Donald Trump’s Less-Than-Artful Failure in Pro Football


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Donald J. Trump, right, hired Boston College’s Doug Flutie, center, in 1985 to play for the U.S.F.L.’s New Jersey Generals, who were coached by Walt Michaels, left.

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Marty Lederhandler/Associated Press

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.

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Trump, far left, attended a breakfast with other sports executives in late 1983. From right: George Steinbrenner of the Yankees, Sonny Werblin of Madison Square Garden and Fred Wilpon of the Mets.

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David Pickoff/Associated Press

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.

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