If you’re a child of the eighties or old enough to remember a time before the NFL banned the chop block, you may recall something called the United States Football League. Yes, for a brief stretch in the 1980s, the NFL actually had some competition.
From 1983 to 1986, the USFL hosted games between eighteen different teams. The quick rise and fall of the league is the stuff of sports history. Lucky for fans, it looks like history will soon be repeating itself. A newly formed USFL announced plans to return in 2022. Spring football is back, and we’re ready to see if the USFL has some staying power this time around.
Today, we’re going to take a look at the three USFL teams that called Florida their home. The Tampa Bay Bandits, the Orlando Renegades, and the Jacksonville Bulls may have lived short lives, but that didn’t stop them from making the sports almanacs.
First, let’s do a quick review of the United States Football League for the uninitiated. The USFL was the brainchild of businessman David Dixon. He actually first had the idea in the 1960s and spent the next fifteen years carefully crafting a strategy for the league’s success.
Dixon, like others, saw an opportunity to fill the spring and summer gap in professional football. The NFL’s season is relatively short compared to other major league sports, and considering the size of their viewership, it stood to reason that spring football could draw numbers.
Dixon took his time organizing and launching the USFL. There had been previous challengers to the NFL—the American Football League and the World Football League—and he studied their successes and missteps. The AFL, for example, ran for ten years before merging with the NFL. The WFL faced many more issues. After much prep, including the drafting of a blueprint for team owners and league executives called “The Dixon Plan,” the USFL played its first game on March 7, 1983.
Even before the first game, the USFL was facing serious trouble. Owners were pulling out and moving around in a stampede for team rights that negated all those years of prep. Furthermore, multiple teams were having trouble securing leases for stadiums, with pressure from existing NFL teams pushing back on sharing space, even during their off-seasons.
The Boston Breakers went up against the New England Patriots, and the owners of the planned San Diego team had to move to Los Angeles after the MLB’s Padres pushed them out of the city. While the NFL claimed to welcome competition, it seemed the USFL was in for more of an uphill battle than originally expected.
That said, the league was able to negotiate television rights with ABC and ESPN, a key deal for any league, and the USFL debuted with promising ratings. The original twelve teams were expanded into eighteen by the 1985 season, and the games averaged around 24,000 fans in attendance. Regardless, each team struggled financially, and only two — the Tampa Bay Bandits and the Denver Gold — managed to come out without losses.
In 1985, the league announced it was moving the 1986 season to the fall to more directly compete with the NFL. The move was largely considered to be a strategic play to force the NFL’s hand into a merger, as owners were tired of the frequent losses and the USFL seemed like a failed experiment. Many teams folded, unable to compete with their NFL counterparts, even in theory. In 1986, the USFL filed an antitrust lawsuit, claiming that the league was operating a monopoly and conspiring to defeat the USFL.
The USFL technically won the court case but was awarded only three dollars in settlement. That is not a typo. The USFL received a check for $3.76 in 1990 (the seventy-six cents earned in interest), and that was that. Legend has it they’ve never cashed the check.
The league died with losses upwards of two hundred million dollars, having never played their 1986 fall season.
For USFL fans in Florida, the league offered three chances to see a home game, with teams in Tampa Bay, Orlando, and Jacksonville. While none of the three teams ever won a championship trophy, all of them were considered a success at the ticket booth. The Tampa Bay Bandits had the best performance of the three, reaching the playoffs twice.
We’ll start there. The Tampa Bay Bandits were one of the twelve original USFL teams and the only to have the same owner, coach, and home stadium throughout its three years on the field.
The Bandits were well-loved and embraced by the city. This was about a decade before the Rays debuted, so there was no competing baseball to draw attention from the Bandits. As a result, they regularly drew large crowds in comparison to the rest of the league. The Bandits narrowly missed the playoffs in their first season and clinched it in the subsequent years.
The team produced notable players like Gary Anderson, John Reaves, and Chuck Pitcock, who would all go on to play in the NFL after the USFL folded.
The Bandits officially shut down in 1986 after the USFL won its three dollars in the antitrust settlement. The writing was on the wall. Over the course of its last year, ownership issues came for Tampa Bay, and the team had trouble securing television contracts and investors.
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The Orlando Renegades came by way of Washington. The team relocated from Washington D.C., where they played as the Federals in 1985, the league’s last.
Why the move? Attendance. In addition to being the worst team in the league, performance-wise, the Federals were also posting dismal ticket sales. After two seasons of lost ticket sales and lost games, the move to Orlando was a bit of a Hail Mary to save the franchise.
Despite the eventual doom of the league and, therefore, the Renegades, the team did start to improve both their gameplay and their attendance. During the 1985 season, the team posted a 5–13 record, clear progress from the years before. Curtis Bledsoe and Mike Hohensee of the NFL made appearances on the Renegades roster.
After the 1985 season, the USFL merged several franchises, hoping to focus on its most successful teams when they went up against the NFL schedule in the fall of 1986. For a moment, it was proposed that the three Florida teams be combined, but Orlando Renegades owner, Donald Dizney, flat out refused, feeling committed to the city and the relationships he built there. Plus, with a name like Donald Dizney, the team was not about to leave Orlando any time soon. In the end, it was all moot.
Were you one of those folks in 1985 who helped boost the Orlando Renegades’ attendance numbers? We’ve got a Renegades t-shirt with your name on it.
Last but not least were the Jacksonville Bulls, who played in Gator Bowl Stadium years before the Jaguars showed up. The Bulls were a mixed bag when it came to performance on the field. They had some close games, closer than their record would indicate, and missed out on the playoffs narrowly in 1985.
That said, the Bulls were the most successful team in the league when it comes to attendance. They were the only team to crack over 70,000 attendees at home, and they did it twice. Many people speculate that the NFL decided to bring a team to Jacksonville after seeing the crowds that the Bulls could pull in. Brian Sipe and Mike Rozier both played for the Bulls.
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