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The Untold Story of the UFL's Battle for Survival

Birmingham Stallions wide receiver Amari Rodgers (3) catches a pass for a two point conversion over Arlington Renegades defensive back Darren Evans (24) during the second half at Choctaw Stadium.
© Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The United Football League's 2024 season concluded on June 16 with the Birmingham Stallions defeating the San Antonio Brahmas 25-0 in the championship game. The UFL was formed in late 2023 from a merger of the XFL and USFL, which had competed for the same fans and players. Despite a successful inaugural season, the league faces significant challenges. Will the UFL become a staple of the spring sports season, or will it cease to exist within five years?

2024 Season by the Metrics

Let's review some of the highlights from a press release the UFL put out on June 27:

  • TV Viewership

    • 32 million unique viewers per Nielsen data

    • Average of 850,000 viewers per game, up 34 percent compared to the XFL/USFL prior year

    • UFL Championship Game averaged 1.596 million views on FOX, up 23 percent from the previous year

    • Viewership for adults 18-49 increased by 36 percent compared to the prior year

  • Social Media

    • 283 million views across platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and X

    • UFL content on ESPN social channels increased by 34 percent compared to 2023

    • 4.13 million total followers on social media

  • Attendance

    • 580,000-plus fans attended UFL games in person

The UFL also secured partnerships with major corporations, including Gatorade, Molson Coors, Verizon, Progressive Insurance and FedEx.

Arlington Renegades linebacker Storey Jackson (16) and cornerback Duron Lowe (29) celebrate after Lowe intercepts a pass against the Birmingham Stallions during the first half at Choctaw Stadium.
© Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

History of the Arena Football League

Before we discuss the UFL's future, let's consider the once-successful Arena Football League (AFL). As Winston Churchill famously said, "Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

The AFL was founded in 1986 and operated until it filed for bankruptcy and closed in 2019. The game was played on a 66-by-28-yard field, leading to higher-scoring games due to the smaller size compared to the NFL's 120-by-53-yard fields. The AFL featured unique elements like receiving kickoffs off a net behind the end zone and padded boards surrounding the field to prevent players from going out of bounds. The league is best known for reviving Kurt Warner's football career when he played for the Iowa Barnstormers from 1995 to 1997, before becoming an MVP and Hall of Famer in the NFL.

The AFL ultimately disappeared in 2019 due to financial difficulties and declining interest. The league even had to cancel its 2009 season due to funding challenges. Despite having games broadcast on major TV networks like ESPN and NFL Network, the AFL struggled with operational management. As in any business, strong operations are essential, and the AFL failed in this aspect.

The AFL returned in 2024 under new ownership but has already faced obstacles, including the shutdown of the Iowa team after just one game into the season.

Will the UFL Still Be Around in 2029?

In order for the UFL to be viable and thriving in 2029, it needs to address several critical areas. Let's examine three of those areas and the goals that must be achieved:

Attendance Matters

In 2023, the XFL had eight teams and finished the season with a total of 577,332 fans attending games in person. While the USFL's 2023 attendance numbers were not publicly shared, it is safe to say the combined attendance for the two leagues surpassed the UFL's 2024 total of more than 580,000 fans.

A view of Birmingham Stallions fans having their electronic Ticketmaster tickets scanned on their smart phones before the game between the Arlington Renegades and the Birmingham Stallions at Choctaw Stadium.
© Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The UFL must find ways to improve fan attendance and engagement to ensure long-term viability. The St. Louis Battlehawks led the league with an average of 34,365 fans per game, while the DC Defenders were the next closest with 14,143 fans per game. Alarmingly, half of the eight teams averaged fewer than 10,000 fans per game.

Goal: The league needs a strategic plan to ensure each team averages a minimum of 20,000 fans per game to build a passionate and loyal fan base that is a must for long-term success.

Fight for the 'Big Four'

The main reason the UFL saw a 34 percent jump in TV ratings compared to the XFL/USFL average in 2023 is that 72 percent of its 2024 games were broadcast on major networks like ABC and FOX, rather than on cable channels like ESPN or FS1. Week 8 of the UFL season highlights the impact of broadcast networks:

  • May 18: Michigan Panthers at Memphis Showboats on FOX (673,000 viewers)

  • May 18: Houston Roughnecks at Birmingham Stallions on ESPN2 (254,000 viewers)

  • May 19: DC Defenders at St. Louis Battlehawks on ABC (1.1 million viewers)

  • May 19: Arlington Renegades at San Antonio Brahmas on FOX (545,000 viewers)

The one game on ESPN2 received significantly fewer viewers, despite featuring the most dominant team in the league, the Stallions.

 Fox sports sideline reporter and former NFL quarterback Brock Huard talks on the sidelines with Arlington Renegades quarterback Holton Ahlers (15) during the second half of the game against the Birmingham Stallions at Choctaw Stadium.
© Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Goal: The league must structure its TV rights deals so that a minimum of 80 percent of its games are featured on as many of the "Big Four" networks (ABC, FOX, NBC and CBS) as possible.

Coaching Equals Brand Awareness, Quality

Similar to college football, many of the coaches in the UFL are marquee names, bringing awareness and credibility to the league in our social media era. Examples include Bob Stoops (Renegades), who led the Oklahoma Sooners to the 2000 National Championship; Wade Phillips (Brahmas), who was a head coach for six NFL teams; and Skip Holtz (Stallions), who has won 118 games at three different FBS schools and the last three championships between the USFL and UFL.

 San Antonio Brahmas head coach Wade Phillips looks on in the first half against the DC Defenders at The Alamodome.
© Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

More importantly, seasoned coaches bring years of experience and the ability to position players and assistant coaches effectively, developing them accordingly. This results in a higher level of football that improves in quality throughout the season, providing a better overall product for fans to consume.

Why is coaching so critical to the league's success now? All eight head coaches had their contracts expire at the end of the 2024 season since they are classified as seasonal employees.

Goal: Stop treating coaches as seasonal employees. Allow teams to lock them into short-term deals of, say, three years to ensure consistency and continuity from year to year.

Future Forecast for the UFL

If the UFL can successfully navigate the three areas mentioned above, they have a chance to thrive in the long term. However, they will need to overcome many other challenges and have a bit of luck. A few immediate challenges include resisting the urge to expand with additional teams, establishing a strong blueprint for financial stability, and consistently taking care of its employees and players.

Prediction: The UFL will succumb to one or more of the pitfalls it must avoid to survive, and the league will no longer be in existence by 2029.


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