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USFL Week One: Houston Gamblers Get First Win

If a Texas team wins in Alabama, does anyone care?

USFL: Houston Gamblers at Michigan Panthers Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

Last weekend saw the debut of the new incarnation of the USFL spring football league. While many believe American football fans are uber-starved for more football, the USFL’s debut was actually one of the worst in alternate pro football league history.

In 2020, the second iteration of the XFL launched to 3.3 million viewers.

In 2019, the Alliance of American Football (AAF) kickoff drew 3.25 million.

Last weekend, the USFL had a combined 2.95 million, although the league itself reported 3.5 million.

While the AAF debut was slightly lower than the XFL, it is noteworthy the AAF had zero brand recognition prior to launch, and did so on one network, vs the USFL’s well established branding and two network cooperative broadcast.

While a lot of folks tune in on week one for each of these alternate league debuts, the ratings tend to drop precipitously the following weeks. By week three, for example, the XFL had lost nearly half it’s viewership. By the end of the AAF’s only season, it was down into the 400,000 viewer range. Ouch.

Now, the USFL debut was going up against the NBA playoffs, so they did have some solid competition for interested eyeballs.

What the USFL got right

The league didn't have anyone named “HE HATE ME” or radical departures from the current NFL rules. They did have helmet cams, which added a neat touch to, at least one, great rushing play from the Gamblers. The audience saw what the tail back saw for the entirety of the off tackle left run. It was a little disorienting when the back did a head fake, but that can’t be helped.

They also allowed fans to hear the quarterback in the huddles, the coaches on the sidelines and the players on the field. At times this was really interesting. Unfortunately, most of the time there were multiple people talking at the same time - including the announcers - so it made catching it all confusing and annoying. This could be easily fixed by a sound engineer only allowing one sound stream to pass to the broadcast at a time. No need for silly color commentary at the exact same time as the QB play call in the huddle.

Watching the Houston Gamblers first half was actually fairly exciting. The defense showed up to play, totally shut down the Michigan Panthers and made some fun, highlight reel plays.

The use of drones armed with GoPro cameras to catch a new set of angles at once felt exciting and new yet amateurish and Pop Warner. But, better that than “He Hate Me”, right?

It didn’t truly feel like Houston football until the second half, however, when the Michigan Panthers clearly made great halftime adjustments, unlike the Gamblers and the H-Town defense ran out of steam. The game came down to the very last play, where Panther’s wide receiver, La’Michael Pettway failed to stay in bounds on a 4th and 26 touchdown pass that would have given them the lead. Total Bill O’Brien era Houston Texans gut level anxiety rose up as the second half continued. “They’re going to lose this after a huge halftime lead, aren’t they?”

Thankfully, the Gamblers held on and won 17-12.

What the USFL got wrong

This league seems to have been plagued with missteps from the beginning, and kickoff weekend was no different. Despite selling a rumored 17,500 tickets to the game, there seemed to be less that 175 people in the stands at any given point in time. Delaying the games due to rain didn’t help - it’s football, what do you mean they can’t play in the rain? If that was an issue, then why didn’t the USFL find a domed stadium to call home? I’m sure the San Antonio stadium authority would have loved the business.

Often you’ll see media sources forcing all the fans to sit in one section, so as to give the appearance of a packed house on camera, but the USFL seemed to give the fans the option to sit anywhere they chose, which had the opposite affect.

And, with that, the psychological fall-out is that initial TV viewers are seeing it as the restaurant that’s not busy at dinner time: If others appear uninterested, why should I care?

The aforementioned audio issues often gave the impression of being in a crowded room where everyone was speaking at once. When introducing something new, expecting viewers to easily sift through the announcers, players and coaches all talking at the same time - often with four or five people speaking over one another - doesn’t leave a good impression.

The drone was a neat touch, but often the whirring of the drone motors came through the TV speakers so loudly it drowned out the other audio. With so many microphones on the field at one time, not sure how they would combat this, other than keeping the drone at a further distance during quieter times. Or, simply having more fans in the stadium. However, with the games all taking place in Birmingham, Alabama, a city with just over 200,000 residents, expecting a packed house on game days for teams that call Houston, Michigan, New Jersey and other places home is likely wishful thinking.

In conclusion, history has conditioned us at this point to expect a spring league to fail sooner or later. This iteration of the USFL has so much going against it, that the impending failure will likely come quickly. But, in the meantime, the Gamblers are 1-0, and the USFLMemes twitter account posted the best tweet of the opening weekend:

Anytime Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys come in 9th out of 8 places, life is good.