The Critical 'I'

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Sunday, December 28, 2003

THE DONALD AND THE USFL
art of the heel
During the past week, I've gotten into two separate conversations about Donald Trump. It's probably because his new reality show, "The Apprentice" is close to debuting (on January 7th, 2004), and because I'm the designated "New York guy" in my social circles (strictly on legacy, as I haven't lived in New York for more than 10 years, although I visit a couple of times a year).

During the course of both these conversations, I arrived at the conclusion that The Donald owes his present fame to his involvement in professional sports, chiefly as a former team owner in the long-defunct United States Football League (USFL). As ESPN.com's Greg Garber noted, this stint in the USFL transformed Trump from a regional celebrity to a national one, thanks to all the press a football team owner attracts.

"He was just a Donald, not The Donald," remembered Charlie Steiner, who as the radio voice of the Generals had a front row seat for the histrionics. "He was a boy builder and then he bought the team. It was the best thing that ever happened to the USFL and the worst thing that ever happened to the USFL.

"He bought the back page of the Daily News and the Post. Suddenly, he was a man about town. He was building the greatest football team in history. Pretty soon, he was making Page Six. It didn't matter to him if the league made it or not, he had already succeeded."

Thus, Trump provides a compelling case study for how pro sports provides a platform for mainstream notoriety. It also points out how much of a high-stakes game pro sports is, and why money issues between ownership and labor are so hotly contested.

I'm not suggesting that the USFL is solely responsible for Trump's success. He made his fortune in high-stakes real estate, using the resources he had at hand (including his family fortune, as well as his own business acumen). What's more, he built his business empire in Manhattan, one of the world's premier real estate markets and a virtual playground for high-profile business deals. And you could argue that Trump's dealings in Atlantic City's casino industry was what really put him over the top as a mover and shaker. His rise during the '80s makes him perhaps the epitome of that decade:

... If one is going to nominate a man of the decade, Trump has got to be at the top of the list, along with Reagan and Gorbachev. The Trump Shuttle, Trump hotels and casinos, Trump books, Trump high-rises, Trump luxury ships, Trump ads in major newspapers on foreign trade, the Generals or the New Jersey football Trumps, Trump The Game - what's next, Trump The Cereal? Yes, the '80s were definitely the age of Trump. Manipulating money, property, and corporations - and putting the right spin on one's actions - was the name of the game in the '80s. And nobody was more successful at it than Trump. Sure, he was a popular foil for stand-up comics and social commentators, but he also was - if not a media darling - certainly a media sidekick...

He didn't just make a lot of money and acquire a lot of property. Trump became a star. He had no talent outside of the business world, but big business was the glamour sport of the decade and Trump was the Most Valuable Player. Unlike many famous wealthy people of the past, he did not ride the fame of show business friends to notoriety. He renamed everything he bought after himself. He was a master at public relations, always in the news. No matter where we went, Trump was there. Yes, he was an arrogant self-promoter, but by all '80s standards he was a success.

(Note the sporting world analogies: "glamour sport", "Most Valuable Player".)

It's important to note that Trump could have accumulated all his wealth, closed all his deals, and achieved his business success without ever having owned the USFL's New Jersey Generals. And yet, had he done so, most of America (and the world) never would have heard of him. He'd have been a business world luminary, a guru worthy of a few business book deals and speaking seminars, but probably only on the same level, fame-wise and influence-wise, as his sometime-adversary Leona "Queen of Mean" Helmsley. He'd be a fixture on the New York fame scene, and so would get some measure of national exposure, but always in the context of Manhattan. It's hard to believe Trump would get a national television show on the strength of that.

As noted above, one of Trump's driving forces is his penchant for self-promotion. As often as this is assigned to his egomania, it appears to me that it's just as motivated by his desire to maximize his business opportunities. While for some businesspeople, relative anonymity is a preferred asset in their dealings (depending on industry), for Trump, the highly-visible approach works best for him. Being the owner of the Generals was the perfect means, at the perfect time, for getting that high level of recognition.

Interestingly, Trump has since made it known that, not only was he exploiting the USFL for his own advancement, he was using it as a stepping stone toward eventual ownership of an NFL team, ideally the Giants or Jets:

TRUMP - Well, I never thought the league could make it. I thought it was a shot in the dark, which it was. People don't want to watch a football game on Easter.

PETERSON - Donald certainly had ulterior motives for coming into the league. He did some good things for the league, publicity-wise and that. But I know that he certainly wanted to be an owner in the National Football League and felt the United States Football League was the most direct course to get there.

WERDER - On that point, too, Trump's position has changed dramatically over the years.

TRUMP - We are not looking for merger. It would be ridiculous to even consider merger right now on our behalf, frankly.

Thinking back at it, I almost had a shot at getting a chief NFL franchise.

WERDER - And that's what you wanted?

TRUMP - I guess. You know, I'm just thinking back to those days. It was a long time ago, but perhaps that's in the back of my mind. Sometimes I can't even figure out my own mind. But in the back of my mind, I suspect I wanted to get into the NFL at a low price. The problem was we had some owners that couldn't afford to play the game. And if you can't afford to play that game, that game's not going to work out...

TRUMP - I had a lot of fun. I learned a lot about football. If people like myself owned every team in the USFL, we'd be in the fall and we'd be playing against the NFL, and we'd probably right now, there would have been a merger a long time ago.

So, let's add The Donald's rise to national mindshare as yet another part of the old USFL's lasting legacy. And let's look forward to scenes from "The Apprentice" that won't be nearly as entertaining as these made-up outtakes.