After successfully completing the 2022 season, the USFL can officially say they did something most spring leagues haven’t accomplished. It’s been quite a while since a full fledged spring football organization made it through a full year, but the USFL did just that.
Let’s take a look at what FOX has built so far, and why the USFL has a bright future under their leadership.
Failures Of The Past
Of course, spring football fans remember the pain of the past few years with the AAF and XFL. To start with, the Alliance Of American Football was an absolute disaster. Sure, the gameplay itself was fun (at least, sometimes). But, the business was run horribly from a financial standpoint, which ultimately resulted in the AAF folding entirely after week eight.
On this date in 2019, The Alliance of American Football began.
As for the XFL, a tougher hand was dealt their way. A once in a lifetime pandemic came along in the middle of their inaugural season, halting operations. Due to the fact that they were a startup, the XFL could not avoid shutting their doors in April of 2020.
While these two entities faced different obstacles, both revolved around the same thing: money. Believe it or not, financing a new football league takes large amounts of cash. Not everyone has the ability to embark on this type of endeavor, which explains why spring football was dead for so long.
Vince McMahon, who owned the XFL 2.0, reportedly was set to invest $500 million into the league over a three year period. This never came to fruition, as the pandemic made him realize it wasn’t worth losing more money.
Seeing these past failures, many assumed that spring football was simply too expensive to operate. That is, until the USFL came along: paving the way for spring football’s future. It all starts with Daryl Johnston, who played a vital role in making this dream into a reality.
Daryl Johnston: Spring Ball Veteran
Interestingly enough, Daryl Johnston (VP of Football Operations for the USFL), was involved with both the AAF and the XFL. Johnston was the General Manager of the San Antonio Commanders, working with HC Mike Riley. He was stuck in the middle of the chaos as the AAF abruptly shut down, leaving everyone with more questions than answers.
San Antonio Commanders general manager Daryl Johnston addressed reports that the league may be in danger of folding without support from the NFLPA. He said the issue was discussed with the Commanders players, and he was pleased by their attitude in response. pic.twitter.com/j25fXuizt5
Johnston was also the Director of Player Personnel for the Dallas Renegades of the XFL, quickly finding another role in spring football just several months after the AAF folded. Once again, after a fantastic start to the season, COVID-19 struck, and that was that.
Troy Aikman at today’s Dallas Renegades game, supporting friend and former Cowboys teammate Daryl Johnston, the Renegades’ director of player personnel.
Before we jump to conclusions – the XFL was certainly in a better financial situation than the AAF. Vince McMahon was more committed to making the league sustainable than the mess that Charlie Ebersol, Tom Dundon, and others created in The Alliance.
That being said, after seeing his net worth crash during the pandemic, McMahon made the business decision to pull the plug. In just over one year, Johnston had seen the rise and fall of two spring football leagues. It seemed like the vision of an alternative option for professional football players just wasn’t in the cards.
That all changed in 2021, when the USFL was picked up by FOX Sports, and announced a 2022 return. In November of 2021, Daryl Johnston was officially hired by the USFL to serve as the Vice President of Football Operations. After his tenures in the AAF and XFL, the move made a lot of sense. Johnston had plenty of experience in previous spring leagues, and knew how to run these types of organizations.
Welcome back, USFL 🏈
The spring football league, backed by Fox Sports, has announced a return for April 2022:
➖ 8 teams, 2 divisions ➖ 10-game schedule ➖ Inaugural season in 1 location, Birmingham considered top option
One of the major topics of discussion surrounding the USFL has been their decision to play all games in one centralized hub in 2022. The league picked Birmingham to be the host city, and all eight teams lived and played in the Magic City.
"We're just grateful for everything Birmingham has done to help make the USFL a success."
This conversation has been held thousands of times over the past few months – so it’s foolish to rehash what’s already been said. In a nutshell, playing in one city gives FOX much more breathing room financially. The overhead of being located in Birmingham is far less, as opposed to all eight cities.
What FOX and USFL executives realized is that the product should be made for TV first. Establishing a presence with other spring sports leagues on various networks would set the USFL up for success. Of course, having fans in the stands is something everyone wants to see, but it wasn’t a priority in year one.
Instead of going for the home run right away, the USFL is taking a slower approach; constructing a strong infrastructure from the ground up. They understand that the AAF and XFL spent way too much right off the bat, which ultimately led to their respective downfalls.
FOX already had experience with a hub model. The Spring League partnered with FOX during their 2021 season, where they had a North and South hub. After seeing how well that worked out for the TSL, FOX made the business decision to start small, to avoid biting off more than they could chew.
Another spectacular throw from De’Andre Johnson displaying his ability to throw deep.
When he was on, he was excellent. However, he may have been the biggest hot/cold quarterback in the Spring League in 2021. Consistency was a problem for him this year. pic.twitter.com/qjJT8lIlqL
Again, this was strictly a business decision. FOX wants fans in the stands just as much as we do, and they know how important it is to build in multiple markets across the country. Year one is simply a stepping stone. In a sense, it’s a bridge to the future.
Solid Revenue Stream
What people seem to forget is that since FOX directly owns the league, they’re not paying any rights fees. Unlike the AAF, and even the XFL, who had to pay and/or compromise their assets to get the product on TV, FOX could put the USFL on air whenever they wanted.
On top of that, they sold a rights package to NBC. This turned out to be a fantastic partnership in 2022. The two networks aired a simulcast for the first game on April 16th, being the first sports simulcast in over four decades.
Not to mention, according to the ad tracker EDO, brands spent $64.6 million on ads across FOX and NBC networks during the 2022 season. For reference, the XFL reportedly earned around $19 million through five weeks, and were on pace to pull in around $46 million in year one.
For the USFL to top that number, by a large margin – while only playing in one city, is quite impressive. Now, the system in place is entirely different. The XFL had to partner with ESPN, ABC, and FOX to televise their games – and they weren’t making much, if anything, from those broadcast deals. Since the USFL is directly owned by FOX, it allows the league to be a financial asset to the corporation, even though it is still classified as an investment.
Colin Cowherd even mentioned that the league made money for both FOX and NBC, further confirming the notion that spring football can be profitable.
Again, the USFL is simply making sure that they don’t count their chickens before they hatch. If spring football is going to last, it has to follow a sustainable business plan. It won’t exactly match what other sports organizations have done in the past – and that’s okay. While we all want to see fans in the stands, and teams in their home cities, the ultimate goal is permanent spring football. If that means sacrificing certain aspects of the game, to allow FOX and Co. to develop something that can last long term, then so be it.
The good news is: FOX, NBC, and the USFL are pleased with what the ratings looked like in year one. Sure, there is plenty of room for improvement, as each game averaged around 715k viewers across each respective network.
But, at the end of the day, this is a number to build upon. FOX knows that for the USFL to be sustainable, it will take multiple years to establish a passionate fanbase. The USFL Championship itself performed quite well, averaging over 1.5M viewers on July 3rd.
🏈 Sunday’s @USFL Championship between the @USFLStallions and @USFLStars peaked at more than 1.8 million viewers on FOX – the most-watched and most-streamed USFL contest since Week 1.
Considering the USFL is a brand new league, putting up numbers that already compete with established spring sports entities is something to be proud of.
Overall, the USFL put together a fantastic inaugural season. Spring football fans across the country were treated to a full twelve week outing that was nothing short of sensational. The product was fun, the football was great, and it was competitive across the board.
To those who want to see more fans in the stands: don’t worry, it will come with time. It’s impossible to expect every game to have people in the stands right away, when eight franchises played in one city. As more hubs come into play – and as the league eventually expands into all eight markets, those fan bases will be there. Patience is key.
Thankfully, patience is something that FOX and the USFL are willing to display, which means that the organizations will take their time to ensure that the league reaches its full potential at the proper speed.
What did you think of the USFL’s 2022 season? Do you think the league is in good hands with FOX? Let us know down in the comments below, or join the conversation on Discord!