While financial mishaps and a global pandemic conspired to snuff out two recent high-profile attempts at launching a viable spring football league, the backers of the resurrected USFL are hoping the third time’s the charm. And while the ratings for the opening weekend were perfectly respectable, the USFL’s true impact won’t be discernible until we’ve reached the end of the season.
Saturday night’s inaugural New Jersey Generals-Birmingham Stallions game averaged 3.07 million viewers and a 1.8 household rating across Fox and NBC. Fox’s simulcast served up 1.76 million of those viewers, or 57% of the overall base, while NBC averaged 1.31 million viewers.
Bear in mind that the Generals-Stallions game, decided by a 28-24 score, went head-to-head with an NBA playoff game (Nuggets-Warriors) that averaged 4.52 million viewers on ABC. (Although characterizing the perfectly adequate game as an “instant classic” feels like a stretch here, the hyperbole’s to be expected, given Fox’s ownership of the new league.) For all that, the USFL table-setter was Saturday’s fourth most-watched sporting event, easily outpacing the day’s slate of nationally televised MLB, Premier League, PGA and NHL action.
All told, the kickoff game came up a little shy of the 3.3 million viewers who tuned in for the Feb. 8, 2020 XFL opener on ABC, and the 3.25 million curiosity-seekers who caught the Alliance of American Football launch on CBS the previous year. And while the USFL deliveries were somewhat padded by out-of-home impressions (which weren’t included in Nielsen’s XFL and AAF stats), the combined numbers are still encouraging, given the ongoing erosion of the linear TV audience. Saturday night’s total primetime TV audience was south of 65 million viewers, or about 26% shy of the 87.3 million people who watched TV the night of the 2019 AAF launch.
For what it’s worth, the premiere broadcast of Vince McMahon and NBC’s gimmicky, gonzo XFL v. 1.0 averaged 14 million viewers on NBC back in February 2001. The ratings plummeted as soon fans realized they were being sold a bill of goods; after debuting to a 9.5 household rating, turnout for Week 2 of the XFL season dropped 52% to a 4.6. While NBC assured advertisers the XFL would average a 4.5 rating throughout the season, the 12 weeks of broadcasts (including the semifinal playoffs and the championship game) badly missed the mark with a 2.9. NBC lost an estimated $35 million on the venture, and cut ties with the XFL shortly after the season ended.
If the USFL’s overall deliveries are in line with the early numbers posted by its most recent predecessors, the league’s audience composition leaves something to be desired. Per Nielsen, only 26% of those who tuned in to the USFL opener were in the 18-49 demo; by way of comparison, adults age 50 and under made up 36% of the inaugural AAF impressions. (For what it’s worth, that’s nearly identical to the NFL’s skew.) The following year, the XFL did even better in the demo, with 42% of the fans in its audience serving as members of the under-50 set.
On Sunday afternoon, NBC’s standalone coverage of the Houston Gamblers-Michigan Panthers averaged 2.15 million viewers, outpacing the network’s subsequent primetime entertainment lineup by nearly 40%. That puts the USFL’s second nationally televised game well ahead of the first Sunday of AAF action averaged (640,000 viewers on NFL Network), but behind the 3.39 million viewers Fox scared up with its analogous XFL broadcast in 2020.
If precedent is anything to go by, the USFL might want to brace itself for a significant drop in its Week 2 deliveries. By the time the second weekend of XFL action rolled around, many of the fans who’d sampled the first block of games had called it quits; per Nielsen, 31% of the initial Fox/ABC audience failed to show up for the Feb. 15-16 broadcasts. By Week 3, 41% of the XFL base had vanished, and by the time the coronavirus outbreak necessitated the premature shutdown of the league after Week 5, the TV audience had shrunk 54%.
No comparable numbers are available for the AAF, which folded after eight weeks and never returned to the broadcast airwaves following its CBS debut. 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 Net and TNT, the doomed venture averaged a negligible 420,000 viewers.
While the USFL’s broadcast-heavy schedule may allow it to maintain an average audience of 1.5 million to 2 million viewers, the early basic-cable numbers are predictably stilted. USA Network’s coverage of Sunday evening’s Philadelphia Stars-New Orleans Breakers game managed just 770,000 viewers, while FS1’s presentation of the weather-delayed Tampa Bay Bandits-Pittsburgh Maulers skirmish eked out 268,000 viewers on Monday night.
As the USFL season rolls along, the league will face even greater competition from the NBA playoffs. Fox’s own NASCAR Cup Series coverage—not to mention its Saturday night MLB slate—will also look to bump off the upstart football showcase. However things shake out in early innings, Fox is committed to the cause, having earmarked some $150 million in funding for the league between now and 2024.