As expected, when the UFL schedule was released on Monday, kickoff weekend was slated for March 30. That date had already been confirmed by the league; it was noted in a recent Houston Business Journal article, however, that the March 30 date was a necessity in order to finalize all of the details that came with the merger of the XFL and USFL. UFL CEO and President Russ Brandon seemed to indicate this may not be the time of year the league will begin in future seasons.
In all three iterations of the XFL, the league kicked off the weekend following the Super Bowl. The USFL began both of its rebooted seasons in mid-April. So this year’s schedule more closely mimics the USFL – though again, born more out of necessity than perhaps anything else. UFL management is trying very hard to find a happy medium between all things XFL and USFL, even perhaps to the detriment of the league itself. The schedule may not be immune to this.
With a two-month gap in between when the XFL and USFL seasons would normally begin, which one will the UFL ultimately land on in 2025 and beyond? Here are some pros and cons of the mid-February start (XFL) and the late March/April start (USFL and UFL ’24):
–Taking advantage of fans still hungry for football: Football is the most popular sport in America by a wide margin. When the NFL season ends on Super Bowl Sunday, there’s an argument to be made that fans are still hungry for football. The XFL has attempted to fill that void, hoping that fans will watch because, well, it’s football, and they’ve already been in the habit of doing that for the previous 20 or so weekends.
-Piggybacking off Super Bowl buzz: This is more theoretical than anything that we’ve seen in the past, but the Super Bowl has really become a week-long event with tons of sponsors, media, interviews and the like. In the past, the XFL hasn’t really attempted to take advantage of that lead-in to its season, though the UFL certainly could try. The fact that the UFL has two television partners that are in the rotation to air the Super Bowl (Fox and ABC) could be advantageous down the line. We’ve seen Russ Brandon make appearances on radio row this year, though with a month-and-a-half in between then and kickoff, there’s a question as to how effective those appearances could be compared to if the league started up its regular season next week.
-End of season aligns with NFL minicamps: This past season, dozens of XFL players were invited to NFL rookie minicamps as tryout players in early May with several of them ultimately signing on for training camp. The end of the XFL regular season aligned nicely with the ability for at least players from non-playoff teams to hop right into an NFL minicamp. In fact, when many players and coaches spoke about the key differences between the XFL and USFL and what attracted them to the XFL, the schedule and how it syncs up with the NFL’s off-season format was one often mentioned. Members of UFL management have frequently talked about the desire to vault players into the NFL; this schedule is the most player-friendly in terms of doing just that.
-Avoids hot weather in south/potential expansion areas: In some areas of the country, you’re just not going to be able to escape the heat no matter what time of year you play. But as a league, you can mitigate just how much of an effect that has on the fans during the season. An earlier start means you’re not running into the heat of the summer in places like Texas, or future expansion areas like Florida. It may still be hot there, but it won’t be HOT hot.
-Allows college players to potentially play prior to the NFL Draft: XFL fans have been chasing the next Kenny Robinson for the last few years. Robinson played for the St. Louis Battlehawks in 2020 before being selected in the fourth round of the NFL Draft by the Carolina Panthers in April (coincidentally, Robinson is back in spring football, on the roster of the Birmingham Stallions). The XFL attracted a few players like this in 2023, most notably LB Willie Taylor, who played for the Arlington Renegades before signing with the Jacksonville Jaguars as an undrafted free agent. Under this schedule, college players could play most of the UFL season before being a part of the NFL Draft.
The introduction of NIL into college sports, as well as the ease of the transfer portal, has perhaps lessened the importance or need for players to take this step to the pro level, and attracting a small handful of players that meet this criteria as the XFL did in 2023 is not a singular reason to start in mid-February. However, if the UFL gains a foot-hold and can show itself as successful, it could be a route that major college players decide to take prior to beginning their NFL careers.
-Battling Super Bowl/football hangover from fans: As popular as football is, most fans prefer a break from it (whether they’ll admit it or not). After all, absence makes the heart grow fonder. There’s the potential for fan burnout after the apex of the NFL season that is the Super Bowl. Fans need time to come down from that high before jumping back in, and giving less than a week for a break may not do it.
-Cold weather in some parts of the country: The holy grail for a spring league like this is the New York market, the largest television market in the country. A February start can mean bitter cold and snow in that part of the United States, so while this may not specifically affect a lot of areas of the current UFL set-up, there’s no doubt ownership has their eyes on the northeast for expansion. Unless a dome is in play, starting in the dead of winter will be a tough sell to the fan bases in those areas. We even saw last year that Texas can get mighty cold around this time, too.
-Fierce television competition: We witnessed what happens when spring football meets the buzz saw that is March Madness, and the results were not pretty. Not only do television ratings suffer, but ESPN/ABC is the home of the women’s tournament, meaning fewer attractive timeslots will be available for UFL games. That should be just as important a consideration from a scheduling point-of-view as the competition on other channels. The Daytona 500, NASCAR’s premiere race of the season, airs on Fox the week after the Super Bowl, coinciding with the UFL’s opening weekend in this scenario. There’s no way to completely avoid sports competition on the boob tube, but there are ways to try to avoid some of the bigger events on the calendar.
-No rest for players coming right in from the NFL: I’m really not sure how much of a concern this truly is, and in fact, it could be a benefit having players already in “NFL shape” available to be signed during UFL training camp. There could be some players coming off an NFL season – even if only on the practice squad – who have been practicing and training since the summer. Jumping right into the UFL without being able to give their body a rest could be a hesitation point for some players who would otherwise be interested in playing for the league.
Late March/early April kickoff
-Allows football fans to “miss” the game: As discussed above, the majority of football fans may need some time to “miss” the sport before they start craving for more of the game. This break between the Super Bowl and the UFL kickoff of late March could provide just that. Fans could be ready to embrace football again after a month-and-a-half without it.
-Avoids potentially cold weather: By late March or early April, spring is in swing in most states. The weather begins to warm up and while there’s always a chance for winter to linger, there are more opportunities for nicer weather in home games up north. Again, with so many teams in the south, this is more of a forward-looking issue for eventual expansion into other regions of the country. More mild weather would encourage better attendance at outdoor venues.
-Mostly circumvents March Madness: This is a key difference between the late March/mid-April start. Beginning the season in March will put the UFL in direct competition with the championship match-ups in the NCAA Men’s College Basketball Tournament. Those are also the most-watched of the games in the tourney. Starting a few weeks later will allow the league to avoid the tournament altogether, which is no doubt an attractive proposition. While this doesn’t completely clear away any prospective sports competition during the season, it does remove the biggest obstacle.
-Those not signed as NFL undrafted free agents may join UFL for late-season pushes: The NFL Draft is held in late April, and those undrafted are signed immediately afterward. Then, in the first week or two of May, teams hold rookie minicamps, where players not signed as UDFAs may attend on a tryout basis. If they remain unsigned afterward, those players could help UFL teams during the stretch run. By that point in the UFL season, the injured reserve lists begin to grow and teams are looking high and low for competent replacements and depth signings. While tryout players may not be the cream of the crop, many were still very good college players – the June XFL Rookie Draft drew liberally from those who tried out at rookie minicamps – and they could help pad out rosters for the final month of action.
-Fans will have become accustomed to it with the 2024 kickoff: Sports fans are creatures of habit. When the UFL season kicks off on March 30, fans of the league will be anticipating a similar start in 2025. One thing these spring leagues have lacked through the years is consistency. The UFL should be aiming for consistency from year-to-year wherever they can find it, if only to give fans a sense that they know what they’re doing and aren’t making it up as they go along or trying to correct a bunch of perceived “mistakes” by changing things. Having a start date that fans are already familiar with could be beneficial as they won’t need to do a full-court-press of marketing in 2025 to alert fans of the time change.
-Won’t allow for players to attend NFL rookie minicamps: This may be the biggest negative because in large part the UFL is banking on attracting talent desiring a return to the NFL. In order to do that, they have to show those players there is a path to the NFL. A late March/early April start makes it more difficult by overlapping with a key part of the NFL off-season where teams assemble their 90-man rosters. It won’t be impossible for players to latch on to NFL teams – after all, the USFL put a significant number of players into NFL camps in 2023 with a similar start – but the XFL had the advantage time-wise and was able to beat the USFL’s number in this department because of it.
-Weather becomes hotter during this time: With this schedule, the UFL would be playing into June, which, at that time, is hot in almost every part of the country. As you build up existing fan bases, you want the game to be as accessible as possible to a live audience, eliminating as many barriers to getting fans to attend as you can. It’s very easy to use “heat” as an excuse for not going to games. It was already hot in Orlando with the XFL’s schedule last season; imagine trying to put a team in Florida, playing outdoors into the summer. That’s not a recipe for success.
-Warmer weather means fewer eyeballs on TV: The weather could have an effect on more than just attendance: People are more apt to be outside doing things when it’s warmer. In February and March, when in some parts of the country people may be snowed in or choose to avoid the cold, there are more potential television viewers indoors. Is it enough to make a significant difference ratings-wise? That remains to be seen. On the other hand, can a fledgling league like the UFL afford to take that risk?
-Right in the teeth of NBA/NHL playoffs: Television competition isn’t just relegated to the February start: With the timing of this kickoff, you’d be running into the heart of the NBA and NHL playoffs, taking up all of May and bleeding into June. ABC/ESPN hosts the playoffs of both leagues, which could be a positive and a negative: More viewers tuning into the playoffs could see UFL ads running during those games, or the UFL could get a significant boost in viewership if the playoffs are a lead-in to the league’s games. However, they could also run into scheduling difficulty on these stations that will be prioritizing the more established leagues (and the leagues to which they pay a heftier rights fee).
This is not meant to be an exhaustive list; there could be other factors at play here as well, including the ease of reserving home dates at each team’s stadium. There doesn’t seem to be a clear slam-dunk “right” time to play the UFL season. Both options come with consequential pros and cons. The UFL will at least have the 2024 season as a benchmark, hopefully with the flexibility to jump ahead to a February start date in 2025 should the need arise.