Is one football game big enough for two different networks?
NBC and Fox both intend to broadcast the (new) inaugural game from the USFL, the latest in a series of efforts to launch a spring football league that can soak up attention while the NFL is on its usual hiatus. Under an agreement unveiled Tuesday, NBC Sports will provide pregame, halftime and postgame coverage of a game between the New Jersey Generals and the Birmingham Stallions, while Fox Sports will produce coverage of the match-up itself. Both networks will carry the full event, and the same commercials will run on both Fox and NBC.
Both NBC and Fox have multi-year rights deals with the USFL, with NBC Sports set to air 22 games in 2022, nine on NBC, nine on USA and four via Peacock. Fox Sports is slated to carry 22 games, with 14 on Fox and eight on cable’s Fox Sports 1. Fox Sports controls the league through a holding company, and its senior tier of executives consists largely of former Fox stalwarts.
“The first game played in any new league is itself historical and having the USFL’s inaugural game simulcast by NBC and Fox makes it even more so,” said Eric Shanks, Fox Sports’ CEO and executive producer, in a statement. “It’s rare when two competitors can come together and see how cooperation can lead to long-term benefit.
Longtime sports fans may recall an era when teams like the Generals, Memphis Showboats and Houston Gamblers took to the field for three seasons between 1983 and 1985. Herschel Walker and Doug Flutie were among some of the USFL’s standouts and Donald Trump was a part owner of the New York team. The concept of football in the spring has taken on new momentum in an era when live sports events prove resistant to some of the audience erosion caused by consumers’ migration to on-demand video streaming. Football — of the NFL variety — commands the medium’s highest ad prices. TV networks, beholden to the NFL and the billions of dollars in rights fees it seeks, could stand to gain some leverage if they were able to turn to a rival league at a different time of the year to deliver a similar product.
But the drive to launch spring football has been challenging. The Alliance of American Football gained early traction with broadcasts on CBS and elsewhere before collapsing under shaky finances. WWE leader Vince McMahon backed a new spring league called the XFL that was halted by the coronavirus pandemic and bankruptcy (actor Dwayne Johnson and a consortium of financiers have pledged to bring it back in 2022).
The USFL will launch with eight teams split into two divisions playing in one location. In addition to the Stallions, Houston Gamblers, New Orleans Breakers, and Tampa Bay Bandits in the South Division, the North Division features the Michigan Panthers, Pittsburgh Maulers, Generals, and Philadelphia Stars. Each team will play a 10-game schedule, followed by semifinals between the top two teams in each division, and a championship game between division winners.
More TV networks are getting creative about how they broadcast sports events. ESPN has set up bespoke broadcasts of NFL and NBA games aimed at appealing to younger viewers, sports bettors and other viewership niches. And CBS Sports and Nickelodeon have for two years simulcast an NFL Wild Card game, with a special effort for kids. Fox and NBC believe their USFL joint broadcast represents the first scheduled sports competition to air at the same time on two competitive broadcast networks since Super Bowl I aired on NBC and CBS, January 15, 1967.