UFL Kickoff Offers Latest Hope for Spring Football

Fierce media rivals like ESPN and Fox Sports aren’t often eager to see the other do well. But the competitors may be cheering one another this weekend.

Fox and ESPN will this weekend each broadcast two games from the new — depending on how one looks at it — UFL, a league that has been built out of the former USFL and its rival, the XFL. Fox will offer up both the Birmingham Stallions taking on the Arlington Renegades, and the St. Louis Battlehawks tackling the Michigan Panthers. ESPN on Sunday will showcase the D.C. Defenders squaring off against the San Antonio Brahmas as well as the Memphis Showboats vying with Houston Roughnecks. Over the course of the season some UFL games will run on ABC.

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There is hope that a combined league can help spring football take root with American sports fans after several years of failed attempts. “The merger helps with the football,” says Bryan Jaroch, a coordinating producer at ESPN who helps manage the spring coverage. “The athleticism is better,” he adds, because the new league will feature the best that its predecessors had to offer.

There’s more at stake than ratings when it comes to the UFL. Both outlets want to lure younger crowds, who are the target of UFL productions that feature more video and audio access to players, coaches and officials, as well as, at least in ESPN’s case, constant updates about sports-betting opportunities. They will have to so in greater coordination with one another. Previously, Fox broadcast USFL games in conjunction with NBC, while ESPN spotlighted XFL match-ups on parent company Disney’s FX cable network.

“The access is the thing that people came to love with the XFL,” says Jaroch. “We can go up to coaches on the sidelines. We can talk to players at any point. We have the access and transparency with the referees and the command central. These are things that heavily resonated with fans last year that we are going to lean on heavily.” Fox plans to give viewers unique looks at the action via drones, cameras in pylons and on players’ helmets and referees’ hats.

Launching a sustainable NFL counterpart hasn’t proven easy. In recent years, the Alliance of American Football gained early traction with broadcasts on CBS and elsewhere before collapsing under shaky finances. Fox was an investor in the USFL and is a co-owner of the new combined league. WWE leader Vince McMahon initially backed the latest edition of the XFL that was halted by the coronavirus pandemic and bankruptcy before RedBird Capital and Dwayne Johnson and Dany Garcia tried to make a go of things with a new season.

Now, ESPN and Fox Sports have more than one common cause. The two are also partners in a new streaming-video joint venture, along with Warner Bros. Discovery that is expected to launch later in the year. This new streaming hub would feature all of the UFL’s games on a single platform.

Fans can expect to see innovation, says Jaroch. “Let’s try to do some different things,” he says. “Let’s take the camera where it hasn’t been before.”

If producers have learned anything, he says, it’s that they have to recognize when the access won’t help coverage of the game. There have been times during previous XFL coverage when ESPN learned their ability to talk to officials or coaches was getting in the way of them performing their regular duties. For a referee, he says, “officiating that game is his primary job and this second job is to help explain it to viewers.”

There’s little sense that the new UFL is competing against the NFL, though, presumably, if the league were to grow it would certainly vie with the more established league for attention and sponsor dollars. At present, says Jaroch, there is more a sense that the UFL could become a feeder league or a place that helps those who want to stay in the game a few more years do jus that.

Indeed, he adds, producers want to tell many of those stories to help fans warm to the people playing the new games. There may be stories that involve quests to make it to the NFL, desires to keep playing, and interactions with family. “We want to humanize, then analyze,” he says.

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