USFL Puts Hurt on the Other ‘Football’ in Rookie Ratings Season

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The inaugural season of the USFL 2.0 is down to its final three games, and while the spring football league’s TV deliveries aren’t ever going to deprive Roger Goodell of a decent night’s sleep, the games have held their own during one of the more claustrophobic stretches of the sports calendar.

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the 10-week USFL schedule averaged just shy of 695,000 viewers across Fox, NBC, FS1 and USA Network, and while these are hardly lapel-grabbing results, the startup managed to outmuscle a number of legacy leagues. For example, the USFL’s ratings more than doubled Major League Soccer’s 2022 deliveries—now $2.5 billion richer, thanks to its new rights deal with Apple TV, MLS is currently averaging 292,500 viewers per match on the ESPN family of networks—and also made short work of the Ted Lasso set.

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NBCUniversal’s coverage of the 2021-22 Premier League season averaged 507,000 viewers, which now stands as the English soccer organization’s second most-watched campaign on U.S. TV. Last spring, NBC retained the rights to the Premier League in a six-year deal worth north of $2.6 billion, or $435 million per season.

If nothing else, the football vs. “football” results suggest that FIFA president Gianni Infantino may have been indulging in a smidge of self-interested hyperbole last week when he declared that the Beautiful Game will be the “No. 1 sport in this part of the world” (i.e., North America) come 2026. If you’re an American of a certain age—say, old enough to have been stuffing your face with Big League Chew ever since it first hit the market back in 1980—you’ve heard this kind of talk before.

Can’t blame a guy for trying. While it’s Infantino’s job to assume the Flavor Flav hype man role for the 2026 World Cup, no one actually believes that soccer poses an existential threat to gridiron-style football here in the States. Hell, the national deliveries for the homegrown version of soccer can’t even put a dent in the regional ratings of baseball’s best team. In the New York market, the first-place Yankees have created such a stir that their games on YES Network are currently averaging 335,000 viewers. That’s about 42,500 more viewers than MLS scares up via ESPN’s coast-to-coast feed. (On Monday night, YES hit a season high in the DMA with an average draw of 495,000 viewers, as Gerrit Cole took a no-hit bid into the eighth inning down in Tampa.)

Speaking of sports that soccer still hasn’t managed to kill off, the fledgling USFL is serving up impressions that are competitive with those notched each week by Major League Baseball. Since the season began in early April, MLB is averaging 747,378 viewers via its national television partners Fox, ESPN, FS1 and TBS. (For the sake of context, baseball’s 54,135-fan advantage over the USFL is about 116 souls shy of a capacity crowd at Yankee Stadium.)

Jettison the two leagues’ lower-rated packages, and MLB enjoys a much more generous lead over the USFL. Eliminate the Tuesday night TBS games and the 17 outings that have aired thus far on FS1, and MLB’s Fox/ESPN audience swells to 1.52 million viewers. By the same token, if we limit our analysis of the USFL to its 20 Fox/NBC broadcasts, the new venture is averaging 984,381 viewers per game.

The USFL also hung tough against the NHL, which over the course of the regular season averaged a hair over 360,000 viewers per game in its first go-around with Turner Sports and drew around 640,000 viewers care of Disney’s ABC/ESPN.

Through the regular season, NBC is winning the USFL ratings race with an average draw of 1.14 million viewers over eight broadcasts, outpacing Fox on the network front (887,308), while lapping the coverage at its cable sibling USA (331,444). Fox’s FS1 is bringing up the rear with an average draw of 285,000 USFL viewers. While at the low end of the ratings continuum, that’s not a shabby outcome for FS1, which last spring averaged 144,000 viewers per day.

That the USFL will return for a second season already makes the league a winner, and Fox’s relatively inexpensive investment ($150 million over the first three years of operations) has kept internal expectations in check. At the start of the season, analysts expected the USFL to lose between $25 million and $65 million, and Fox CEO Lachlan Murdoch is sufficiently bullish about the league’s prospects that he’s already started talking about expanding the eight-team table, to use a soccer phrase.

If all goes according to plan, the USFL will have managed to stay one step ahead of the spring football jinx that sidelined the Alliance of American Football in 2019 and scuttled the XFL revival from the following year. The latter effort averaged 1.86 million viewers over the course of its five-week run, before the pandemic effectively brought the curtain down for good in March 2020. Financial malpractice killed off the AAF, which folded seven weeks after its CBS debut averaged 3.25 million viewers. The AAF’s commitment to basic-cable shrank its initial TV audience down to next to nothing, and over the course of its final 18 telecasts on NFL Network and TNT, the doomed venture averaged 420,000 viewers.

Low expectations can be a startup manager’s best friend. Among the key advantages of setting the USFL ad rates so low—scatter units in recent broadcasts could be had for as little as $15,000 a throw—is that it takes very little effort to make the advertisers whole when the audience doesn’t show up in full force.

Those same advertisers hope to see a bit of a ratings bump as the postseason kicks off. This Saturday, Fox will air the early Philadelphia Stars-New Jersey Generals playoff, while NBC hosts the primetime showdown between the New Orleans Breakers and Birmingham Stallions. The two teams that advance to the championship round will butt heads on July 3 at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio.

The Stallions (+200) are a slim favorite to win the title, edging the Generals (+210). All who may feel compelled to bet on this game are encouraged to seek counseling from a clergyman or licensed healthcare professional.

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