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Tuesday, April 23, 2024
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Spring Football’s Big Bet: An Unlikely TV Marriage, and Crazy Rules

  • The United Football League launches this weekend on ESPN and Fox.
  • Spring football’s latest iteration is a merger of the XFL and USFL.
The Commercial Appeal

Spring football returns this weekend, and NFL fans may have a few more reasons than normal to tune in. NFL owners this week just approved a major revamp of the league’s kickoff format, which was first used in the old XFL—one half of the new United Football League that was born out of a merger with the USFL.

Interestingly enough, that kickoff format won’t be used this season in the UFL, which opted for a more traditional-looking setup as it decided which of the two leagues’ old rules to use for that play and others. However, the UFL will still deploy several ideas that go against the grain of traditional football—and could ultimately end up being adopted by the NFL.

Most notably, during the fourth quarter of UFL games, if a team is trailing (or tied) after scoring in the fourth quarter, it will have an alternate option to an onside kick by electing to retain possession with a fourth-and-12 play from its own 28-yard line (both the XFL and USFL had similar rules). Just this week, NFL owners voted against adopting a similar rule that would have been a fourth-and-20 play from a team’s own 20-yard line. Will the NFL be watching the UFL’s implementation? “There will be another date and time for that discussion,” Falcons executive and competition committee chairman Rich McKay said of onside kick alternatives. “There’s no question the traditionalists don’t like that discussion.” 

Other interesting wrinkles for viewers to keep an eye on include:

  • Punts that go out of bounds inside the 25-yard line will be considered a touchback in an effort to encourage more fourth-down attempts.
  • No extra-point kicks will be allowed after scoring touchdowns. Instead, teams will conduct one offensive play for one, two, or three points from varying distances.
  • Teams can attempt two forward passes in a single play, as long as the first one isn’t caught past the line of scrimmage.

Additionally, the UFL is counting on technology—not the human eye—to accurately spot balls. The NFL has said it is testing an electronic system to measure first downs, which could be utilized as early as 2025. Optical tracking company Bolt6, which was used in the USFL, is the partner for the UFL.

ESPN, Fox Join Forces

In 2023, the XFL’s regular season averaged 622,000 viewers across ABC, ESPN, and other Disney platforms, narrowly beating out the USFL’s 601,000 average audience across Fox, FS1, NBC, and USA Network. (Both leagues had 10-week regular seasons.) But now NBC Sports is out, and longtime rivals ESPN and Fox, the latter of which owns half of the UFL, are hoping the new synergy leads to viewership success all around. This weekend, Fox is carrying Saturday’s doubleheader while ESPN has Sunday’s, and the broadcasters will show games each week for the rest of the season. 

Fox and ESPN work together around plenty of other sports like the NFL, MLB, and college football, but it will be particularly interesting to see how the UFL partnership plays out given Fox’s 50% ownership and, of course, the continued controversy around the broadcasters’ joint sports streaming venture with Warner Bros. Discovery.

Cashing Checks

In 2024, the minimum NFL player salary will be $825,000. For spring football players, that would be like winning the lottery. This year, active UFL players will earn $5,500 per week, or $55,000 if they end up playing the entire season (plus small stipends for training camp and housing, as well as potential playoff bonuses). That’s pretty similar to recent iterations of other spring leagues:

  • USFL, 2022–23: $5,750 per week ($57,500 per season)
  • XFL, 2023: $5,000 per week, $1,000 bonus for each win (up to $60,000 per season)
  • XFL, 2020: Up to $4,749 per week (season canceled after five games due to COVID-19 pandemic)
  • Alliance of American Football, 2019: $7,000 per week (league folded after eight weeks)
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