USFL Week 10: So Long from Birmingham
USFL - The USFL's regular season comes to an end this week, with all the drama taken out of it. Both playoff matchups are already set, with the Philadelphia Stars set to take on the New Jersey Generals and the New Orleans Breakers ready to face the Birmingham Stallions. With nothing to play for in Week 10, there's little point into breaking down the matches that we'll see this weekend at Legion Field. So instead, let's talk this opportunity to talk about the league as a whole—what's working, what's not, and what the league should do entering Year 2.
And yes, it does appear like there will be a Year 2. Larry Fedora, coach of the Breakers, has said that he has been told that the league will in fact be returning. That's a major milestone. While there have been a bunch of minor projects dotted over the landscape for years, the new USFL will be the first fully professional American outdoor league to come back for a second season since the World League in the early 1990s. Getting over that first hurdle is an achievement.
Of course it's an achievement that was always somewhat likely with FOX footing the bill. It's also at least in part thanks to the hub model as the bare-bones approach has slashed the costs associated with having teams travel to and from eight cities. There's little doubt that keeping all the games in Birmingham has provided a significant financial boost to the league.
It's an open question, however, if it was worth it. USFL games are, by and large, atmosphereless affairs. Either piped-in crowd noise (FOX) or silence (NBC) is the order of the day as 75% of games are held in front of crowds numbering, possibly, in the low thousands. The people of Birmingham don't even fully come out to support the hometown Stallions—the crowds are larger, certainly, but nowhere near the 17,000 fans the AAF's Birmingham Iron or the original XFL's Birmingham Thunderbolts regularly drew. It's partially an issue of supply and demand—there are 40 games in 10 weeks happening in Birmingham. Most people do not want to attend 40 games in 10 weeks. Most people do not want to attend 10 games in 10 weeks. It ultimately doesn't matter how cheap the tickets are; it's a hard sell for anyone to give up weekend after weekend to come down to watch minor league sports. They would have a better time keeping their attendance up with a standard travel schedule and home and away games—but would that be worth the extra costs involved? That's a question for the accountants, and we don't know the USFL's exact financial situation.
What we do know is that the empty stands have become the signature image of the 2022 USFL season. If you go on Twitter during the games, somewhere between one-third and two-thirds of the conversation at any given time is about the attendance or lack thereof—either legitimate questions about whether or not pandemic restrictions are in place, or mocking the league for the lack of local interest in it. Neither is a good narrative! The buzz around the league is practically nonexistent, and for wide swathes of the football-loving population, it's making the USFL into the one thing it can not afford to be: irrelevant.
The TV ratings bear this out. We have ratings for 32 of the 36 games—not the four on the Peacock streaming service—and the numbers aren't particularly encouraging.
As a whole, the league is averaging 676,000 viewers per game. That's a little higher on broadcast (1.1 million on NBC and 910,000 on FOX) and a little lower on cable (300,000 on FS1 and 370,000 on USA). Before the season began, FOX was indicating to advertising agencies 2.6 million viewers per telecast. That was always going to a very ambitious number to hit, with the XFL having averaged 1.9 million in 2020 and trending down as the season went along. These numbers are respectable in a vacuum—the NHL, for example, averages just under 500,000 viewers on ESPN while MLS holds at about 250,000, placing the USFL comfortably in between them when it comes to cable sports. But they're not what FOX was hoping for initially.
To survive as a league, rather than a made-for-TV product, the USFL eventually needs fans to care about the teams and the games. In the long run, that has to be done by putting the teams in the cities they actually are supposed to represent. Coverage of the teams in their home markets is minimal, at best—the Houston Chronicle, for instance, has published five articles about the Gamblers this year, and none since April 17. With the teams never getting anywhere near their supposed hometowns, there's very little incentive for local fans to actually care. And while the good people of Birmingham might be able to support one football team, they ain't supporting eight.
We don't know what the format of the league will look like in 2022. It almost certainly won't be eight teams playing in eight different cities, but there have been rumors of a second hub, presumably for the four North teams. Detroit has been bandied about, but that's all speculative. A second hub might make it so two out of the eight teams are somewhat supported, which would help some, but it doesn't solve the underlying problems. The USFL needs to give people a reason to care about the teams in the league beyond the concept of spring football itself—because by this time next year, they won't be alone. The XFL is hosting their draft in November and is going to return to the field the week after the Super Bowl. The USFL rushed to beat the XFL back into action, but didn't succeed in giving fans a reason to care about it specifically, rather than just celebrating football existing at an unusual time.
Hopefully, the USFL will continue to get its footing underneath it, because there have been quite a few positives from the actual product. The quality of play in the league has increased significantly over the past month as teams have actually had time to work together. They only had a three-week training camp, so much of the first month of the season was sloppy and unorganized as teams got used to playing with one another. As chemistry developed, the game action improved. No one is going to compare this to NFL action any time soon, or even CFL action, and the lack of quality quarterback play is very noticeable, but the games have become more and more entertaining. They have stayed competitive too, with 23 of the 36 games being decided by one score.
For next season, I would hope to see the players have an extended camp to work together to help work out some of the early season kinks. Expanded rosters would help too; the USFL's rosters are so thin that some players have been pressed into new positions just due to injuries and fatigue in the summer Alabama weather. I'd also enjoy seeing some new coaches who are more willing to engage with some of the alternate rules—the three-point conversions, the alternative onside kicks, the double passes, and the like. We saw very little of that early in the season, and only gradually did some of those differences from the NFL game make their way onto the field. One of the downsides the USFL had with grabbing so many experienced "name" coaches is that a lot of them seemed set in their ways and unwilling to really engage with the inherent experimentation that comes in a spring league like this. And if, say, a Jeff Fisher isn't going to bring in wins or ratings, and isn't going to bring anything we haven't seen in his 20 years in the NFL to the table, is there a point of having him in the league?
The league got better at using its tech, toning down the usage of the drone cams, helmet cams, and sideline audio from the onslaught of the early weeks. I don't know if the drone cameras really work, however—they still generate a little bit of motion sickness as they swoop and pan around, and the buzzing on the crowd-noise-free broadcasts is distracting even after two and a half months. Maybe it's still an issue of getting used to it, but I feel like there's not enough benefit for the drawbacks at this point, and that most of the creative usage of it could be mimicked to a certain degree of precision by a traditional skycam. I have really come around on the helmet cam for replays, however. It would be nice if they could get higher-quality cameras, though I understand the problem with putting high tech equipment into gear that's going to get slammed around. And some kind of stabilization system would be lovely too, while I'm asking for technically challenging things. I do like seeing some unique angles of football. I do not like seeing unique angles of my lunch.
I'm rooting for the USFL to succeed. Spring football is better than no spring football. And as an outlet for players who didn't quite succeed in the NFL—your Scooby Wrights or Bo Scarbroughs—it's fantastic. Hopefully this first season, rushed as it was, ends up as something of a shakedown cruise, working out the kinks live as they rushed to beat the XFL back to market. That is, however, kind of the problem. I'm rooting for the USFL to succeed because I want spring football to succeed, not because I'm brand loyal or something. Whichever of the two spring leagues has the better product next season will be the one I'm pulling for. I doubt the minor league football market is big enough at the moment to support two leagues on this tier. The USFL has made their opening argument, but they haven't shut down opposition before it can begin. We have three more weeks from them, and then the Rock's music will hit. It's FOX versus ESPN for your spring football eyeballs. And as long as someone wins, it will be good.
Here are your four matchups for this week.
Philadelphia Stars (6-3) v. New Jersey Generals (8-1)
Line: Generals -2.5
Saturday, 12 p.m., USA
We'll see this exact game next week, so the primary goal for both teams will be to not open their playbook too big and spoil their plans. Both teams also have the secondary goal of not getting anyone hurt, but the Generals have a third goal: to see if De'Andre Johnson has recovered enough from his injury to be effective as their rushing quarterback, either by himself or in a platoon. If not, they'll want to have Luis Perez run the entire show in Canton, and it'd be best to find that out sooner rather than later. Generals 23, Stars 20.
Birmingham Stallions (8-1) v. Tampa Bay Bandits (4-5)
Line: Stallions -3.5
Saturday, 3 p.m., FOX
Goal for the Stallions: get off their losing slide in time to build some momentum heading to Canton. They have had home-field advantage throughout the season, which has raised questions of their actual skill, and last week's loss to the Gamblers just compounds those concerns. For the Bandits, it'd be nice to end the season with a win over one of the non-terrible teams in the league, just for a twist. Stallions 26, Bandits 17.
Michigan Panthers (1-8) v. Pittsburgh Maulers (1-8)
Line: Panthers -2.5
Sunday, 12 p.m., USA
Technically, something is on the line here. The loser will be the worst team in the USFL, which will presumably matter in some form when it comes to drafting next season; it's unclear exactly what that will look like. The two worst coaches in the league have been the Maulers' Kirby Wilson, who had no head coaching experience before joining the USFL, and the Panthers' Jeff Fisher, who had multiple decades of NFL experience. The moral here is that finding coaches is really hard, you guys. Panthers 22, Maulers 16.
New Orleans Breakers (6-3) v. Houston Gamblers (2-7)
Line: Breakers -3.5
Sunday, 6:30 p.m., FS1
The goal for the Gamblers in this one will be to find anything weird they have yet to actually do, as they lead the league in plays that make you shake your head and wonder what the hell's going on. Back-to-back wins over the Breakers and Stallions would be a statement going into 2023; the Gamblers have been significantly better than their record would indicate this season, and going out on a high note would be a morale booster for the players sticking around for next year. Breakers 23, Gamblers 16.