As the midway point of the new United States Football League regular season approaches, a review shows the has USFL delivered both touchdowns and turnovers.
A few truths are evident:
- The games are competitive.
- The ratings are decent.
- It still has a long way to go.
- You can’t bet on the games in Texas.
Spring football has never fit in to the American sports calendar. Many have tried. Many will try again. In fact, another spring football league, XFL 3.0, is slated to play this time next year.
This spring, the new USFL has eight teams playing games in two different stadiums in Birmingham, AL. It’s supported by FOX Sports, which covers the main expenses and gives the league plenty of airtime.
Through four weeks, the average margin of victory is 8.6 points. That number is skewed by a 31-point New Orleans Breakers win in Week 2. Take that out and the margin is 7.2. The average number of points per USFL game is 38.3. That’s a little low, but not too bad. NFL games are around 47 points.
Touchdowns and turnovers
Touchdown: The games
The past week in the USFL saw New Orleans Breakers quarterback Kyle Sloter (formerly of the Minnesota Vikings and Denver Broncos) connect on a nice back-shoulder throw with 10 seconds left to give his team a win over Houston.
In the first game of the weekend, the USFL saw another game come down to a last-second field goal, this one a 21-yard miss by Michael Carrizosa. It let the Philadelphia Stars win, 27-26.
If you like football games that go down to the end, the USFL has delivered that. We will forgive the 21-yard miss.
Turnover: The Pittsburgh Maulers
The Maulers were the talk of the league early after a weird video emerged of coach Kirby Wilson cutting running back De’Veon Wilson after a cafeteria incident. The whole thing was uncomfortable to watch. Wilson may have thought he was appearing to be a disciplinarian who deserved respect, but it came across as petty.
In the 21st century, you are what social media says you are, and young football players are influenced by what is on there. Coach Wilson seemed overmatched in the moment. His team’s response has been brutal. The Maulers are the only team in the USFL without a win. The team has scored a league-low 39 points.
Touchdown: Cameras everywhere
When you don’t care (yet) about the people playing in the games and fans only have a loose affiliation to a team, the best thing the USFL can offer is ground-breaking television. We’ve seen:
- Referee cams
- Helmet cams
- Inside-the-instant-replay booth cam
This is truly bringing viewers inside football like never before.
Turnover: Communication issues
Another unique aspect of the USFL is during games, viewers at home can hear conversations between players and coaches, including the play being called in the huddle.
You would think this type of information would be fun, but instead, it’s confusing. While it might be cool to hear Houston quarterback Clayton Thorson say, “Blue Right, 486 wing sluggo, X over, on two” calling out the play, formation and signal in the huddle, none of the viewers know what that means. It’s a different language and something we just don’t need to hear.
Touchdown: Embracing betting
USFL broadcasts practically blare out the point spread and over/under number at the start of the broadcast. One way to certainly gain some interest in casual fans is to not ignore the fact that, you know, people are betting on the games.
My one rule of USFL gambling so far is bet against the Maulers. Trust me on this.
Turnover: Focus on Birmingham
Whether a coincidence or not, the Birmingham Stallions are the league’s only unbeaten team at 4-0. They are technically the only home team in the USFL. The league hasn’t given attendance numbers, but it’s obvious people in Birmingham aren’t going to see any USFL games involving teams with no connection to the area.
This was always going to be a problem, though, when the USFL decided to play all the games in one city. The league can hope for one of two things. Either the Stallions remain undefeated and increase the fan base, or the rest of America starts seeing them as the villains and root against them.
Touchdown: Television ratings
The most important number in any sporting event these days isn’t the number of fans in the stands. It’s the number of eyeballs on the telecast and social media hits.
The first game of the USFL saw it receive about 3 million viewers on a game simulcast on FOX and NBC. Those numbers have leveled off, as expected, to around 1 million on games on FOX in Week 3. That still holds up well compared to regular season baseball games and NHL playoff games.
While definitely part of the the league’s strategy, putting games on pay-to-watch apps like Peacock will not help grow interest in the USFL.
Turnover: Unsolvable problems
By giving the teams the same names as the old USFL back in 1983-1985, it gave the league a whiff of nostalgia, but who remembers the best rivalries from the old league? (I do. The Philadelphia Stars and New Jersey Generals were one. So were the Jacksonville Bulls and Tampa Bay Bandits, the Memphis Showboats and Birmingham Stallions, and the Houston Gamblers and Los Angeles Express).
We watch the NFL because it’s awesome, but also because we know about the rivalry between the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants and the tradition of Thanksgiving games. It’s all a part of the fabric of the NFL product. The USFL doesn’t have that, and won’t for a long time, if ever.
The old USFL could at least claim some of the best players in the world playing for big bucks as a way to stick it to the NFL. This USFL is decent Triple-A football. Nothing more.