Saturday’s Epic in St. Louis Was a Necessary Moment For UFL Legitimacy

Saturday’s Epic in St. Louis Was a Necessary Moment For UFL Legitimacy

The Epic in St. Louis, last night’s primetime affair between the Arlington Renegades and St. Louis Battlehawks is an early contender for game of the year. After a slow start, two of the UFL elder statesmen at quarterback, AJ McCarron and Luis Perez, went throw-for-throw in front of the largest crowd in modern Spring Football history. The result was a thrilling last-second win that displayed everything good about the United Football League in front of a primetime ABC audience.

The Epic in St. Louis was also a landmark moment for the league. Since the launch of the XFL 2.0 in 2020, Spring Football has not had a regular season primetime network TV game that had the excitement of last night’s game. 2020’s XFL had zero network TV primetime games in its short lifespan, while the 2023 edition had few games on ABC, all of which were afternoon affairs. While the inaugural USFL game between the Birmingham Stallions and New Jersey Generals was a fantastic kickoff for the league, the primetime sequels lacked excitement. The USFL had its yearly NBC primetime game following the Kentucky Derby in 2022 and 2023, but even the most diehard Spring football fans do not remember these games. 2022’s primetime NBC game between the Birmingham Stallions and Michigan Panthers was a competitive but hardly memorable 33-17 Stallions win. The following season’s game was another forgettable matchup between the Michigan Panthers and Memphis Showboats that saw Memphis run away from Michigan 29-10.

Despite the results, these network TV primetime games following the Kentucky Derby were two of the most-watched regular season games in the USFL’s two seasons. The 2022 primetime Michigan Panthers-Birmingham Stallions game had 1.196 million viewers, trailing only the opening Stallions-Generals game for the regular season viewership crown. However, next year’s Panthers-Showboats game overwhelmingly took the regular season viewership title with 2.063 million viewers, over one million more viewers than the next-highest viewed regular season game that year.

Last night’s Battlehawks-Renegades game was an early-season showcase for the United Football League. Star quarterbacks bring casual viewers in. The league could not have asked for a better matchup to feature in its first primetime network TV game of the season. Luis Perez’s odyssey across multiple Spring football leagues has made him a household name. Across the field was AJ McCarron, an Alabama legend with two national championships, Heisman finalist honors, and multiple NFL starts to his name. This matchup appealed to casual football fans in a way the USFL’s two post-Kentucky Derby games did not. Sure, the matchups of J’Mar Smith vs. Shea Patterson and Carson Strong vs. Cole Kelley had some merit, neither compared to McCarron vs. Perez.

Furthermore, the United Football League proved itself an exciting television product. Fans are now more likely to tune into the UFL solely because of the product on the field. Every previous primetime regular season USFL game had external reasons driving the viewership. The inaugural 2022 game had the fascination of the USFL’s return to lure in viewers, while the two Kentucky Derby follow-ups had the benefit of one of America’s most iconic sporting events as lead-in programming.

The back-and-forth affair with a last-second finish was arguably more exciting than Saturday’s men’s Final Four games. As the sports calendar shifts to baseball season, continually losing its luster with the American public, the United Football League could establish itself as the most thrilling sports product on network TV. Saturday’s riveting finish made it easier for fans to give the UFL a second look.

Saturday’s Battlehawks-Renegades game may ultimately not have playoff implications. Nevertheless, it could be the moment the UFL fully entered the national consciousness. 

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