The full regular season UFL schedule was released on Monday. You can find it here. After extensively combing through the league’s press release touting the games, here are a few aspects that I found notable:
Heavy focus on network games
It was immediately obvious that the television distribution heavily relies on network television (ABC and Fox) and a high-profile cable station (ESPN) to air the majority of the games. The league touted in the release that 72% of the games would air on network TV and all but two will air on either ABC, Fox, or ESPN. It’s a far cry from the XFL 2023 schedule and is more comparable to the USFL’s 2023 season in which 84% of the games aired on either NBC or Fox.
Gone are the days of spring football being used to sports-ify a channel like FX (which in hindsight feels more like it was an excuse to dump XFL games on there rather than actually using it to lead the charge of an over-arching re-brand). There’s no doubt this network-focused strategy will give the UFL the best chance to succeed by making sure its seen by the most eyeballs possible; the USFL’s performance under similar conditions last year, though, show it’s not the magic cure-all that will in and of itself offer sustainability for the league.
Moving closer to consistent start times – but not there yet
One hope XFL fans had for the 2024 UFL schedule was more consistent timeslots week-to-week. The XFL schedule featured games on the weekends, as well as Thursday, Friday, and Monday, with times all over the map. Getting fans in the habit of sitting down to watch games at the same time each week, as the NFL has done, would make the UFL more accessible to the casual fan.
The UFL schedule is somewhat satisfying in this regard. In eight of the 10 weeks, the early Saturday game begins between 12 and 1pm EST. Unfortunately, the station airing that game is inconsistent, with one of Fox, three on ABC and four on ESPN. The second Saturday game airs across four different times during the season. The early Sunday game is the best at maintaining a reliable start-time: For seven weeks, that game begins at Noon EST. Though there is room for improvement here, it’s an impressive feat to have this level of consistency of game times given how late in the process the schedule has come together.
Sale of individual game tickets lag behind
Those looking for the schedule release to tie in to individual game ticket sales will have to wait another two weeks. They won’t go on sale until February 22. That’s just five weeks before the regular season kicks off. It’s similar to the timeline of how they were released for XFL 2023 (January 12 for a February 18 start). This process was not successful in 2023 outside of St. Louis and D.C., though repeating it in 2024 is more of a necessity of the merger and Houston’s stadium situation.
While attendance was encouraged for USFL home teams in 2023, it wasn’t a major piece of the revenue puzzle for the league. With every team playing in its home markets this year, those franchises will no longer be able to escape attendance scrutiny. These teams will be expected to pull their weight in this department more than they did in 2023. The UFL will want to make sure it’s not just St. Louis, D.C., and a bunch of half-empty stadiums otherwise.
League to test regional broadcasts
Three weeks feature regional games, where two games start at the same time on the same station and your location in the country will determine which of the games you’ll actually see. These will occur in weeks four, five, and nine, and all the games are on Fox. In 2020 and 2023, all XFL games aired live for all, and I believe the same was true of the USFL’s two seasons.
Back in 2001, the XFL tinkered with some regional broadcasts later in the year. By then, few were paying attention. In 2024, there should be room on one of the ABC/Fox family of networks to air these games. It makes one believe this is a conscious choice by Fox, for whatever reason. Perhaps it’s a test-run for the best-case-scenario of the future, where expansion makes it impossible to air all games in a single weekend. Perhaps they want to see if the overall TV viewership is affected by regional broadcasts.
With all games airing on Fox also accessible on the Fox Sports App, it raises the question of whether or not one could watch their regionally-specific game on TV while also watching the out-of-market game on the app. Or will the out-of-market game be geo-blocked on the app? These are questions that may not be answered until fans open the app on gameday to find out. One of the draws of spring football has been the ability to watch all the league’s games live; that may not be the case in 2024.
Limited network primetime appearances
Prime time is still prime real estate for advertisers, especially on network TV. With the UFL being an unknown quantity, league leadership did not wade heavily into those waters with the 2024 schedule. Only five games will take place on network TV during primetime hours, with just one other getting that treatment on cable (the single ESPN2 game).
The atmosphere for primetime games is just different, as has been shown by the NFL over the years. More primetime games would be a sign of confidence in the new league, but that confidence must be earned. It’s important to note there may be other factors at play here, such as the home venues and the ease (or lack thereof) in which they can play host to later games. That may have been a part of the decision-making process as well.
Week 10 follows NFL’s lead in featuring divisional match-ups in finale
Over the last several years, the NFL’s scheduling model has focused the last week of the season on divisional match-ups. The thinking is it would increase the drama around who would make the playoffs, and who would be watching from home, as now divisional championships often come down to the last weekend of the season. The UFL has adopted that for its first season: All week 10 games are inter-divisional. And with the league apparently deciding to take two playoff teams from each division (as stated in the press release), it’s quite possible playoff berths will be on the line in one or more of those games.