Unlike the NFL, the USFL did not blackout local TV for games which did not sell out. In an interesting twist, the USFL wanted ABC to make its instant replay footage available for referees to use on controversial calls, but the network declined.
Opening day was Sunday 3/6/1983, just five weeks after the NFL had staged its Super Bowl. ABC provided regional coverage of three games that afternoon at 3 pm ET along with a studio show hosted by Frank Gifford. Here was the ABC lineup with announcers:
- New Jersey Generals at Los Angeles Express (Keith Jackson, Lynn Swann)
- Chicago Blitz at Washington Federals (Jim Lampley, Lee Corso)
- Philadelphia Stars at Denver Gold (Bill Flemming, Ron Mix)
This ABC Sports promotional ad lists an opening day start time of 1:30 pm ET. Originally, ABC had planned to feature the Chicago-Washington game in that time slot and highlight the story line of Blitz coach (and former Redskins coach) George Allen making a return visit to the national capitol. But after the New Jersey Generals signed Herschel Walker on 2/23, ABC switched gears to instead showcase the Generals game in Los Angeles. The network shifted the regional telecast window later to accommodate the west coast site.
The first afternoon produced surprisingly strong ratings, but mediocre reviews for the TV coverage. During an update segment, Gifford announced the wrong team winning the Tampa Bay-Boston game.
ESPN opened its schedule the following night with Jim Simpson and Paul Maguire in the booth for the Michigan Panthers at Birmingham Stallions.
ESPN televised Monday night games with Simpson and Maguire and also aired Saturday night games with Tom Kelly and Don Heinrich on the call.
The 1983 USFL season also marked the return of Curt Gowdy to a pro football TV booth. Here is Gowdy calling a regional ABC game from Boston.
While TV ratings dwindled as the season progressed, the season-long ABC numbers exceeded original projections. However, paid attendance was sluggish and ABC would try to carefully plan its camera shots to avoid showing backgrounds of empty seats.
The league hyped Herschel Walker and ABC tended to feature the Generals early in the season, but the New Jersey squad flopped on the field, finishing 6-12.
Here are clips from the three opening day ABC games with sparse crowds evident from the first two stills):