall. This immediately caused further instability. The Pittsburgh Maulers folded, as they would be competing directly with the Steelers. The New Orleans, Michigan, and Washington teams all experienced similar issues with going head to head with the NFL. Therefore, the league had immediately lost teams in a number of their top markets. Even lucrative offers from ABC and ESPN were not enough to convince the remaining owners to stick with a spring schedule.

The USFL filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL with respect to the “monopoly” the NFL had established with broadcasting rights and stadiums. The outcome was essentially a victory for the USFL. However, the settlement of $3 was significantly less than they had expected. Yes, you read that correctly — three dollars.

This led to the USFL suspending its 1986 season with the intention of restarting in 1987. The USFL appealed the settlement, but the remaining teams voted to disband the league when this was rejected.

Who were the most notable players in the USFL?

The USFL had intriguing players featured during their three years. Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker joined the New Jersey Generals out of college and won the MVP award in 1985. Walker would go on to play in the NFL for over a decade.

The other two MVPs of the USFL’s first three seasons were Kelvin Bryant in 1983 and Jim Kelly in 1984. Bryant would go on to win Super Bowl XXII with Washington, while Kelly would spend a decade with the Buffalo Bills and lead them to four consecutive Super Bowls.

Including Kelly, a total of eight USFL personnel are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Four are players, two are coaches, and two worked in front offices. The players are Kelly, Steve Young, Reggie White, and Gary Zimmerman. Meanwhile, George Allen and Marv Levy coached in the USFL, with Sid Gillman and Bill Polian having filled front office roles.

USFL returning in 2022

The June 3 announcement detailed the return of the USFL in 2022. The league will have a broadcasting deal with Fox and will feature at least eight teams in its returning season.

Ben Rolfe is a Senior Managing Editor at Pro Football Network and is also a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA). You can find him on Twitter @BenRolfePFN