Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Opening day of the USFL on ABC in 1983

In 1983, the United States Football League, equipped with TV contracts from both ABC and ESPN, launched a springtime pro football venture. The 12-team league kicked off an 18-game regular season schedule. Chet Simmons, former president of NBC Sports, was the league's first commissioner.

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)
1983 USFL on ABC Promotional Advertisement Page Lynn Swann Keith Jackson
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.

ABC carried Sunday afternoon games (usually at 1:30 pm ET) with a national telecast some weeks and regional coverage on others. Jackson and Swann were the #1 announcers. On Father's Day weekend, ABC was covering the US Open golf tournament. So the network televised a USFL game on Friday 6/17 at 9 pm ET, but that experiment produced very poor ratings.

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):


  1. Just want to point out a minor correction -- USFL did have preseason games. doesn't list them, but they did exist. Although they weren't part of the national TV contract (perhaps that's what you meant), the Bandits games aired locally in Tampa Bay area on independent Channel 44. Although it appears that local television wasn't able to get the rights to air non ESPN & ABC games during the regular season. I don't really remember, I was too little then, although I do remember there was a big deal for a preseason Bandits game against a certain QB named Doug Williams!

    1. Thanks for the correction, Rob. I updated the post.