New USFL hoping to succeed where other spring leagues failed

NBC Sports president Jon Miller knows the perils of starting a spring football league. He was with NBC when the network teamed with Vince McMahon and World Wrestling Entertainment during the XFL’s first launch in 2001 and has seen other leagues crash and burn.

Miller is optimistic that a new version of the USFL could have some staying power.

“Hopefully, the fifth time is a charm. I think the timing is right, the partnership is right, and the model is bred for success,” Miller said. “We’re optimistic, hopeful, and excited at the same time.”

The USFL kicks off Saturday night in Birmingham, Alabama, when the New Jersey Generals face the Birmingham Stallions.

Fox and NBC Sports will each carry 22 games, including Saturday’s opener. It is the first time since the 2007 regular-season finale between the New England Patriots and New York Giants that a game will air on multiple broadcast networks.

Fox Sports owns the USFL and is making a $150 million investment over three years. The only similarity between the USFL of 1983-85 and this one is the team names.

Fox Sports executive vice president Michael Mulvihill thinks the XFL would have made it if it wasn’t for the coronavirus pandemic. The league suspended operations in April 2020 during the pandemic. It played five weeks before COVID-19 halted sports a month earlier.

Former Dallas Cowboy standout Daryl Johnson is Executive Vice President, Football Operations for the USFL, that kicks off Saturday night Photo: AP Photo/Mark Tenally

In 2019, the Alliance of American Football shut down after eight weeks after running out of money.

“I think the viewership figures for spring football are good enough to give us a high level of confidence that the interest among fans is there,” Mulvihill said. “It just becomes a matter of can we develop a business model that’s more effective than the leagues that have tried and haven’t succeeded. Because we’re structured the way we are, we have a pretty good chance of doing just that.”

There are two significant differences with the USFL before it kicks off. It has waited until April to begin the season. The XFL and AAF immediately started their seasons after the Super Bowl and eventually had to go against the NCAA basketball tournament and the Masters.

The USFL’s most significant competition for viewers will be the NBA and NHL playoffs through the end of May. The XFL averaged 1.5 million viewers on Fox and ABC during its final week of games while AAF ratings for games on NFL Network were similar to preseason NFL games.

The other difference is that the season will take place in two cities. The regular season will occur in Birmingham, with the playoffs slated for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

“It’s beneficial for us to get on solid financial footing and then year two start to kind of dial it in. Our goal is year two. Nobody’s done that in a while,” said former Dallas Cowboys standout and Fox NFL commentator Daryl Johnston, the USFL’s executive vice president of football operations.

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