With the official release of the UFL schedule earlier this week, we finally got insight on the league’s broadcasting schedule, alongside some key details on how to watch the UFL.
One thing is clear: the infrastructure of the United Football League is incredibly strong. Now that the league has backing from both FOX Sports and ABC/ESPN, the potential exposure for the UFL is outstanding.
Instead of the competition we saw between the USFL and XFL in 2023, both networks will now be promoting one league – which is, obviously, great news.
This year, America will have 43 spring football games played, opposed to the 86 we saw last year between the two leagues.
With that in mind, it’s allowed for ABC, ESPN, and FOX to focus on pushing the UFL to their OTA networks. In 2024, 72% of UFL games will be aired on broadcast television.
The full breakdown of UFL TV slots:
ABC – 10 FOX – 21 ESPN – 10 ESPN2 – 1 FS1 – 1
With 31 of 43 matchups on either ABC or FOX, let’s take a look at what we can expect from a ratings standpoint in 2024.
Unified UFL League = Stronger TV Ratings?
TV ratings have – to an extent – plagued both the USFL and XFL for the past couple of years. Neither league fully lived up to their expectations, especially since they competed against each other in 2023. This, in part, led to the merger coming to fruition sooner than many originally thought it would.
The XFL averaged 622,000 viewers during their 10 week regular season in 2023. OTA outings on ABC averaged 1.13M, while the Championship (on ABC) notched 1.4M on May 13th.
Breaking: The XFL Championship garnered 1.4M average viewers on Saturday night (ABC).
For comparison, the USFL's 2022 Championship on FOX notched 1.52M in July.
On the other hand, the USFL featured a strong assembly of games on FOX and NBC, but averaged just 601,000 viewers per game in 2023. Their Championship on NBC saw an audience of 1.2 million in 2023, down from 1.52M on FOX in 2022.
USFL President Daryl Johnston had expressed his frustration with the underwhelming numbers, confused that they were on par with the XFL’s – despite the USFL’s emphasis on utilizing their OTA networks.
Different Landscape In 2024
Enter the 2024 UFL season. Gone are the days of the USFL and XFL going head to head – in a scene that, at the moment, has a ceiling.
This time around, 31 games will be featured on OTA networks (i.e. FOX, ABC). For context, this means that homes can access these games without a cable TV subscription, which is needed for ESPN, ESPN2, and FS1.
To put it in perspective, of the 86 games that the USFL and XFL played in 2023, 38 of them (44.2%) were on OTA networks. The USFL had 29 split between NBC & FOX, while the XFL had 9 on ABC.
Now, 72% of the UFL’s matchups will be featured on broadcast networks. On top of that, there won’t be any inter-league overlap or competition, something that certainly affected the TV ratings in 2023.
UFL On Cable
Another factor to take into consideration is cable. Truthfully, the USFL and XFL saw some tough moments on cable in 2023. Games featured on USA Network, FS1, FX, or ESPN2 typically didn’t garner large numbers. Even ESPN had its low moments, with a couple outings seeing less than 500,000 viewers.
In general, cable wasn’t a strong suit for the USFL or XFL. Some meetings didn’t even crack 200k, which is far from ideal, even in spring football.
In the UFL, the 12 cable events will mainly be featured on ESPN – which is by far the strongest channel of that group. 10 games will be on ESPN, which should lead to stronger viewership as a whole on cable.
With only one game for both FS1 and ESPN2, TV ratings are positioned to see success that could rival that of the XFL in 2020. One would expect that the partnership and synergy created between FOX and ABC/ESPN will only strengthen this specific market this season.
No More Hubs
Additionally, the USFL’s “hub format” is no more. Each team will be playing in their home cities, which will only add to the watching experience at home. It was tough to expect tremendous numbers for some of those USFL games (especially on cable), when the participating teams were playing hours away from their actual markets. Ratings should see a boost overall from franchises being located (at least, during game day), in their respective cities.
Rewinding Back To 2020
For those who have been tracking spring football the last few years, the XFL in 2020 was by far the most successful from a TV ratings perspective. That league, owned by Vince McMahon, had serious contributions from both FOX Sports and ABC/ESPN, which led to an average of 1.87M viewers per game across five weeks.
While the overall TV landscape looks different today compared to 2020, the potential is still there for major strides forward to be made. Considering we are almost back to square one, one would hope that the weekly averages can more closely compare to what the XFL had a few years ago.
One point of discussion is the introduction of regional broadcasts to the UFL. This is something we haven’t seen in spring football yet, but will occur a couple of times in 2024.
Most notably, there are two games on FOX at the same time in week four, week five, and week nine. Those six total matchups will be regionally split.
From an exposure perspective, this probably isn’t ideal. We’ve already seen how much of a struggle it can be to retain consistent numbers, even on OTA networks like FOX. At the same time, heading into the inaugural season of the UFL, it would make more sense for each game to be at different times like they have been, so fans can watch all four affairs each week if they so desire.
That being said, there are likely things behind the scenes that led to these decisions being made that we simply aren’t aware of. Thankfully, regional broadcasts are only implemented three times this season. It’s something that the NFL has worked around for decades, so we’ll have to wait and see if spring football adjusts accordingly.
Streaming The UFL
The UFL is also doing their part in ensuring that fans can stream each game this year. All matchups on ABC, ESPN, or ESPN2 will be available on Disney’s ESPN+ streaming service. This is in line with what the XFL had in place last year.
Additionally, games on FOX and FS1 will be available through the FOX Sports App.
Some notable streaming news broke this week as well. ESPN, FOX, & Warner Bros are planning to launch a joint streaming service sometime this year, likely in the fall.
According to @WSJ, ESPN, FOX, & Warner Bros are planning to launch a joint streaming service later this year, which is obviously pretty major for sports media.
It’s an exciting time for the UFL, and the future is brighter than ever. Now, there are no excuses for spring football not to work. With this amount of firepower and support from two billion-dollar entities, the time is now to capitalize on a market that clearly shows plenty of promise.
Will the league get back to the 3 million viewers we saw the XFL register in 2020? Time will tell. That said, the momentum is trending in the right direction, and hopefully the UFL can ride this wave through season one and beyond – trailblazing a path of success for spring football as a whole.
What are your thoughts on the UFL’s broadcasting structure? Will TV Ratings be better this year than the previous outings? Let us know down in the comments below, or join the conversation on Discord!