I have recently been given the opportunity to screen ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary film series.
When I had the opportunity to preview some of the films at the ESPN Media Workshop in August, I welcomed the opportunity to review all of the films because the time frame of the documentaries fits in well with my interest in sports and sports media. I was a youngster in the 1970’s and remember quite well the sports events that these films recount.
That leads to today’s review of the third documentary in the ESPN series, Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?. (Premiering tonight at 8pm on ESPN) The film is directed by Mike Tollin, who operated the film company that documented the action on the field during the three seasons (1983-1985) the fledgling league was in existence. He was the NFL Films of the USFL.
Tollin had always thought that the league could have survived if it did not expand as quickly as it did and if it continued to play its games in the Spring. Tollin’s premise is that there was such a passion for professional football that, instead of competing with the NFL in the fall, two leagues could successfully co-exist playing different times of the year.
The title of the documentary is made clear at the beginning as Tollin concluded his interview with real estate mogul and for New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump. With the cameras rolling after the interview, Tollin told Trump he felt the league could have survived. Trump disagreed, calling what would have developed if the league continued “small potatoes”.
Tollin used the film to document the history of the league, mixing USFL film footage with material compiled by television rights holders ABC and ESPN. There was promise for the league in the early going, with attendance figures and television ratings slightly above first year expectations.
The league did have its share of marquis names, luring three consecutive Heisman Trophy winners– Hershel Walker, Mike Rozier, and Doug Flutie, as well as future Hall of Famers Jim Kelly, Steve Young, and Reggie White. In all over 180 USFL-ers eventually found their way onto NFL rosters.
The league over-extended itself in year two, expanding from 12 teams to 18. That move watered down the product and attendance and ratings slipped. The second season also saw the emergence of a new owner, Donald Trump.
Tollin squarely asserts, through the words of others in the league at the time, that Trump’s ego and big idea thinking played a role in the league’s demise. Trump makes it known that he always wanted the league to play its games in the fall, not necessarily to compete with the NFL, but that was the time of year people focused on the sport. Many believe that Trump’s intention all along was to secure an NFL franchise and by moving the league to the fall would potentially lead to a merger.
The anti-Trump in the film was John Bassett, a Canadian businessman who owned the league’s Tampa Bay Bandits. (By the way, actor Burt Reynolds also had a stake in the Bandits and prominently appears in the film). Bassett had experienced owning a franchise in the WFL in the 1970’s and cautioned the league to take things slow. He had no issue standing up to Trump, but could never get the support from the rest of the league’s owners.
Trump convinced others in the league to move their fourth season schedule to the fall of 1986. The problem with the move was that there was no available over-the-air networks willing to carry the USFL because of their deals with the NFL. That led the USFL to sue the NFL, claiming the NFL was operating an illegal monopoly.
The outcome of that court case is well documented. The USFL won the case, but failed to convince the jury that there was enough of a financial hardship tied to the monopoly to warrant a large financial penalty. The NFL was ordered to pay the USFL the sum of $1, which was tripled. The league received a check for the amount of $3.76 (which included interest). That check is still uncashed to this day.
Even though the outcome of the court action was in it’s favor, the USFL could not survive the economics of its situation and folded before the 1986 season. Bassett succumbed to brain cancer during the ant-trust case was in federal court.
Trump believes the league was doomed for failure and that his presence was more positive than negative. Just about anyone else in the film saw the situation differently.
Tollin does a masterful job in providing the proper context into the people who made up the USFL and suffered from its demise. As with ESPN’s first two offerings, Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL? is a must see for sports history buffs.