Donald Trump’s Tecmo Bowl

You wouldn’t think President Trump has much to do with Tecmo Bowl. You’d be wrong. Bigly. Without Donald J. Trump, Tecmo Super Bowl would be vastly different. We wouldn’t have TSB’s superpowered Bills. Heck, if not for Trump, Buffalo might not have the Bills, period.

It all comes down to four little letters: U, S, F, and L; as in the United States Football League. The USFL played three seasons between 1983 and 1985. The brainchild of New Orleans businessman David Dixon, the USFL was founded not to compete directly with the NFL, but to scrape together the considerable change left on the NFL’s floor. The USFL played its games in spring and early summer, when pro and college stadiums sat silent. Where possible, USFL targeted NFL-free markets like Memphis and Oklahoma. Preaching fiscal responsibility and a wise pursuit of TV money, Dixon set a blueprint by which careful franchise owners could make copious amounts of money.

Dixon’s plan didn’t work so well in practice.

The USFL’s failure certainly wasn’t owed to bad timing. The league arrived hot on the heels of a 1982 NFL players’ strike. Promising better treatment, the USFL lured top-flight college talent and a number of established NFL veterans. Three consecutive Heisman Trophy winners chose the USFL over the NFL: Herschel Walker, Doug Flutie and Mike Rozier. Other collegiate stars such as Jim Kelly, Reggie White and Steve Young likewise chose the USFL. Together with established players like Cleveland QB Brian Sipe and KC Pro Bowl Safety Gary Barbaro, the USFL’s on-field product came close to rivaling the NFL’s.

Except preaching and practicing fiscal responsibility are two entirely different things. Even before play started, USFL franchises were bought and sold among owners. Teams wandered from city to city, searching for stadium deals and TV money. In 1984, the USFL’s LA Express infamously inked Steve Young to perhaps the dumbest contract in pro-sports history: a 4-year, $40 Million dollar deal payable over the span of 43 years. Yes, 43 years[1]. Unfortunately for Young, the payout was structured as an annuity which required he initially pay in. Young opted instead for somewhere in the range of $4 Mil up front. Had he bought into the annuity, Young would have pocketed over $1 Million a year until 2027[2].

By September of 1983, Trump was a 37-year-old real estate mogul. His newly-completed Trump Tower added a golden sparkle to Manhattan’s skyline. Trump, looking for his next challenge, wanted in on the world of pro sports. Lucky for him, the New Jersey Generals’ owner, J. Walter Duncan, tired after a season of flying back and forth from his Oklahoma home to the Meadowlands, put his Generals up for sale. Trump cut a $9 Million check[3] and, like Homer Simpson, became owner of a pro football team.

Despite Herschel Walker’s league-best 1,800 yards rushing, the Generals struggled through the USFL’s inaugural season. Donald J. Trump, upon arrival, did what came naturally: he spent bags and bags of money. Trump signed QB Brian Sipe from the Cleveland Browns and Kansas City CB Gary Barbaro, along with a handful of other NFL stars. He came within a hair’s-width of signing Lawrence Taylor away from the New York Giants[4]. Trump even attempted to pry Hall of Fame coach Don Shula away from the Miami Dolphins. Their deal allegedly fell apart when, according to Trump, Shula asked for a condo in Trump Tower[5]. Instead, Trump settled for former NY Jets coach Walt Michaels to lead his shiny new team.

Trump’s un-USFL spending spree paid off. The 1984 Generals boasted two 1,000-yard rushers in Walker and fullback Maurice Carthon. The team finished an impressive 14-4, losing to eventual champion Philadelphia in the playoffs. Trump continued his spending in the offseason, trading Sipe to make way for Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie. Trump inked Flutie to what was–before the Steve Young deal–the biggest contract in pro football history: 5-years and $7 Million.

Success on the field, though, did not translate to success off. Owners lost millions over millions of dollars. The USFL’s Michigan Panthers–the first league champion–ran $6 Million in the red. The LA Express, unsurprisingly, went bankrupt after the 1984 season. Other teams relocated, merged, or simply folded. Dixon, frustrated by out of control spending, sold his interests in the USFL and quit.

Trump, having invested heavily in his Generals, pushed for a radical strategy: compete directly with the NFL. Trump made little secret that, for him, NFL ownership was always the goal (he claimed to have passed on purchasing the Dallas Cowboys because of limited earnings potential). In the fall of 1984, at the urging of Trump and Chicago Blitz owner Eddie Einhorn, USFL owners voted 12-2 to move the USFL season from spring to fall. Teams like Pittsburgh refused to do battle with their NFL counterparts and were sold. ABC and ESPN, owners of the USFL’s TV rights, offered $250 Million to keep the season in spring. USFL owners refused.

For Trump, the USFL’s blueprint for success lie not with Dixon, but a much earlier model. The emergence of the AFL in the 1960s showed how the NFL could be challenged and beaten. Trump envisioned a similar arc for his USFL. “I’d like to challenge [the NFL] to a championship game,” he said at the time. ”That would be a lot of fun… I think a couple of our teams can play equally with some NFL teams.”

All the while, Trump continued spending on his Generals. After the 1985 season, he purchased the remaining assets of the folded Houston Gamblers, including yet another star QB: Jim Kelly. Kelly famously graced the cover of Sports Illustrated in full Generals gear. “Look out, Marino” the cover boasted, “the USFL’s Jim Kelly is ready to prove he’s pro football’s top gun.”

Desperately needing cash and a cut of the NFL’s TV rights for their fall 1986 showdown, the remaining 8 teams of the USFL brought an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL. They claimed the NFL represented a monopoly and sought a billion dollars in damages. Trump, perhaps, had ulterior motives. During the trial he claimed NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle promised him ownership of an NFL franchise if the USFL dropped its lawsuit.

After a two-month trial, the court found in the USFL’s favor: the NFL was indeed a monopoly. Unfortunately, the jury also decided the USFL’s financial woes were self-inflicted. Instead of $1.6 Billion in damages, the court awarded the USFL $1. As in one single dollar. Adjusted for inflation when the USFL’s appeals ran out, the NFL cut a check for a whopping $3.76. The check was never cashed.

Without money or TV coverage, the USFL didn’t have a 1986 season. It folded for good in 1987. Trump pushed all in on the USFL against the NFL and lost. Players who we think of as Tecmo Super Bowl beasts–Reggie White and Jim Kelly, among them–transitioned to the NFL. The USFL’s lesser players, underpaid when they were paid all, retired to civilian life.

In the intervening years, Trump has done his best to retcon his involvement in the USFL. Contradicting his own quotes, Trump has claimed he never wanted to own an NFL team, that he only bought into the USFL because other owners begged him, and that his purchase price of the Generals was well below their $5 Million market value.

While it isn’t fair to say now-President Trump single-handedly killed the USFL, he certainly sped its demise. Trump’s flashy spending ignited other owners to cast aside Dixon’s fiscal responsibility. Sports reporter Charley Steiner describes Trump as, “…the air pump into the tire. He gave the league the air it needed, elevated it to another level, pumped it up real good, and kept pumping till it exploded.[6]” As early as 1983, Trump had advocated the USFL move to fall. And although Trump now claims he didn’t push for the antitrust suit against the NFL, he hand-picked its New York venue and the USFL’s stable of lawyers.

What does that mean? It means, without Donald Trump, Tecmo Super Bowl as we know it simply wouldn’t exist.

We might have Jim Kelly’s Houston Gamblers instead of Jim Kelly’s Bills. In fact, we probably wouldn’t have the Bills at all: during the three USFL seasons, the Bills struggled to draw fans. Many saw declining attendance in Buffalo as a direct result of the upstart USFL. Had Trump not drove the USFL into the ground, it’s entirely possible the Bills would have gone out of business.

LA Express vs. New Jersey Generals
Image from Denny & jstout’s USFL/WLAF TSB hack.

Instead of Tecmo Bowl and John Elway’s Quarterback, we could have played Tecmo NFL and Jim Kelly’s USFL (or vice versa). Who is to say, if both the NFL and USFL had existed, which game Tecmo makes? It’s easy to imagine the upstart USFL, a league that innovated instant replay and 2-point conversions, giving a sweetheart deal to Tecmo. Who knows? Without Trump, we could have Kia commercials featuring Herschel Walker’s Generals instead of Bo Jackson’s Raiders.

So, all politics aside, we can all thank President Trump for at least one thing: he helped deliver the Tecmo Super Bowl we know and love.


An earlier version of ths story incorrectly reportrf the terms of Steve Young’s LA Express contract.

[1] And you thought Bobby Bonilla’s 25-year contract with the Mets was stupid.
[2] http://www.celebritynetworth.com/articles/entertainment-articles/steve-young-is-still-earning-millions-off-his-usfl-contract-from-1984/
[3] http://www.nytimes.com/1983/09/23/sports/generals-are-sold-to-trump.html
[4] http://www.nytimes.com/1984/01/01/sports/trump-building-the-generals-in-his-own-style.html
[5] Shula has said off-record he soured on the deal when Trump prematurely announced it to local news.


Keith Good

Keith Good is a future Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and 8-bit game geek. A perpetual optimist, he convinces himself every September that this could finally be the Cleveland Browns' year. He was once told to eff off by one of the Tecmo Browns. You can check out his other work at www.keithisgood.com and follow him on twitter @keithisgood.

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