USFL game balls in May.

The new USFL wrapped up its regular season last week and is now heading to the playoffs, so we now have full regular season TV numbers for them. Ben Fischer goes through those at Sports Business Journal, breaking down how the league’s average TV audience of 715,000 (for 36 of its 40 games across Fox, NBC, USA, and FS1; no numbers were available for its four Peacock-only broadcasts) viewers is ahead of the 556,000 the AAF averaged across 20 CBS, TNT and NFL Network telecasts in 2019 before it folded but behind the 1.9 million the XFL averaged across 20 telecasts on ABC, Fox, ESPN, ESPN2 and FS1 in 2020.

It’s interesting that the USFL wound up in the middle of those leagues. Both the XFL and AAF beat it in premiere audience, and the USFL also saw a big Week 1 to Week 2 slide. But the USFL made it through a full regular season, unlike those past two leagues, and its Fox ownership meant it didn’t have the constant financial doom stories that followed the AAF. It’s also notable to see it surpass the AAF considering that the general sports rating environment we’ve seen in many cases lately is “rises from 2020 and 2021, below 2019 and 2018.”

There are some further significant ratings notes in there also. One is that the lowest-rated game of the season was Sunday’s regular-season finale on FS1, which only averaged 181,000 viewers. That’s not great. But it’s notable that there was a more than 3-to-1 edge for games on broadcast TV versus cable games (1 million average viewers for broadcast counting the Fox/NBC simulcast debut’s 3.1 million, 927,000 without that, 305,000 for cable). There’s usually some level of broadcast audience boost versus cable, both because of broadcast networks being in more homes and because of their increased primacy in program guides, but this is a larger split than what we see in most sports.

One possible explanation for that is that the USFL audience might be more casual than diehard. That’s perhaps especially true in a first season, and especially true in a season where teams’ associated cities were just names (with all games played in one location in Birmingham). That likely decreases the incentive for many to really care about a particular team and seek their games out. And that might change in a second season if they stick with the plans to have actual home games for teams then, which could perhaps narrow that broadcast-cable gap.

The really important part for the USFL’s future is how their broadcast partners feel about those ratings. On that front, Fischer spoke to both Fox executive Mike Mulvihill and NBC executive Jon Miller. And both had generally positive things to say, which is particularly notable from Miller considering that his network (unlike Fox) doesn’t have an ownership stake in the league. Here are the key parts of their comments to Fischer:

Mulvihill said “All we wanted to do is demonstrate that spring football can do viewership at the levels of Premier League, NHL regular season, Formula One or MLS. … We want to show we belong in that category, and I think that happened.”

…“The USFL worked for us on a bunch of fronts,” said NBC Sports exec Jon Miller. “Is it a profitable property? All things put together, I would say yes, it was a profitable property for us.”

Miller said NBC was happy with the product, the play quality, the joint production with Fox and the viewership. “It did what we hoped it would do, and we’re excited to begin planning, once this season is over, to talk about 2023.”

Miller does note concerns about the sparse in-person attendance: empty stands do impact the TV presentation. And some of that’s about all regular-season games being held in Birmingham this year and the city names on the franchises just being branding. But the one-location setup was done as a cost-saving move, and was only intended for one year. And Miller said they anticipated low attendance this year, and are working with Fox to address that for next year.

It’s not necessarily that surprising that Fox is fine with how this has played out so far. All their comments have been about being in this for a while, with stated commitments to fund the league for at least three years and a discussed plan of only selling franchises to local groups five to seven years down the road.  That might have evaporated if the league had been a complete ratings disaster, but it wasn’t; it may not have hit the highest possible heights, but as Mulvihill notes, it drew comparable viewership to some other sports, and let Fox and FS1 program new windows with live sports. So it makes sense that they’re carrying on.

But it’s even more notable that NBC looks like they still want to be involved. As they don’t have an ownership stake in the league, their read on the USFL as a TV property is a more objective one. For them to describe it as “profitable” for them is notable. (Of course, unlike Fox, NBC isn’t funding the league, so this doesn’t mean that the overall league was profitable; it means that NBC got more value out of it than they spent on production costs and/or possible rights fees, and we don’t know exactly what their arrangement there was.) And with Miller showing interest in bringing the USFL back to NBC in 2023, that means this property at least currently works for more than just the network that owns it.

Of course, there’s still part of the story to be written here, with the USFL playoffs getting underway in Canton, Ohio this week. The semifinals will air Saturday, with Fox broadcasting the Philadelphia Stars-New Jersey Generals game at 3 p.m. Eastern and NBC carrying the New Orleans Breakers-Birmingham Stallions game at 8 p.m. Eastern. The championship game will take place next Sunday at 7:30 p.m. Eastern. We’ll see how the ratings work out for those games, and if that adds to the case for both Fox and NBC to again carry the league in 2023.

[Sports Business Journal; photo from Vasha Hunt/USA Today Sports]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz is a staff writer for Awful Announcing and The Comeback. He previously worked at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.