What if the NFL and USFL Merged in 1987? (Part I)

By Phil Hecken

Good morning and a good Saturday, Uni Watchers. Hope everyone had a good week. Baseball is back baby!

Got the first part another fun “What if?” think piece today, once again from Chris Diamond, who over the summer brought us a look at his helmet map projects, and towards the very end of last year, a thought-provoking baseball alternate reality lede. With the USFL Mach-II scheduled to take the field in a few short weeks, this one is somewhat timely. Instead of folding after the 1985 season, what if the USFL had merged with the NFL? Here’s Chris…

• • • • •

A 40 Team NFL — What if the NFL and USFL Merged in 1987? (Part 1)
by Chris Diamond

Following on from my piece last year about MLB.com’s 2020 “what-if” article, as promised here is “What-if the NFL and USFL Merged in 1987?”. Unlike the MLB piece, this is my own ideas based on reading Football for a Buck
and The United States Football League 1982-1986 (plus years of reading Uni Watch).

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Part 1 — The Merger

Back in 1986, the USFL sued the NFL for $567M for antitrust violations. The jury found the NFL guilty, but awarded only $1 in damages to the USFL (tripled to $3 by rule). This pyrrhic victory effectively ended the USFL and their plans to move to the fall. The teams and assets were liquidated and the players released to join the NFL giving them Herschel Walker, Jim Kelly, Steve Young and Reggie White (to name but a few) who would go on to make a huge impact.

But what if the USFL had really won their law suit? That would have imposed damages of $1701M on the NFL — about $61M per team. At this time the typical NFL franchise worth was about $50M so paying this would effectively bankrupt the NFL, making it not an option. Before the lawsuit went to court, the NFL had already been wargaming outcomes and had come to the conclusion they would have to offer a merger if they lost in this way.

So what if the NFL and USFL did merge? In reality, before the trial a number of USFL teams were bankrupt (or near bankrupt) and owners had already started bailing out before it ended. But for this Alt-Reality I’ll assume they all kept their nerve in anticipation of victory. That would mean there were 14 USFL teams to consider. So how might that have panned out?

New York/New Jersey — the Elephant in the Room

In 1985 the Giants, Jets and Generals all played in Giants Stadium in New Jersey. But all those teams playing in the same stadium in the fall would likely be unworkable. Donald Trump was already planning to move the Generals to New York to be “the only professional football team within NY city” (playing at Shea Stadium until a new stadium was built) and leaving the Jets and Giants out in the “wilds” of NJ. There is no way the Jets and Giants ownership would have tolerated this, but what sort of compromise could be reached? Trump wants a team near his base of New York so won’t move the Generals elsewhere. And the magnitude of the legal settlement means he can’t be forced out. So the Giants and Jets decide their only possible option is something drastic — give up New Jersey to Trump and the Jets and Giants move back to New York and build a new stadium there together. In the meantime the Giants will return to Yankee Stadium and the Jets to Shea. This way the Giants and Jets keep New York and the Generals become New Jersey’s team proper.

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The Forsaken Cities — Baltimore and Oakland

In 1981 the Raiders left Oakland for LA and then in 1983 the Colts left Baltimore for Indy and both cities now have USFL teams (the Invaders and Stars). They are the best two teams in the USFL, but the two cities seem still too traumatized to take to them. The Stars haven’t even played in Baltimore yet due to stadium issues with the Orioles. So what might have happened? In reality, in 1996 when the Browns moved to Baltimore, Art Modell tried to negotiate with the Irsays to get the Colts identity back. It didn’t happen then for a number of reasons, but in 1985 the Colts have only been in Indy for 2 years and have stunk the place up. A fresh start for Indy seems like a good idea to Irsay, so he sells the Stars the Colts identity. So the Baltimore Stars become the Baltimore Colts! Indy holds a competition for a new team name, and the Indianapolis Colts become the Indianapolis Racers. Indy team colors are kept as blue, white and silver (to allow the cash-savvy Irsay to keep the existing uniforms). The new logo represents the Indy500 race track, with the center negative space forming an “I” for Indy.

For Oakland the situation is different. The Raiders are flourishing in LA and Al Davis has been a supporter of the USFL, even testifying for it at the trial. So there is no question of the Raiders returning to Oakland or trading identities. So the Invaders remain in Oakland to try and win over the heart of the city.

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The New Frontier — Arizona, Memphis, Birmingham, Jacksonville, Portland, San Antonio

Of the other USFL teams, there are six in non-NFL markets. In reality some of them were more or less bankrupt, but I will assume that the financial settlement with the NFL included enough cash to revive them so they go straight into the NFL.

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The Two-Team Towns — Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Orlando, Tampa

All the remaining USFL teams share markets with one or more NFL teams meaning relocation, merger or buy-off is needed. The Denver Gold can’t compete with the Broncos so they relocate to Salt Lake City to become the Utah Gold. The Houston Gamblers arguably have a better team than the Oilers, but Bud Adams is a founder AFL owner so the Gamblers agree to relocate to Las Vegas to become the Las Vegas Gamblers. They change their logo, removing the outline of Texas and replacing it with one of Nevada. In LA, the Express are the third team and despite playing some great football, don’t attract the fans. Their owner Bill Oldenburg is in deep financial trouble so takes a buy-off offer and the LA Express are no more. Support in Orlando has been OK, but being too close to Tampa, the Orlando Renegades relocate to Nashville, and this immediately give Memphis a local rival to root against. The Tampa Bay Bandits are the hardest case. They are at least as popular as the woeful Buccaneers, but replacing them isn’t acceptable to the NFL. So the two Tampa Bay teams merge, keeping the Buccaneers name, but adopting the Bandits colors (foreshadowing the real-life Bucs change to red/metallic unis in 1997).

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All the Rest

The Cardinals don’t relocate to Arizona in 1987 because the Outlaws are already there. In fact, the new 40 team league now has pretty much all viable markets covered meaning there are very limited options for possible new teams or relocation. This also removes leverage for teams trying to negotiate favorable new stadium deals with cities. Uni-helmet-wise the only other changes are Buffalo switch to white facemasks (like they actually did in 1987) and Washington change helmet to a style based on their 1971 design.

Because of the size of the merger, the league is completely reorganised. After 27 years the old AFL/NFL differences are removed and in their place an Eastern Conference (Atlantic and Southern Divisions) and Western Conference (Northern and Pacific Divisions) are created. The 10 team divisions are based on geography to foster new local rivalries (e.g. Giants/Jets/Generals) but with an eye to try and preserve historical rivalries as well where possible. The larger division size is chosen to better accommodate geographical and historical needs. Conference logos are taken from the USFL. The league logo is simplified to have four stars — to represent the four divisions.

So that is what could have happened in 1987 if the NFL and USFL merged. But what might the league look like in 2022? Would any of the teams move again? What differences might it make to helmet designs? Stay tuned for Part 2!

• • • • •

Thanks, Chris! Some great “What if” food for thought there. In retrospect, especially if the USFL had won more than their trebled $1 in damages, just how close would merger between the two leagues have been? Looking forward to Part II!

Guess The Game…

from the scoreboard

Today’s scoreboard comes from Jackson Straw.

The premise of the game (GTGFTS) is simple: I’ll post a scoreboard and you guys simply identify the game depicted. In the past, I don’t know if I’ve ever completely stumped you (some are easier than others).

Here’s the Scoreboard. In the comments below, try to identify the game (date & location, as well as final score). If anything noteworthy occurred during the game, please add that in (and if you were AT the game, well bonus points for you!):

Please continue sending these in! You’re welcome to send me any scoreboard photos (with answers please), and I’ll keep running them.


Uni Concepts & Tweaks

Time for more Uni Tweaks from the UW readership.

I hope you guys like this feature and will want to continue to submit your concepts and tweaks to me. If you do, Shoot me an E-mail (Phil (dot) Hecken (at) gmail (dot) com).

• • • • •

Today’s concepts come from Jerry Chavez:

Phil,

Little redesign for The Arizona Cardinals. Are the shoulder stripes meant to signify wings or maybe the rays on the flag…? Who knows. That’s up to your imagination. 😁

Thank you!

JC

• • • • •

OK readers (and concepters). If you have some tweaks or concepts, shoot ’em my way with a brief description of your creation and I’ll run ’em here.

Rock(s) of Ages

As many of you know, I teach curling (both at the Brooklyn Lakeside Curling Club and the Long Island Curling Club). Of course, the most important piece of equipment in curling is the “rock” (or stone), which weighs anywhere from 42 to 44 pounds, and are made of granite. But most people, and even a few curlers, are unaware of where the stones get their granite.

For generations, the stones used in most curling events have been forged from granite mined from a quarry on a single, uninhabited volcanic island off the Scottish coast. There are only two places from which the granite to make curling rocks come: Ailsa Craig, a small isle located off the coast of mainland Scotland; a second quarry is located in Trefor, North Wales, and has been a secondary source of the granite used for curling stones due to the limited supply of stone in Ailsa Craig. The rocks used in the Olympics come from Ailsa Craig.

It’s a fascinating story.

Your Friendly Reminder…

Spring Forward

Time for my annual reminder…

Most of you (likely) have devices (phones, clocks, DVR’s, etc.) that will automatically “Spring Forward” for Daylight Saving Time — remember there is no “S” at the end of “saving” — as a local television ad for a mattress company once said, “Leave off the last ‘S’ for saving!”, a good reminder that we’re now in the good time of the year.

Despite the fact that it takes my old bones a good two weeks to make up that hour of “lost” sleep, there is nothing better than DST. Living in the eastern end of my time zone, I greatly appreciate the “extra” hour of daylight we’re afforded for the next six-ish months. Yes, I get that those of you who live in the western end of your time zones probably have no use for it (and yes, if you’re an early riser, you probably will wake up in darkness), but there’s nothing better than being able to do something outdoors after work (or after supper as we hit summer). We can’t really do that in the eastern end of the time zone.

So, in case you own some devices (analog/battery operated clock, watch, car radio, etc.) that don’t automatically “spring” ahead for you — and you haven’t already done it — now’s the time to adjust your time-keeping devices to Daylight Saving Time.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

The Ticker
By Paul

Baseball News: The Royals are adding a memorial patch this season for longtime scout Art Stewart. I can think of only one other memorial patch for a scout, and that was when the Brewers wore one for amateur scouting director Bruce Seid for the last few weeks of the 2014 season. … New York City mayor Eric Adams apparently can’t tell a Brooklyn Dodgers cap from a Red Sox cap. To make matters worse, Adams spent the last eight years as Brooklyn Borough President! (Thanks to all who shared.) … Now that the MLB lockout is over, Chris Creamer has put together a good look at this year’s spring training logos and caps. … The U. of Hawaii’s batting helmets have a depiction on the Hawaiian Islands on the side (from Charles George).

NFL News: The Gridiron Uniform Database shows the Patriots had inconsistent UCLA striping during the 1967 preseason. Not sure I’d ever seen a photo of that until now (from Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell). … Raiders DL Maxx Crosby, who wears No. 98, has inked a new contract for $98.98 million (from @kennycity).

Hockey News: Good historical overview of maskless NHL goalies (from Brandon Weir). … The AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals played last night as the Milwaukee Fish Fry (from @Redfox).
 

College Hoops News: “The University of Wisconsin Alumni Association sends out a weekly newsletter that includes a quiz,” says Wolfie Browender. “This week’s quiz is about Badgers basketball and features some fantastic uniforms from as early as the late 1890s.” … Brutal-looking women’s game yesterday, as Buffalo and Akron went light grey vs. dark grey (from Clinton Nims).

Soccer News: New checkered kits for Indy Eleven of the USL Championship (from @misterfrumble). … New crest for the Nicaraguan national team (from Sy Hart). … Chelsea will wear jerseys without the name or logo of shirt advertiser Three when they play against Newcastle United on Sunday.

Grab Bag: This is pretty awesome: An artist made a painting of a Canadian curler by using a curling broom as her brush (from R. Scott Rogers). … Airbags sometimes leave crash victims with bruises shaped like automaker logos. … Rutgers men’s lacrosse coach Tom Hayes died this week, and the team is memorializing him by replacing their NOBs with his name for the rest of the season (from Jamie Trowbridge and @stevenwoj).

Uni Tweet of the Day

It was such a simple fix. So, so simple…

And finally… that’s it for today. Big thanks to Chris for his think piece on the possible USFL/NFL merger…a great “What if?”

Everyone have a great Saturday — and your last day with an hour less of evening daylight — and I’ll catch you back here tomorrow.

Peace,

PH

39 comments to What if the NFL and USFL Merged in 1987? (Part I)

  • Kris | March 12, 2022 at 7:58 am |

    Interesting what if scenario, but I wonder about the Indianapolis Racers. There was a WHA team team of the same name until the late 70s, and someone may have retained the naming rights. Given Irsay’s thrifty ways, would he have been willing to pay for the name?

    • Chris Diamond | March 12, 2022 at 11:57 am |

      Awww Kris! I was really pleased with the Racers name as it goes with Pacers like Mets/Jets/Nets in NY/NJ :) You’re right that there may have been rights problems and Bob Irsay would be unlikely to pay to get them.

      • super390 | March 12, 2022 at 1:32 pm |

        It worked out for the Houston Texans, Chicago Fire, Charlotte Hornets, Memphis Grizzlies (all WFL names), and Houston Aeros (WHA name). It looks like a lot of these names weren’t getting protected back in the ’70s.

  • Dons | March 12, 2022 at 9:15 am |

    Honestly, Chris lost me at the part where Trump is actually part of a winning strategy. Lets not lose sight of the fact that it was his stupidity that convinced some of those other owners to give up the spring and move to the fall. Yup, Trumps Steaks, Trump Vodka, Trump University,USFL. Hey, next time you do this, let’s imagine a world without Trump and take it from there. Thanks.

    • Chris Diamond | March 12, 2022 at 11:51 am |

      Haha! Yes according to “Football for a Buck” the prevailing opinion is that they would have only won by keeping Donald Trump away from the trial and not making it about him. Seems unlikely I know, but stranger things have happened!

    • Ron Ruelle | March 12, 2022 at 12:13 pm |

      Now imagine if that guy had bought the Buffalo Bills as he tried to do.

    • Justin Black | March 12, 2022 at 4:00 pm |

      I agree. This Village Voice article gets to the bottom of Trump’s sketchy & greedy shenanigans.
      https://www.villagevoice.com/2019/03/04/donald-trumps-political-football/

      “Football For a Buck” is a well researched, outstanding & funny-as-all-hell book. Read!

      Btw, great piece Chris. Enjoyed it!

  • Sean | March 12, 2022 at 9:28 am |

    What are the 2 6-team and 4 7-team divisions? The article shows 4 10-team divisions….

    • Chris Diamond | March 12, 2022 at 11:37 am |

      Hi Sean,

      Sorry that was a mix-up between me and Phil it should read:

      Because of the size of the merger, the league is completely reorganised. After 27 years the old AFL/NFL differences are removed and in their place an Eastern Conference (Atlantic and Southern Divisions) and Western Conference (Northern and Pacific Divisions) are created. The 10 team divisions are based on geography to foster new local rivalries (e.g. Giants/Jets/Generals) but with an eye to try and preserve historical rivalries as well where possible. The larger division size is chosen to better accommodate geographical and historical needs. Conference logos are taken from the USFL. The league logo is simplified to have four stars – to represent the four divisions.

  • Rex (ACC Tracker) | March 12, 2022 at 9:53 am |

    It’s pretty cool to see the helmet template [from the defunct MG’s Helmets website] used for the USFL piece. I used them on my website before creating my own.

    • Chris Diamond | March 12, 2022 at 11:55 am |

      Thanks Rex. But the helmet isn’t a 2D template, it’s a 3D model rendered in 3D Studio Max.

  • Rick Porter | March 12, 2022 at 10:08 am |

    What about the Maulers?? What happened to the Pittsburgh Maulers?

    • Chris Diamond | March 12, 2022 at 11:39 am |

      The Maulers had already folded by 1986 so the franchise wasn’t part of the USFL by then.

    • Kek | March 12, 2022 at 11:44 am |

      They folded after one season in ’84, so they weren’t around when the league disbanded.

  • Kevin | March 12, 2022 at 10:17 am |

    Just fyi, this doesn’t appear to be published to the main page yet. Saw Paul’s tweet to find the link, but any ras readers like myself won’t see it.

    • Kevin | March 12, 2022 at 11:28 am |

      *rss readers

  • Andrew G | March 12, 2022 at 11:04 am |

    The obvious loser of this 40-team NFL is Carolina. The only area with a current team that doesn’t have one here. I’m sure somebidy will move there in Part II though.

    I’m surprised though he went with a straight East/West conference split though. Doubt the NFL would want to break up Dallas and the other NFC East teams.

    • Chris Diamond | March 12, 2022 at 11:43 am |

      I did initially keep the legacy AFC-NFC structure but then I felt such a seismic merger would be the only time such a re-alignment is likely to happen. Also pre-AFL-NFL merger there were division rivalries between the Giants and Browns and the Rams and Colts – who remembers those now?

    • RICKAZ | March 12, 2022 at 11:47 am |

      Orlando Renegades should move to Charlotte, and at some point the Birmingham Stallions should probably move to Nashville, since Nashville is a more desirable franchise location over Birmingham.

      • Chris Diamond | March 12, 2022 at 11:53 am |

        Good point Rick, that is definitely a good alternative.

    • walter | March 12, 2022 at 11:51 am |

      The NFL’s shaky grasp on geography is propelled by the bond that exists between Washington, Philadelphia, the Giants, and Dallas. New York and Dallas have a particularly strong rivalry. If cartographers made the divisions, the Cowboys would almost certainly be in the same group as the Saints, Falcons and Buccaneers. The Panthers would be Dallas’ likely replacement in the NFC East.

  • Paulio B. | March 12, 2022 at 11:04 am |

    FYI this post is not loading when going to uni-watch.com. I was only able to view it because it was linked on Facebook.

  • GH | March 12, 2022 at 11:43 am |

    There’s no way the NFL would have exploded to 40 teams all at once, especially back in the 80s. The product would have been too watered down. The league still only has 32. At best, they would have taken a select few teams (maybe 4), like when the WHA merged with the NHL.

    • Ty | March 12, 2022 at 12:19 pm |

      Just like the NBA/ABA merger too

  • walter | March 12, 2022 at 11:56 am |

    I loved the USFL. Spring and summer football was a great idea, and the quality of play was superior to all alternative leagues save the AFL. Donald Trump went against the league’s raison d’etre, and a fun and competent brand of football went by the boards.

    • Chris Diamond | March 12, 2022 at 12:37 pm |

      I did too, Walter. I only ever got to see a few games much later on VHS (being in the UK) but it always fascinated me. I think partly it was because it happened at a zenith of uniform design – something the USFL2 seem to have recognised.

  • RICKAZ | March 12, 2022 at 1:03 pm |

    My solution for keeping the AFC and NFC. Each conference with 4 divisions, 5 teams in each division.
    Orlando Renegades become Carolina, and Birmingham Stallions become Nashville.
    AFC
    East- NYJ, NE Pats, Buffalo, Miami, NJ Generals
    Central- Cleveland, Cinci, Pittsburgh, Utah Gold, Denver
    South- Houston Oilers, Kansas City, Indy Racers, Nashville Stallions, Memphis
    West- LA Raiders, SD Chargers, Seattle, Portland, Oakland Invaders
    NFC
    East- NYG, Washington, Philadelphia, Dallas, Baltimore Colts
    Central- Chicago, Minnesota, Detroit, Green Bay, Stl Cardinals
    South- ATL, NO Saints, Carolina Renegades, Tampa Bay, Jacksonville
    West- LA Rams, SF 49ers, AZ Outlaws, LV Gamblers, San Antonio

    • Jim Vilk | March 12, 2022 at 1:25 pm |

      I like this.

      I’d like it even better if the Outllaws were the Wranglers, but what was done was done.

      • RICKAZ | March 12, 2022 at 1:52 pm |

        Agree. Arizona Wranglers would be better than Outlaws, and also better than Arizona Cardinals.

  • Jim Vilk | March 12, 2022 at 1:21 pm |

    For the most part, I absolutely love this merger!

    Can’t wrap my head around Denver being in the Eastern Conference. And yes, I still have a bit of a problem with the Cowboys being in the NFC East…
    I’d swap the two (?) Tennessee teams to the West in place of Denver and Kansas City.

    Vegas wouldn’t have gotten a team back in those days. As much as I liked the Gamblers, I would have merged them with the Oilers the way you did in Tampa. Jerry Glanville would have LOVED to add black to the Oilers’ color scheme. And to be honest, I might have preferred a black helmet to their white one…as long as the jerseys were still Columbia Blue.

    Personally, I’d take the Express over the Raiders, but even in fantasy, you have to be somewhat realistic. Can’t argue with your call there.

    This reminds me of a fantasy I had: after losing the lawsuit, the surviving teams hear of a new league starting in ’87, and join forces with the Arena Football League. Then, after a few years, once they’ve established themselves, they could have played separate indoor and outdoor seasons. It’s not without precedent…the North American Soccer League had indoor and outdoor seasons in the early 80s.

    Great job, Chris. And great Cardinals concept, Jerry!

    Standard Time forever!

    • Jim Vilk | March 12, 2022 at 1:36 pm |

      And before anyone hammers the indoor/outdoor idea, I’m not suggesting the same guys play both seasons. A few could, but the rest would be either strictly indoor or strictly outdoor players.

      After the Arena League folded, the NFL could/should have made this happen.

    • Chris Diamond | March 12, 2022 at 1:59 pm |

      Thanks Jim! If you don’t like Denver in the East, wait until Part 2 :) It’s funny, my first thought was that the Gamblers and Oilers might merge like the Tampa Bay teams. The new team would have had a decent roster. And I think you may like what I think the Alt-Reality Oilers look like in 2022. Definitely NOT black though!

      • Jim Vilk | March 12, 2022 at 2:13 pm |

        Looking forward to it!

  • Mr X | March 12, 2022 at 2:48 pm |

    Nice work on this thread.

    This has always been an interesting topic to me. I enjoy the brands from the USFL in the 80s much more than what the NFL came up with in the 90s and 00s. I understand the concept of the piece was to use teams around the time of the lawsuit.

    A few pts

    1. What to do about Charlotte? I like using the Michigan Panthers colors and logo.
    2. Stars would be a good ID for Indy. Take a look at the Indiana state flag.
    3. Arizona Wranglers is a much stronger than the Outlaws.

    Also the helmet template you used was awesome! Any chance you have the wranglers?

    • Chris Diamond | March 12, 2022 at 4:45 pm |

      Thanks! Concerning your points:
      1. You may have psychic powers… wait for Part II ;)
      2. The Stars identity is a good fit I agree, but I didn’t feel that Indy would want another “used” team identity.
      3. I think most people agree with that. But again, wait for Part II!
      I haven’t done the Wranglers yet, but I may do a full USFL update at some point.

  • marchingkazoo | March 12, 2022 at 4:32 pm |

    Since no one else has seemed to take the bait, GTGFTS is 3/31/04. Rays beat Yankees 8-3 in the Tokyo Dome.

  • Jeff | March 12, 2022 at 6:58 pm |

    One of the best Arizona Cardinals redesigns I’ve seen! As someone who often thinks about their eventual redesign, I love the simplicity and the possible double meaning of the shoulder stripes! Great combo of original kit with a relevant modern upgrade.

  • walter | March 12, 2022 at 8:34 pm |

    What stands in the way of Birmingham becoming an NFL town?

    • Neeko | March 12, 2022 at 10:48 pm |

      They don’t care about professional football