Spirit of St. Louis: UFL’s Battlehawks Are Proof of League’s Concept

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If Americans have largely greeted the latest wrinkle in spring football with a collective shrug and a polite, closed-mouth yawn, the fans in St. Louis are doing their bit to make up for the lack of enthusiasm on the national level. Since their formation during the revived XFL’s COVID-stunted debut in 2020, the Battlehawks have served as an exemplar for what offseason football might achieve on a grander scale.

Two weeks into the UFL’s inaugural campaign, St. Louis is once again beating all comers on the attendance and TV ratings front, as sports-crazed citizens who’re still smarting over the loss of their local NFL franchise have put the lie to the assertion that spring football is a commodity without a use value.

According to the official attendance rolls, a staggering 40,317 ticketholders passed through the turnstiles of The Dome at America’s Center Saturday night, a tally that represents an advantage of 1,038 souls compared to what the New York Yankees have averaged this season in their six home games. While the sample size admittedly couldn’t be any smaller, St. Louis’ drawing power puts the rest of the UFL to shame; through eight games, the average turnout for the hybridized successor to the XFL and USFL stands at 14,694 fans.

The same applies to the UFL’s TV deliveries. The Battlehawks’ March 30 opener against the Michigan Panthers drew a league-high 1.35 million viewers in Fox’s Saturday 4 p.m. EDT slot, and their home-field follow-up in ABC’s April 6 primetime roster was the top telecast of Week 2 (908,000). It’s probably worth noting that St. Louis scared up those TV numbers in the teeth of ferocious competition from March Madness; last week’s game went head-to-head with a UConn-Alabama Final Four telecast that averaged 14.2 million viewers on the TNT Sports networks.

Now, as much as the Battlehawks are an outlier—the D.C. Defenders are a distant second in attendance with a home draw of 15,052 fans—the former XFL squads are clearly winning the battle for hearts and minds. One-time USFL franchises Houston, Memphis and Michigan have yet to draw as many as 10,000 fans to their home games, with the latter facing a 21% drop in Week 2 with 7,475 tickets sold.

That only one market appears to have gone all-in on its local UFL reps suggests that there’s not sufficient interest in this latest stab at peak-pollen football. But as much as the ex-USFL teams may not be doing their share of the heavy lifting, the TV numbers are not all that discouraging. While Fox Sports and Disney’s (ABC/ESPN) deliveries fell 20% from week to week, this year’s ratings are down just 2% versus the year-ago XFL averages. (For what it’s worth, it took all of one week for Gerry Cardinale and Dwayne Johnson/Dany Garcia’s XFL to lose exactly half of its opening deliveries in 2023.)

Moreover, the mashup league is beating the brakes off the analogous stretch of the USFL’s final season, as UFL ratings are up 51% compared to that venture’s two-week performance, good for a net gain of 318,215 viewers per telecast.

Nobody’s exactly getting rich here—the XFL partners are said to have lost $60 million a year ago, or nearly three times the original investment of $23.5 million—but a speedy return was never the end goal. The league’s network partners are also stakeholders, and much of the immediate value of the UFL lies in its innate spackling abilities. At least in the near term, spring football’s primary function is to Little Dutch Boy the holes in the networks’ programming dike, a means to plug up some dead spots in their rainy-day broadcast schedules on the cheap. At the same time, the games serve as a promotional vehicle for Fox and Disney’s in-house offerings; in addition to a flood of tune-in prompts for their respective primetime mainstays (American Idol, The Masked Singer, et al), the networks have leveraged the new property as a goad to drive more eyeballs to everything from NASCAR and MLB to the NFL Draft and the UFL itself.

Promo units aside, the UFL has attracted an expansive stable of paying advertisers, from categories ranging from pharmaceutical (which accounts for approximately 15% of all in-game spend thus far), to weekend mainstays such as insurance, fast food/casual dining, financial services and beer. Among the top-spending backers include NFL regulars like Progressive, Liberty Mutual, Jersey Mike’s, T-Mobile, IBM and Subway, as well as a constellation of what appear to be randomly generated, all-caps drug brands (VABYSMO, RINVOQ, SKYRIZI, UBRELVY, SOTYKTU). Clearly, the same faceless algorithm that has made such a hash of the names automakers slap on their new models is now calling the shots at Big Pharma.

Neither blue-chippers nor the Scrabble-tile drugmakers are risking much on their TV investments, as the average unit cost for an in-game UFL spot is a thrifty $6,570 per 30-second spot. And while that’s probably a bit more than what you’ll find hidden in the sofa cushions, the low rates have set a modest ceiling on revenue; per media buyer estimates, Fox and Disney have booked $3.7 million in sales over the first eight games, which works out to a hair shy of $465,000 per telecast.

The media math decidedly favors UFL’s advertisers, which should go a long way toward ensuring that inventory continues to sell out as the inaugural season progresses. Paying a $7.13 CPM for time in nationally televised live sports is like unwrapping a Wonka Bar and finding a golden ticket inside, and while the UFL is more Timothée Chalamet than Gene Wilder, there aren’t too many marketers who’d pass up on such a steal, even if the product itself is decidedly off-brand.

Aside from the humble income generated by the spots and dots, the UFL is making money on the sponsorship premiums it’s hammered out with the likes of Under Armour, Gatorade and Molson Coors. Also doing its part in support of the startup is the U.S. Army, which has earmarked $10 million for a one-year presenting sponsorship designed to bolster its recruiting efforts.

With college basketball out of the way and the NBA playoffs yet to tip off, the UFL this weekend has its first real shot at making a splash with basketball purists. But even if the networks can’t take advantage of an uncluttered sports weekend, the league’s partners say they’re in it for the long haul. As Johnson said when he was promoting the new-look XFL a year ago, his big bet on spring football has less to do with expanding his portfolio than offering young players a shot at the gridiron stardom that eluded him after he graduated from Miami in 1995.

Anyone who’d care to dismiss Johnson and his football dreams can either take it up with him, or the good people of St. Louis.

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