For the last eight weeks, the XFL has had the weekends to themselves as the only spring football option around.
That changes this weekend when the second iteration of the USFL returns for its second season and the two leagues go head-to-head.
The question is…will football audiences care?
While the XFL has tried to intrigue audiences with an abundance of sidelines access and the kind of transparency that NFL viewers would kill for, the ratings haven’t set the football world on fire. Through the first five weeks of the 2023 season, XFL games averaged 656,900 viewers, down 63 percent from the 1.78 million average for the league’s first five weeks in 2020.
However, there are signs that things are on the upswing. Last weekend’s Houston-San Antonio game averaged 1.01 million viewers on ABC, the second-largest XFL audience since Week 1. Meanwhile, ESPN averaged 868,000 for Vegas-St. Louis game, the largest XFL cable audience since Week 1, and ESPN2 averaged 487,000 for DC-Seattle on Sunday night, its largest XFL audience since Week 4.
As of right now, the XFL is averaging 632,000 viewers across the eight weeks they’ve played, which is a little low compared to the USFL last year, when it averaged 715,000.
Those improving numbers will be put to the test this weekend when their Week 9 slate on ABC, ESPN, and ESPN2 goes up against the USFL’s Week 1 games on Fox, NBC, and FS1. Specifically, the two leagues will literally go head-to-head on Saturday night when ESPN2 has the Orlando Guardians vs. San Antonio Brahmas while Fox has the Birmingham Stallions vs. New Jersey Generals. Meanwhile, on Sunday, the USFL has the Michigan Panthers vs. Houston Gamblers on NBC when the XFL has the Arlington Renegades vs. D.C. Defenders on ESPN.
While the XFL has the advantage of having the momentum it’s built up throughout the season thanks to small but rabid fanbases, the USFL’s advantage is its one-year head start and more sizable broadcast audiences. However, it’s not as though the USFL was putting up big ratings numbers last year either.
So what will we learn? Perhaps we’ll get a good sense of which league is able to grab more eyeballs. We might learn that in spite of their head start, the XFL can’t compete with the USFL’s built-in broadcast advantage. Or maybe we’ll learn that the people who watch spring football are too attached to the XFL to bother with the USFL just yet.
There will probably be a desire to use the weekend numbers to tell some kind of narrative about whether or not both leagues can survive long-term (or if neither of them can). But there’s also a lot more to the story when it comes to why the networks and investors behind these leagues will continue to back them.
History has not been kind to spring football leagues and the odds remain stacked against both leagues sticking around for very long. Regardless, we’re also about to find out just how many viewers are invested enough to be part of that journey.