The second week of the second season of the second iteration of the United States Football League actually went head-to-head on the USA network (and Peacock) with the fourth game of the first round of the NBA playoffs, an elimination game for the Philadelphia 76ers and what’s left of the Brooklyn Nets, earlier today. As the Nets deteriorated down the stretch one last time to end yet another inglorious early post-season exit, I somehow landed on the USFL tilt between Houston and New Orleans.
It actually was a fairly close and well-played game. As TheUSFL.com (yes, that’s the way it’s spelled; if you land on USFL.com you’ll wind up on a page requiring translation from Japanese), some top-tier offensive performances occurred, far eclipsing those of many of the Texans and Saints that played last fall:
Wes Hills and Mcleod Bethel-Thompson lead the New Orleans Breakers to a 38-31 victory over the Houston Gamblers. Wes Hills ran for 110 yards and three rushing touchdowns, Mcleod Bethel-Thompson had 251 passing yard and added two touchdowns.
Bethel-Thompson lived up to the pre-game hype that USFL fan Drew Zuhosky offered to his fans:
Those who turn on USA Network for the Houston/ New Orleans game on Saturday afternoon will be treated to an all-new episode of The McLeod Bethel-Thompson Show. Last week’s installment was a successful performance.
Bethel-Thompson, a former starting quarterback for the Toronto Argonauts in the CFL, ranks at No. 1 in passing yards (303) heading into this weekend’s action, throwing for a single touchdown in New Orleans’ 22-15 victory. When announcing his decision to join the New Orleans Breakers this season, he said that he wants to target a possible return to the NFL this fall.
300-yard performances like the one he put in last Sunday can get him noticed, especially considering that he’s never started in the NFL. General managers in need of a quarterback later on in the offseason should begin to take notice of McLeod Bethel-Thompson right away. He has the skill set to succeed in the fall.
But while the action itself was entertaining, the crowd, or lack thereof, was eye-opening.
Because this showcasing of talent between teams based in Texas and Louisiana took place in Birmingham. Where the entire 2022 USFL regular season was played, and one of four “hub cities” where the 2023 season is being staged. The Breakers share Birmingham’s stadium with the Stallions, a team in a city that has never seen the NFL but has supported several alternative professional leagues successfully, going back to the Americans of the World Football League nearly 40 years ago, as well as a Canadian Football League team in the 1990s that started their season in June.
Yes, Alabamans love football, and when the Iron Bowl schools aren’t playing there is a window for it. But a team sporting an in-name only hometown playing hundreds of miles from its actual location, in an afternoon window before the Stallions play in prime time, attracts in-stadium crowds more akin to spring high school practices–actually, in some venues, the latter is likely a bigger draw.
But don’t tell that to the folks at FOX and NBC. And definitely don’t tell that to the folks at Disney and the team surrounding The Rock, whose XFL is playing two concurrent head-to-head weekends as their schedule winds down. As Mike Mitchell reported on TheUSFL.com, what is essentially a made-for-TV sport is doing, all things considered, pretty decently:
The USFL’s kickoff game Saturday afternoon on FOX at 4:30 ET between the Philadelphia Stars and the Memphis Showboats averaged 837,000 viewers. A year ago, the league’s debut game on FOX averaged 1.75 million viewers on FOX and 1.310 million viewers on NBC in a joint simulcast.
The USFL 2023 return debut extended on FOX with a primetime game between the 2022 champion Birmingham Stallions and New Jersey Generals. The second part of the Saturday doubleheader averaged 864,000 viewers.
The XFL, which aired Saturday night on ESPN2, averaged 235,000 viewers. The Orlando-San Antonio game started during the tail-end of the Stars-Showboats telecast and then ran head-to-head with the Stallions-Generals on FOX.
Sunday saw the USFL return on NBC at Noon ET with a game between the Michigan Panthers and Houston Gamblers. The telecast averaged 974,000 viewers. Last season’s NBC Sunday afternoon Week 1 USFL game averaged 2.1 million viewers.
The XFL on ESPN, which ran concurrently on Sunday at Noon against the USFL, saw the D.C. Defenders-Arlington Renegades game average 670,000 viewers.
So sure, relative to last year, when the USFL had the spring window to itself, audiences have diminished. But they’re still outdrawing–significantly, for the most part–games with the pedigree and promotion of the ESPN family of networks that have post-season implications.
And as The USFL Newsroom’s James Larsen objectively observed, that’s even more significant:
Too many media pundits are going to twist these numbers to fit their own agendas. When you take a step back and look through a non-bias lens, it’s clear to see that each league performed well in their own regard.
For example, let’s start with the USFL. The league is in its second season, which means it doesn’t have the “excitement” factor of being a brand new entity – like the XFL was this year. The USFL already saw the ratings dropoff in season one, and now has stabilized at a reasonable rate.
While the numbers out of the gate aren’t as dazzling as they were in 2022, it simply means that the USFL’s core base of fans has returned – and the door is open for the ratings to grow as spring football fans trickle back from the XFL.
FOX and NBC have been pushing and marketing the league quite well, but there’s only so many people who are going to tune into spring football. Once the XFL season finishes, it’s not far-fetched to expect games on FOX/NBC to see higher numbers down the stretch.
But, to his credit, the objective Larsen reminds that there are some lights in the XFL tunnel as well:
Something the XFL has done the last couple of weeks is showcase their consistent viewership. While games on ABC and ESPN aren’t even close to what they were in 2020, the numbers have stabilized – and, in some cases, they’ve gone up.
At the same time, the XFL’s competition this weekend was stiff. The NBA playoffs kicked off, with games all throughout Saturday and Sunday. Of course, they went head to head with the USFL as well. While the USFL out-dueled them in each matchup going on at the same time, the XFL held their own.
Is it the NFL? Of course not. But it’s pro football, dammit. I kind of liken it to the NBA Summer League–an intriguing showcase of some deep sleepers that could wind up in more promient roles in the actual league, and therefore worthy of a look by any draftnick preparing for next week’s three-day bonanza known as the NFL Draft.
Ever see the actual crowds in Las Vegas in July, apart from scouts and media? No, because ESPN and NBA TV rarely show them.
The powers that be at the USFL–heavily influenced by FOX–have insisted that the controlled situation of multiple bubbles helps control travel costs and, therefore, the ability for a league to continue in a continually fractionalized media environment. FOX, which lacks any post-season winter sports, needs something besides early season baseball in this window. NBC isn’t exactly bursting at the seams with content this time of year, either. And, to be sure, these are way better numbers than other options, including golf, tennis and Olympic sports, few of which approached the delivery of last Sunday afternoon’s NBC game.
We’ll see what ensuing weeks hold, but so far. so good, so the pundits–and yours truly say. They’ve got decent ratings and decent excitement. Apparently they just need a better director.