The USFL has accomplished what its last two attempts at spring football haven’t: make it through its first season.
As the league prepares for Sunday night’s championship game between the Birmingham Stallions and Philadelphia Stars at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, the bigger question is where it goes from here.
Fox Sports president Eric Shanks announced earlier this week that the USFL will return next season. The ratings are stable, with games averaging 1.034 million viewers on Fox and NBC. The overall average is lower (715,000) when games on USA Network and FS1 are included.
While those ratings are slightly above the 2019 Alliance of American Football, which retired after eight weeks, they are behind the 2020 average of 1.9 million XFL viewers. The XFL shut down mid-season, mainly due to the coronavirus pandemic. .
“I think we’ve said fairly consistently that the main goal for this season was to establish that we could get viewers on a par with other sports that have been part of the spring calendar for a long time (Formula 1, Major League football, England Premier League) I think we more than held up,” said Fox Sports executive vice president Michael Mulvihill.
The league took a huge step toward financial stability by playing all of its regular season games in Birmingham, Alabama. League officials announced that 17,500 fans attended the first game on April 16 between the Stallions and New Jersey Generals, but did not release numbers for the other 39 games, which appeared to be played in a largely empty stadium.
Plans for next year include the same eight teams, but they will play matches in at least two cities or as many as four.
The league was able to adapt to the concerns throughout the season. The sensor in the football for tracking was changed after feedback from quarterbacks and kickers about how it affected them. The league also expanded rosters amid concerns about injury late in the year.
“This league has been put together by people who understand what an alternative soccer league is all about,” said Philadelphia coach Bart Andrus. “People may have been through the other part of it, losing the league or not making it. But they understand what I think has been the difference.”
In addition to Shanks, the USFL includes former Dallas Cowboys star and Fox NFL commentator Daryl Johnston as executive vice president of football operations, along with Brian Woods, the founder of The Spring League, as president of football operations and Mike Pereira as chief of service. .
“We will always think of ourselves as a standalone professional football league that will hopefully continue to build that relationship with the NFL,” Johnston said. “There are some things that we are talking about internally that will hopefully come to fruition. We want to create that synergy with them, where it is a relationship that benefits both parties.”
USFL games lasted an average of 2 hours and 58 minutes, which is 14 minutes faster than an NFL game. While league officials were happy with the pace of the game, they would like to see more play and more attempts at 2 and 3 point conversions.
The USFL played an average of 158 times per game – 20 fewer than the NFL. While teams could attempt a 3-point conversion from the 10-yard line after touchdowns, this only happened five times during the regular season with one successful conversion.
The USFL has a working relationship with the NFL, but doesn’t want to be seen as the development league. But it’s also no challenge for the NFL, which puts it on an odd middle ground.
The 2023 season is expected to kick off in mid-April so the USFL doesn’t have to compete against the NCAA basketball tournament and the Masters. The XFL plans a return next season with an expected start on February 18, the week after the Super Bowl.
But the primary focus for the weekend will be on Sunday. The Stars (6-4 regular season) upset the 9-1 Generals 19-14 in last weekend’s semifinals. The Stallions (9-1) continued with a 31-17 win over the New Orleans Breakers (6-4).
Philadelphia is led by receiver/returner Maurice Alexander, who led the league in kick returns. Meanwhile, Birmingham linebacker DeMarquis Gates had 10 loss tackles and 5 1/2 sacks. The stallions won the first meeting 30-17 on 15 May.
Johnston also wants to make sure everyone takes a moment to celebrate the end of the season once the trophy has been collected.
“I’ve talked to everyone about this,” he said. “Let’s make sure we take the time to celebrate what we’ve accomplished and give each other a pat on the back because it’s been hard work by a lot of really, really good people who got us to this point.”
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