Last year, I wrote several columns about Donald J. Trump’s record as a businessman. Far from mastering “The Art of the Deal” — the title of his 1987 best seller — Trump made real estate blunders that turned billions in potential profits into mere millions. His foray into Atlantic City brought him perilously close to personal bankruptcy. As for all of his claims about owning a sprawling business empire, what he actually runs these days is a licensing company that slaps the Trump name on everything from buildings to steaks to an education company that was sued by New York State in 2013 for “persistent fraudulent, illegal and deceptive conduct.” My conclusion — and I say this as a grizzled veteran of business journalism — was that Trump’s business acumen (not to mention his net worth) was wildly overstated, not least by Trump himself. His core business skill is self-promotion.
It occurred to me, though, that there was one episode of his business life I had overlooked. In 1984 and 1985, Trump owned the New Jersey Generals, who competed in the short-lived United States Football League. It is worth recalling for what it can tell us about the way Trump makes decisions, hires key people, works (or doesn’t work) for the greater good and so on. Not to blow the punch line, but it is not much of an exaggeration to say that once Trump got his hands around this promising idea, he basically strangled it.
The key concept behind the U.S.F.L. was that it would play football in the spring. Football fans, the league’s creators believed, wanted to watch their sport year-round, but, alas, they could not: The N.F.L. season ended with the Super Bowl and did not restart until preseason games in August. “In the spring, we had football all to ourselves,” recalled Tad Taube, an owner of the Oakland Invaders.
Although the owners lost money — as you would expect in any new business venture — the league had a surprisingly successful first season. It landed television contracts with ABC and a fledgling sports network called ESPN. Its ratings were decent. Its 12 teams averaged over 25,000 people per game. “For a four-and-a-half month-old baby, the U.S.F.L. has done quite well,” Jim Spence, a senior vice president at ABC Sports, told The New York Times. The network, he added, was “satisfied” with the ratings.
U.S.F.L. fans saw the league as an exciting alternative to the button-down N.F.L. “It was the fun league,” said the sportscaster Charley Steiner, who called the New Jersey Generals’ games. It was a league that allowed players to celebrate touchdowns to their hearts’ content; a league where run-and-gun offenses were the norm; a league that included such innovations as the 2-point conversion and the penalty challenge. Although the owners had agreed to an informal salary cap, when Herschel Walker, the Heisman Trophy winner, decided to go pro after his junior year at Georgia (unheard-of at the time), the New Jersey Generals signed him to a big contract: $5 million for three years. With transplanted N.F.L. players sprinkled throughout the league, plus stars signed out of college — Reggie White, Jim Kelly, Steve Young and many others — the quality of play was surprisingly high.
But the owners made two early mistakes. Eager to recoup some of their losses, they decided to expand to 18 teams for their second season, allowing them to pocket $4 million per-team franchise fees from the six new owners. It was too much too soon; from that point on, franchises folded, merged, moved — it bordered on chaos. And second, they let the Generals’ owner, an Oklahoma oilman named J. Walter Duncan, sell the team to Trump. The price was reported to be $9 million. (Trump later claimed it was only $5 million.)
Though he had bought into a franchise in a spring football league, Trump made it plain from the get-go that he thought spring football was for losers. “If God had wanted football in the spring, he wouldn’t have created baseball,” he said.
Despite having the league’s best running back in Walker, the Generals had a lousy first season, going 6-12. Trump set about changing that in a manner reminiscent of another famous New York sports owner, George Steinbrenner. He signed quarterback Brian Sipe from the Cleveland Browns, as well as other veteran N.F.L. players. His spending spree blew the doors off any hope of a salary restraint, forcing other U.S.F.L. teams — and the N.F.L. too — to spend millions to keep up with him. For Trump, it worked out splendidly: The team was 14-4 in its second season, and made it to the championship game (which it lost).
The Generals gave Trump something else: newspaper headlines. He was not yet a household name, though he was clearly on his way. Owning the Generals turbocharged his rise to fame. His views, his deals, his postgame comments — they dominated the news media’s coverage of the U.S.F.L. At first many of the owners were glad to have him play this role because it put a spotlight on the new league. But many U.S.F.L. observers soon came to believe that he did not necessarily have the best interests of the league at heart. “He was a dynamic figure, but he was dynamic on behalf of the Donald Trump interests, not the whole league,” said Keith Jackson, who broadcast U.S.F.L. games for ABC.
“It was all self-aggrandizement,” said Mike Tollin, who, as the head of a firm that served as the in-house film studio for the league, spent a great deal of time in Trump’s company — but was also close to owners who soured on Trump.
All through that second season, Trump continued to push his fellow owners to move the U.S.F.L. to the fall and go toe-to-toe with the mighty N.F.L. It made no sense. Until it achieved parity on the field — and that was a long way off — the U.S.F.L. had no hope of attracting large numbers of fans and TV ratings in the fall. The networks airing its games expected it to play a spring schedule. Its network contracts called for the U.S.F.L. to keep a certain number of teams in major media markets. But how realistic was it to expect the Chicago Blitz to compete financially with the Chicago Bears? “To go head-to-head with them was insane,” the actor (and Tampa Bay Bandits partner) Burt Reynolds told Tollin, who made a 2009 ESPN documentary about the U.S.F.L.
Years later, when Tollin interviewed Trump for the film, Trump described the league as “small potatoes.” (That line became the title of his film.) As he has all his life, Trump yearned to be in the big arena, and in sports, there was nothing bigger than the N.F.L. Rather than seeing the genuine possibility of building a stand-alone league by steering clear of the N.F.L. — and hitching its wagon to ESPN, which itself was not ready for the N.F.L. — his model was the A.F.L., which had ultimately forced a merger with the older league.
Would a merger mean that the more fragile U.S.F.L. franchises would be tossed aside? Sure. But that would not happen to the Generals! In the middle of Trump’s lobbying effort, his main opponent among the owners, the Tampa Bay Bandits’ John Bassett, found out he had brain cancer. With the respected Bassett suddenly sidelined, Trump persuaded a majority of the owners to throw in their lot with him. “He manipulated them,” Chuck Pitcock, a former Bandits guard, told Tollin. “There were four or five of the owners that were broke, and they figured if they rode with Donald, they might end up with something.” Before the 1985 season began, the league announced that it would move to the fall in 1986.
“I felt it was the wrong decision,” Taube told me, and he wasn’t the only one. “The declaration to move to the fall,” said Steve Young, who was quarterbacking the Los Angeles Express, “I think everyone sensed that that was not going to go well.”
The third season was a debacle. Despite having a very good quarterback in Sipe, Trump could not resist signing Boston College’s Doug Flutie, for $8.2 million over six years. Flutie was erratic, and though Walker rushed for almost 2,500 yards, the team wound up 11-7. A furious ABC withheld much of its rights fees, while ESPN demanded that its contract be negotiated. The league violated its TV agreements by allowing franchises to move to smaller media markets without N.F.L. teams — which they did to make themselves more attractive in the event of a merger. Attendance dropped, as did TV ratings. The losses mounted.
How was Trump planning to dig the U.S.F.L. out of a hole he had largely created? Litigation, of course! The U.S.F.L. would sue the N.F.L. for being an illegal monopolist. Among other things, the lawsuit charged that the N.F.L., by having TV contracts with the three major networks (this was pre-Fox), was preventing the U.S.F.L. from signing a television deal for a fall season. It asked for $1.32 billion in damages, which in an antitrust case are trebled if the plaintiffs win. That would be more than enough to not only sustain the league, but to enrich its beleaguered owners.
Trump then made his next mistake, bringing on a flamboyant lawyer named Harvey D. Myerson — Heavy Hitter Harvey, the media called him, “a blustery, cigar-smoking, fancy-footwork kind of lawyer,” as Taube put it to me. Trump hired Myerson with great fanfare, saying “he’s aggressive, he’s tough-skinned and he knows how to win.”
(Myerson, who died in November, spent time in federal prison for overbilling clients, after his firm, Myerson and Kuhn, imploded spectacularly in 1989. The “Kuhn” in the firm’s name, by the way, was Bowie Kuhn, the former baseball commissioner, who fled to Florida to evade $3 million that creditors said he personally owed. But I digress.)
Alas, Heavy Hitter Harvey knew next to nothing about antitrust, which requires deep, specialized knowledge. His damages theory was, in Taube’s words, “pie in the sky.” And the N.F.L.’s lawyers found plenty of proof that the U.S.F.L.’s problems were largely of its own making. According to a memoir written by Robert B. Fiske, the lead lawyer for the N.F.L., the evidence included a memo Taube had written to his fellow owners, quoting Pogo’s famous line, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
If you are a sports fan of a certain age, you surely remember how that trial ended. The jury found that the N.F.L. monopolistic practices had indeed injured the U.S.F.L. Then came the coup de grâce: It awarded damages of one dollar. Trebled, that came to $3. With interest, it was $3.76. The U.S.F.L. appealed, claiming that the trial judge should have excluded some of the most damning evidence against it. The appeals court rejected that argument, writing, “Courts do no exclude evidence of a victim’s suicide in a murder trial.” Needless to say, the U.S.F.L. never played another down.
When Tollin interviewed Trump for his documentary, he laid out the criticism he had heard from the many people he had spoken to. Trump, of course, was having none of it. He denigrated his critics, by name, and accepted zero responsibility for the league’s demise. “I got this league to go as far as it could go. Without me, this league would have folded a lot sooner,” he said.
Some things never change.