USFL (L) and XFL game balls. USFL (L) and XFL game balls from 2022 and 2020 respectively. USFL photo from Vasha Hunt/USA Today Sports, XFL photo from Geoff Burke/USA Today Sports.

This past weekend saw the USFL’s return, marking the first consecutive season for a major outdoor alternative U.S. football league since the original USFL in the 1980s. It also saw the first head-to-head spring football action in some time; the Alliance of American Football in 2019, the XFL 2.0 in 2020, the USFL last year, and the XFL 3.0 so far this year had all been without competition from a similar league to date. We now have the full Nielsen numbers for this weekend’s USFL Week 1 and XFL Week 9, and here they are (via Mitch Metcalf at Showbuzz Daily). The first numbers column there is viewers 2+ in hundreds of thousands, the second is viewers in the adults 18-49 demographic, and the third is household rating:

Numbers for Week 9 of the XFL and Week 1 of the USFL in 2023 (ShowBuzz Daily.)

Here’s an AA-created sheet (viewable/copyable here) looking at the two leagues’ numbers and averages for this week:

USFL Week 1 and XFL Week 9 2023 ratings numbers.
USFL Week 1 and XFL Week 9 2023 ratings numbers.

As noted there, the USFL wins the head-to-head battle on sheer average audience, 789,500 to 588,250. And that’s a slight improvement from the 715,000 viewers they averaged across all games last year. The XFL number is also significantly below the 656,900 the league was averaging when we last comprehensively looked at it, which was through five weeks of play. But the USFL numbers are well below what that league¬†did in its first week last year; they averaged 1,997,000 viewers for the three games that aired as planned on the opening weekend, and that only drops to 1,564,750 if you factor in the 268,000 they got for a FS1 broadcast on Monday thanks to a weather-rescheduled game.

Beyond that, on USFL-XFL 2023 comparisons, the XFL has much less distribution here in terms of broadcast television with one broadcast game versus three. That’s partly thanks to Fox having an ownership stake in the USFL, NBC also carrying it, and ABC/ESPN parent Disney just having a broadcasting interest in the XFL. And that’s a big deal, with a current Nielsen estimated TV universe of 123.8 million homes (for the 2022-23 TV season) and estimated ESPN/ESPN2 carriage numbers of 74 million (as of last fall; FS1’s are probably reasonably similar). Broadcast TV distribution is important, and the USFL is currently ahead there. (It also should be noted that the ESPN2 game hurts the XFL average; yes, ESPN2 and ESPN are in similar numbers of homes, but ESPN is much more of a default destination where people will watch whatever is on, especially for out-of-home viewing in bars, restaurants, gyms and so on.)

It’s also significant that even averaging USFL and XFL average audience numbers together for any particular window is barely close to the XFL season average in 2020. The best overall window for alternative football here was the Sunday noon one. That saw 974,000 viewers on average watch the USFL game on NBC and 870,000 watch the XFL one on ESPN. That’s a total of 1,852,000 viewers, slightly above the 1,776,001 viewers for the XFL in total in 2020.

But that’s the best possible setup for the current alternative leagues against the overall average (which included cable networks) in 2020. And every other combined window this weekend would be below that. So. from at least this week’s numbers, the overall alternative football interest doesn’t seem as high across these two leagues as it was in 2020 with only one league. It will be interesting to see where that goes from here.

[Showbuzz Daily; 2022 USFL game ball photo at top left from Vasha Hunt/USA Today Sports, 2020 XFL game ball photo at right from Geoff Burke/USA Today Sports.]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.