Recap Of Last Installment
I left you guys with the fact that the Denver Gold had many prominent family members of future NFL players. We talked about Todd Gehrhart and Howard Ballage. But it turns out these weren’t the only two players that would eventually be tied to NFL children. The uncle of Phillip Lindsay, a former CU Buff, and Denver Bronco also played running back for the team at one point.
Three prominent players, all of which played running back, and all of which saw their kids play the same position. Lindsay was the only undrafted back on this list, yet also the only one to produce 1,000 yards rushing in a season in the pros.
Phillip Lindsay and Kalen Ballage are currently both free agents. Could we see them play for the league their family members graced before them?
Before the 1985 season, the Gold once again hired a new coach. This time it was Houston Gamblers offensive coordinator Mouse Davis, who brought with him the run and shoot offense. Davis wanted more mobile quarterbacks but struggled to find the right guy to lead his team. However, his head coach was the man who helped Jim Kelly look like a superstar.
There was optimism around the team with new coach Davis on board. He immediately went out and scoured the market for QB help. Bringing in former Chicago Blitz QB Vince Evans. Despite the thought that Evans was signed to be the starter the Gold split time between him and Bob Gagliano.
Neither player was very adept at running the offense, but there was so much talent on the 85 roster, and the scheme fit the weapons well. The Gold would finish the season ranked 4th in total offense for the season their highest ranking in 3 years.
Move to the Fall Season
Shortly after Davis took over is when the league announced a move to the Fall. Only Spedding, and Tampa Bay Bandits owner John F. Bassett, voted against the move to the fall. With this in mind, Bassett began to form another Spring Football League.
Before long his health failed him and he was forced to abandon his creation and let the dream of spring football die along with it. The USFL was now a direct competitor for the NFL by playing in the fall. The Gold and other teams finding themselves competing with NFL franchises watched as attendance plummeted in year 3.
Denver fans love football, but it’s Broncos first and foremost in Colorado. This was the exact reason why the team would watch its attendance fall through the floor. From an average of 42,000 fans in 1983 to a still-solid 33,000 in 1984. However, after the move, the team saw an attendance average of just 14,000 fans.
This was a huge issue for the team, which didn’t have an alternative for stadium choices. The Gold were competing with the Broncos for fans, but playing every weekend at the same stadium. Fans continued to flock to Broncos games but began to abandon the team they had originally welcomed in with open arms.
USFL Begins to Crumble
The 1985 season was nothing short of a disaster for the league, and more directly the team. When the USFL announced that they intended to play in the fall, immediate issues arose. The main reason this would be an issue was the venue the Gold played their games in
Mile High Stadium. Which was the home of the Broncos, long before the Gold came around. Trying to schedule around all the other events including NFL games each week would be a logistical nightmare. What ended up happening may have been even worse…
Attendance got so bad, that the Gold thanks to pressure from ABC were forced to play their playoff game at the opposing stadium. This was a measure to prevent teams from playing playoff games with empty stadiums. Memphis at the time had no NFL team to compete with, and the move hadn’t affected them as much as it had the Gold, thanks to the Broncos.
Spedding knew he didn’t have a solution to remain in Denver. Instead, he decided to move his team to Portland, Oregon. However, the move never happened, because the Jacksonville Bulls, bought all the contracts of the Denver Gold. This move was billed as a merger, but Spedding never gave up the intellectual property to the Bulls. He even considered joining another spring football league that was attempting to launch with John F Bassett leading the charge.
Despite all the turmoil, the Denver Gold posted their first playoff appearance, which was a success in the eyes of the players. However, despite the solid run, their attendance had been cut by over 60% from year 2 to year 3.
When all this came out, the league had already begun its anti-trust lawsuit against the NFL. Sited as part of the reason why the USFL was only awarded $3 in the court case against the NFL, moving out of Denver had come back to bite the USFL.
The jury awarded the USFL with the court victory, but after winning just $3 in their case, the USFL was running low on funds. This led to the cancellation of the 1986 season which would have been their fourth.
Looking Back at Past Mistakes
Looking back at the league it’s clear to most that the move to the fall, and trying to compete with the NFL directly caused the downfall of this league and the team.
Since 1986 the USFL has laid dormant, with little effort to revive the league after the failed lawsuit. The trademarks were abandoned and it would be 25 years before another entity saw value in them. These rights changed hands multiple times before landing in the hands of Fox, and Brian Woods.
It would ultimately take a full 36 years to relaunch the league that had once had such strong support they believed they could compete with the NFL. Brian Woods, and Fox, originally started promoting the league as a relaunch. That was until the original ownership group calling themselves “The Real USFL” got involved.
Ill-Fated Lawsuits Once Again
The lawsuit-happy original group decided to file a trademark infringement lawsuit. This was an interesting choice which led to the judge ultimately saying there was no legal action to be taken on the new USFL. This was a win by the new group, but they aren’t out of the woods yet with “The Real USFL” still able to pursue them for financial damages. It sounds like another settlement is on the way for “The Real USFL”.
When Woods brought the league back, in conjunction with Fox they chose 8 of the 18 teams to bring back. With New Jersey, Philadelphia, Michigan, and Pittsburgh filling out the North Division. In the South Division, it is New Orleans, Birmingham, Houston, and Tampa Bay being the choices. Rumors are that the USFL chose these cities were chosen due to prospective owners already in place.
Potential Ownership Groups Eyeing Denver
I believe they made a mistake not bringing back the Denver Gold. Denver is a football city, and maybe this is a fact lost on anyone who doesn’t follow the Broncos. Looking back at the history of the Broncos from the present day, we see a franchise whose fans have pushed the notion that it’s Super Bowls or bust in Denver. Over the last decade, we have seen John Elway and company go for broke by bringing in Peyton Manning, and this offseason acquiring Russell Wilson.
This brings me to my next point, two of these names I just mentioned are currently trying to buy the Broncos who will be going up for bid this year. Manning is part of a group, and Elway has joined a competing group. Both of them have far less capital than the other groups mentioned. Which is what makes them perfect candidates for ownership of a USFL team.
NFL franchises are at a point where it quite literally takes billions of dollars to purchase a franchise. We saw as Manning was out bit by David Tepper in his attempt to buy the Carolina Panthers, and now word is that he is about to be outbid again to acquire the rights to his former team. So why not set your sights on a league where you will not have that kind of competition for ownership?
Bringing in Manning or Elway as a potential ownership group would be like following the original formula to draw fans. Tie yourself as closely as you can to the Denver Broncos. Including former prominent players in the coaching staff, former Broncos players on the roster if possible, and more importantly your team immediately draws fans because of the mentality both Manning and Elway have shown during their NFL careers. They refuse to lose, and I fully believe either one of these men would bring a win at all costs mantra to the Denver Gold.
Potential Long-term USFL Expansion
Now the question becomes when could we see the USFL look at an expansion to other markets. Is it by year 3, like I have speculated, or are we waiting until year 5 when they have established themselves completely?
I think if the USFL relocates teams into their host cities heading into year two, it will help the longevity of the league by drawing better fan attendance. More importantly, it will be a necessary move if they ever expect to bring back the other 10 teams that once graced the USFL. If we see another hub season in 2023, it could spell certain doom for the Fox-backed league. With TV ratings decent but not spectacular I believe it is crucial to figure out how to get more fans in the stands. Even if it’s simply to improve the broadcast quality.
Should Fox host a Free USFL Game?
With that being said, maybe hosting a free event would be something the USFL should consider. Host a free game, and allow everyone in for free except those in the luxury boxes. You will lose revenue short term, but I believe the gameplay is good enough that once fans get a taste, they will be back to support the league whether on their couch at home, or in the stands of Protective Stadium. Most importantly, I just want to see the USFL succeed and make it past year one. Something no Spring League has managed since 2009 when the United Football League made it 2 ½ seasons before shutting down. In my eyes, if the USFL can end up playing out their full-year 1 season, then we likely see the league return for year two. However, with Spring Football nothing is set in stone. The AAF looked to have a good foundation, as did the XFL, both leagues met their demise due to unforeseen issues.
This is the end of my three part series, Making A Case For A USFL Team in Denver. Once again if you haven’t listened in to the first two episodes they are available via Spotify. Or at the links below. Please click the follow button if you like what you hear!