Spring is in the air and spring football is on the air…again. And just as the storylines on the field are presenting, so too are the storylines off the field, specifically the ever engagement-ready ratings Tweet. Yes, I am just as guilty as everyone else of this. I scour the web looking for Nielsen tidbits to satiate an audience hungry for every detail of USFL news; from those looking towards its demise to those anxiously awaiting a second season.
Regardless of where you are on this spectrum, if you’re reading this, you want to know viewership data. But viewership is a small piece of what is a rather large puzzle and, with the USFL, the puzzle is more complex than what most people expect.
Before I delve into the ratings, let’s talk about the USFL vs XFL vs AAF. I’m going to make some of you angry when I say this, and I’m sorry, but the XFL and the AAF are bankrupt. The 3.0 version of the XFL is TBD and, right now, the only league playing a single down of outdoor football in the spring is the USFL.
The USFL’s business model, although not public information, can be inferred as running on a narrow budget. They have built the league around a hub location, have narrow team payrolls, and are curbing expenses. Their marketing? Using the assets that they control, namely 15-30 second commercial airtime and social media with help from Fox employees.
The appearance, love it or hate it, is cost control. Compare this to the AAF and XFL with local markets, big budget marketing (for the XFL, not the AAF), media pushes, etc., and you see a totally different experience. The reason I’m emphasizing such differences is that this is a fundamentally different model from that of prior leagues.
So with both the AAF and XFL 2.0 (and 1.0) and countless other attempts now dead and a need to fill a glaring programming gap, FOX answered the call, picked up that sword and said, “Give me spring football or give me…paid programming for foot pain relief.”
Fortunately for us, they picked football. Personally, I think they made the right choice. Now, the key is convincing a viewer to watch spring football which, as many have pointed out, has some glaring obstacles upfront, namely the perception that spring football leagues are filled with bad players and destined to die. Despite all of this, FOX, a network who came to prominence by buying the NFL rights away from CBS in the 1990’s, is saying, “let’s do spring football again.”
The results thus far have been promising to say the least. Initial numbers indicate 3 million viewers for the week one marquee matchup on FOX. The most recent Saturday afternoon (4/23/2022) game garnered one million views for the broadcast network.
But even a shiny exterior has some flaws. The USA game on 4/22 was dismal, make that painful, to watch. Yet 325,000 fans trudged through it. On FS1 on Saturday, 402,000 watched an amazing matchup between the Gamblers and the Stallions. And on Sunday, 812,000 tuned in to NBC, who was going against ABC, CBS, and FOX (all of which were airing more established sports). All these numbers must mean something, right?
They do, but the meaning is a bit more nuanced so let’s take it one game at a time. Friday is a horrible night for TV in general and even harder for cable networks that are competing for eyeballs. The competition for your entertainment is hotter than ever, just ask Netflix.
Competing against TV stalwarts like the WWE on FOX and the NBA on ESPN, the USA Network USFL game still managed to put on a showing, albeit not much of one on the field. Okay, the game was more of a whimper. But still, it did finish in the top 150 of all cable shows so, whatever. Let’s just say it wasn’t great.
But the Friday night NBA on ABC playoff game, of all the NBA playoff games on the network, also had the least views. And the USFL finished third on cable to the NBA playoffs, and LIGA MX futbol (and F1 was on too). It wasn’t great but it wasn’t a disaster like so many are declaring. It was Friday night cable.
The FS1 game, however, is intriguing. FS1, who in my opinion has struggled to grab ahold of an audience on par with ESPN, narrowly made the USFL the network’s second biggest live sport event of the week. I say “narrowly” because the USFL was JUST edged out by NASCAR qualifiers, again an established sport in America.
The USFL on FS1 had nearly double the viewership of the long-established MLB. So basically, in week two on FS1, the USFL had more viewers than baseball and slightly less than NASCAR. I’m not seeing the downside here. They still finished in the top 50 of original cable telecasts.
On Fox Saturday, one million viewers made the USFL game the number one sport in that timeslot against the more established Premier League and Bundesliga, both of which have good followings in the US. Bundesliga commands a TV rights deal of $35 million a year while NBC is paying the Premier League $450 million a year over the next six years ($2.7 billion in total according to the Associated Press).
While Fox has not made public the expenses they incur for the first year of USFL action, if I had to make a guess (and mind you this is just a guess), I’d say they are probably spending a lot less than $450 million and maybe just at or below the $35 million mark. In other words, FOX is getting off cheap.
NBC, who aired the Sunday 3 pm EST game that just so happened to go against the NBA Playoffs on ABC, the FOX NASCAR Cup Series, and CBS’s coverage of the PGA Tour, still managed to beat the $450 million dollar Premier League in terms of overall viewership.
ESPN, who paid $400 million annually for the NHL couldn’t beat the USFL on either FS1 or NBC in terms of overall viewership. These leagues that command millions of dollars in rights fees can’t beat little new USFL in week two? Now mind you, these are just two weeks’ worth of data and two weeks does not a season make. However, even if things level out now, the USFL has positioned itself nicely.
But if you listen to the narrative on Twitter, you would think the sky is falling. Comments comparing the USFL to (might I remind you all) a twice failed league? Check. Reminders of a 50% viewership drop? Also check. Claims that this is the end? CHECKKKKK!!!!! And it’s all because of a number that, while certainly a big piece of the proverbial pie, is not the end-all be-all.
Ultimately, what it comes down to is whether FOX and company can turn an upstart league into something viable. And let’s also keep in mind that, while only referring to a given territory in passing, none of these teams are in their Designated Market Area(s) (DMA). The XFL 2.0, conversely, had a presence in seven of the ten top TV markets.
FOX is trying to build a brand. It doesn’t happen overnight and what they are building cannot be directly compared to any league that came before it. They are making smaller investments in and using valuable airtime to get a football product onto the field. And, frankly, they are being conservative about spending money, which means they might avoid the pratfall of prior leagues.
Whether this translates into long-term success remains to be seen. But what is obvious is the league is running lean and focused, standing toe to toe with the big money sports in terms of viewership, and poised to actually finish the season. And they are filling a much-needed programming gap where paid programming for foot pain relief is now relegated to those other networks.
So don’t be too quick to declare the USFL a disaster.