Thanks to the reemergence and combination of the XFL and USFL in 2023. Over 800 players will be playing pro football in the NFL off-season this year. The smoke will settle after the Super Bowl. But the show for players and the pro football world is far from over.
There’s never been a better time to be a pro or college football player than now.
The football ecosystem is changing right before our very eyes. And there’s serious room for more growth and expansion in what is becoming an evolving land of playing options for football players.
The Past Versus The Present And Future
To know where you are headed, you must know where you’ve been. And ultimately, to understand why there has always been a need for non-NFL pro leagues.
According to data released by the NCAA, only 1.6 percent of all draft-eligible college players make the National Football League. Thousands of players from hundreds of football universities end up on the outside looking in. On top of that, you combine that reality with the fact that the average NFL career is four years. As a result, you have historically seen a landscape filled with players with extremely limited avenues for employment.
|NCAA PARTICIPANTS||APPROXIMATE # DRAFT ELIGIBLE||# DRAFT PICKS||# NCAA DRAFTED||% NCAA TO MAJOR PRO||% NCAA TO TOTAL PRO|
|M Ice Hockey||4,323||961||217||71||7.4%||—|
Over the years, most college and pro football players have had to make the tough decision of hanging up their cleats while they are still in their playing prime. Young people in their twenties, who have been playing organized football since childhood, are forced to abandon their dreams.
Fast forward to the present, and career options for football players are expanding immensely. The existence of a growing field of professional playing opportunities, coupled with the boom of revenue streams for college athletes through NIL, has created a new world of possibilities.
Especially for College football players, who not only have income, more control, and security but now have a better chance to extend their playing careers once they finish up playing in school. And maybe in the not-so-distant future, some college athletes could decide to turn pro early as another pathway to the NFL. The same way West Virginia standout Kenny Robinson and current Pittsburgh Steelers DB did when he was drafted by the Carolina Panthers after playing in XFL 2020.
Alternative League Options
Football players in the United States have always had the great choice of playing up north in the wonderful CFL. Although, it’s come with a catch in the form of a mandated foreign-player ratio.
On top of that are the challenges of transitioning to living in a new country and playing in a league that is very different from college and pro football in the U.S. Nevertheless, the Canadian Football League has been a time-tested safe haven for Americans looking to keep their pro-playing dreams alive.
However, new doors have opened and re-opened outside of Canada for players.
There’s the recent and continuous growth of the European League of Football, which will now field 17 teams when season three commences in June. And entities like the Indoor Football League, Fan Controlled Football, and the reborn Arena Football League, arriving in 2024, are additional pathways for players.
However, Ultimately, it’s the existence of the XFL and USFL that can facilitate the most significant and positive change moving forward. And one could argue that it’s already happening.
The XFL Versus The USFL= A Win-Win Scenario For Players
The USFL, owned and operated by FOX, and the XFL, which relaunches Saturday, February 18th on ABC/ESPN & FX, are changing the game for players who want to continue or start their pro football careers in America.
In 2023, both leagues will employ over 800 players. (808) That’s not to mention all the coaches and employees who are gainfully employed due to the existence of the XFL and USFL.
However, the point of emphasis here is focusing on the players. After all, without them. There’s no reason to have these leagues.
For however long it lasts, Over eight hundred players will be playing professional football during the Spring in the United States in 2023, and they will get fantastic exposure and coverage on the most prominent networks possible.
Over a dozen players who have signed up to play in the XFL and USFL in 2023 finished the NFL season on practice squads. Some of them, rather than re-up with NFL teams on futures contracts, have decided to play spring pro football in an effort to get playing time and game film. To better their chances of getting another crack in the NFL.
Whether or not the majority of the XFL or USFL players make NFL rosters doesn’t matter. The fact that football athletes are getting a chance to play professionally is a victory on its own, and the progression to the NFL, or a pathway back, is an added bonus.
It’s more about the opportunity than the results. After all, there are no guarantees. But the results of producing a pipeline have been pretty promising.
Mind you, over twenty players from the XFL three years ago ended the 2022 season on NFL rosters. That’s three seasons after XFL 2.0 played only five regular season games. Three of the league’s quarterbacks have started 33 games combined in the NFL during that span.
The USFL also produced NFL players in 2022. Over 60 got a shot to make NFL rosters. Nearly 20 finished the year on rosters. Mostly on practice squads. But the league produced one of the greatest success stories in this space, WR/KR Kavontae Turpin. The down-and-out TCU standout revived his career, and he is now a Pro Bowl NFL player. All thanks to the existence of the USFL.
The platform the XFL and USFL are providing now is invaluable to players.
Another positive byproduct of the two leagues’ existence is that they are forced to compete for football talent. Which in turn, gives players more freedom and options.
Improved Options And Pay For Players In The XFL And USFL
There are now 16 pro football teams that will play this Spring during the NFL off-season. Because of this new reality, players have multiple choices.
Nearly 70 USFL 2022 players exercised that freedom and joined the XFL. 49 of them have made final XFL 2023 rosters.
The players who haven’t made an XFL roster in 2023 still have the USFL as a viable possibility. There are now two doors to explore. See quarterback Ryan Willis, who missed on his goal of being a starter with St. Louis, and now lands another shot at starting with the USFL’s Memphis Showboats.
Instead of asking for his release, Willis might’ve chosen to stick it out in St. Louis and hope for playing time later in the season. But with the USFL out there, he could explore another playing opportunity elsewhere. There’s no doubt that Willis sent out feelers to USFL teams before his exit with the Battlehawks became official.
Some USFL players dipped their toes in the XFL waters but ultimately returned to where they played a year ago. See former Seattle Dragons/Philadelphia Stars CB Channing Stribling, who was drafted by the St. Louis Battlehawks but then decided to return to Philly.
Players have options now and are not at the mercy of these upstart pro league entities. Who, in the past, could offer the bare minimum because usually one of these leagues was the only show in town. Now there are two.
Competition between both leagues has forced them to up their game in how players are treated.
The failures of past spring leagues to survive and honor commitments have led to the formation of the United Football Players Association. An entity designed as a safeguard for players who play in these leagues. Within a year, the UFPA helped facilitate a players union representation with the United Steelworkers. Ultimately, what has happened is it’s led to a collective bargaining agreement between the USFL and its players.
As part of the new CBA, Active USFL players will see an increase in weekly salary and better benefits with more living arrangement costs covered by the league.
A more even playing field for players has created equality for those who play in both the XFL and USFL.
Here’s where the player salary figures stand for both leagues by comparison, which has some similarities but differences in the number of active players and reward structure.
XFL 2023 Versus USFL 2023 Player Compensation
- Based on new updated information. The XFL will have 51-player rosters. However, teams will still dress only 45 on game day. Team DPP’s voted for an expansion to 51 to enable carrying a third quarterback. But the option to dress a third signal-caller is not mandatory.
In 2023, The XFL will pay $2M in win bonuses to players on Active and Inactive Rosters.
$1K/win × 50 players x 40 games = $2M
10-game season: USFL pays $53,500 for Active List players; XFL pays $50K.
However, XFL Active List players have the opportunity to make;
$60K for an undefeated season, $55k for a 5-5 season, etc.
USFL plays games with 40 players on Active Lists and 10 players on the Inactive list;
The XFL plays with 45 players on a team’s Active List and 6 players on the Inactive list.
In the aggregate, The XFL is paying more to players per game than the USFL.
USFL: 40 Active × $5,350 + 10 Inactive x $2,500=$239K × 2 teams = $478K
XFL: 45 Active x $5K + 6 Inactive × $1,500 =$234,00 x 2 teams = $468K + $51K win bonuses = $519K
In the absolute perfect and extremely unlikely scenario for an individual position player (non-QB) on an XFL team, combining training camp pay, activity for all 2023 games, and an undefeated season with win bonuses through ten regular games and two playoff contests would net an XFL player $93,500 in earnings.
Because of the win bonus structure, which doesn’t exist in the USFL, except for the championship game (5K), In the aggregate, the XFL is paying more to players per game than the USFL.
45 players on Active Lists for a game also has a positive impact on player safety and quality of play. It gives a coaching staff more flexibility and depth. (The NFL had played with 46 players for many years and has now expanded the gameday roster to 48.) The USFL will have forty players active in 2023.
In year two of their CBA, the USFL’s active list will increase from 40 to 42, with eight players on the weekly inactive list. That’s a positive step forward.
There are some exceptions in the XFL average base player pay for certain quarterbacks. While the league hasn’t released those specific figures, the football ops team has publicly stated that specific quarterbacks would make above the median salary. The early word through sourcing is that quarterbacks Jordan Ta’amu and Brett Hundley, for example, are being paid over six figures for the 2023 XFL season.
It’s easy to be dismissive of these salary numbers, especially if you are comparing them to the almighty NFL. But the opportunity to play pro football and get game film on a national stage is worth its weight in gold. And 50 plus thousand dollars or more for a few months’ work is respectable compensation.
Why The USFL And XFL Could Work This Time
There are no guarantees that the XFL and USFL can co-exist and survive over the long haul. The two entities are standing in coach other’s way. Even though both league’s seasons barely overlap. The XFL plays from February to May, and the USFL is situated from mid-April to July.
Nevertheless, the odds are always against these entities and historically haven’t been favorable. You can do all the right things, on and off the field, and still not make it in the long run due to finances.
However, there are reasons to believe that one or both of these leagues can still stand in a few years. And that’s because the landscape of sports on television has changed greatly.
Football leagues are coming out of the woodwork, scrambling to launch and relaunch rapidly. Because they know that streaming services, but more specifically TV networks, are looking for dedicated live viewership that can produce audiences that will not change the channel for three hours. That’s what the live content of sports leagues provides that other programming doesn’t.
The XFL in 2020 on FOX, ABC, and ESPN. And the USFL on FOX and NBC in 2022 produced respectable viewership numbers, especially when you look at it in comparison and context to other long-established sports leagues.
XFL Ratings Three Years Ago
Through only five weeks in 2020 (10 games), XFL games on ESPN/ABC averaged an audience of 1,893,000 viewers. On ABC alone, the average was 2.1 million. On FOX, the XFL averaged 2.4 million over six telecasts. In fairness, those numbers are slightly inflated because of the high week one viewer totals.
For example, the 2/9 FOX Sunday afternoon telecast between Tampa and New York averaged 3.39 million viewers, the largest audience for a non-NFL pro football game since Week 6 of the original XFL in 2001 (3.67 million).
Much was made through the media in 2020 about the XFL’s dwindling numbers as the season progressed. But a quick look back from their final week before COVID halted everything shows a different picture if you look at it contextually.
On broadcast television and Cable. The weekend before the world hit the pause button.
Saturday 3/7/2020 Sports Broadcast Network Ratings Comparisons;
XFL on ABC: 1.547 million viewers
XFL on Fox: 1.497 million viewers
Boxing on Fox: 1.4 million viewers
NBA on ABC: 1.9 million viewers
PGA on NBC: 1.7 million viewers
NCAA Basketball on CBS: 1.5 million viewers
NCAA Basketball on Fox: 683 thousand viewers
Week 5 XFL Cable TV Ratings on Sunday, March 8th/2020
St. Louis BattleHawks-DC Defenders on FS1 averaged 767 thousand viewers (Ranked 22nd out of 150 Cable TV programs on Sunday).
Tampa Bay Vipers-LA Wildcats primetime game on ESPN (9 pm ET) averaged 833,000 viewers (6th for the night on all of Cable television)
Just about every headline back in March of 2020 read, “XFL ratings continue to slide” However, the fact that two broadcasts by the XFL in Week Five were ranked in the top 22 on all of cable television is pretty impressive for a brand-new sports league.
USFL TV Ratings
The USFL’s regular-season average viewership in 2022 was under 700,000 per game. (658,000). Across FOX, NBC, FS1, and the USA Network.
However, the 21 USFL games aired on FOX/NBC during the ten-week regular season averaged just over a million viewers per telecast on the USFL’s two leading networks. (1,008,000). Not an earth-shattering number but very respectable for a brand-new league trying to establish a foothold in a crowded sports market.
The TV rating for the USFL 2022 Championship game on FOX averaged 1.517 million viewers. The game scored a 0.92 household rating. It was the USFL’s highest individual game rating on FOX since its’s opening week simulcast in April. (1.75M on FOX). An impressive number showed that there was a chance for lasting power.
USFL games on cable produced modest numbers, averaging under 300,000 viewers per game. But in 2023, even those numbers are workable.
Quite frankly, FOX and Disney are back at the table now in Spring Pro Football because of the success and overall potential the XFL showed in 2020.
While ESPN and ABC will get the headlines for airing XFL 2023 games. A significant reason why Disney is rolling with the XFL again is to build up FX and ESPN Plus as live sports content entities.
These robust networks see the value in Spring Pro Football. Ten, twenty years ago. This concept would have struggled and ultimately did to make its mark. But in 2023 and beyond, its timing couldn’t be any more perfect.
As a long-time advocate for alternate non-NFL leagues, the return of the league that made me a lifelong supporter of the concept, the USFL, and now the relaunch of the XFL is a dream come true.
For years, I have supported and followed closely every spring/summer pro football league in this space.
This is football heaven for not only die-hard enthusiasts like myself. But for football players and coaches.
I don’t know how long this will last—two prominent U.S. pro football leagues in the NFL offseason. But for however long it does, it’s going to be amazing.
And you never know, maybe one day, the USFL and XFL will break bread together and merge into a 16 to a 20-team league. One can dream while dreams are being realized.
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