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USFL projects 3 million viewers for opening night simulcast, streaming audience

Clayton Thorson and the Houston Gamblers got off to a good start and hung on against a fierce comeback attempt by the Michigan Panthers to win 17-12 in Week 1 of the inaugural USFL season.

The USFL debuted on Saturday night, commandeering a pair of three-letter networks and a major streaming platform. That exposure resulted in, according to USFL projections, a total audience of three million for the game between the Generals and the Stallions.

The projected number, per the USFL, peaked at nearly 3.5 million at 10:45 p.m. ET.

By way of comparison, the AAF drew 2.9 million for its CBS debut on a Saturday night in 2019. The XFL debut in 2019 racked up 3.3 million on a Saturday afternoon in 2020.

There are three points to consider. First, the AAF and XFL Week One contests aired only on one major network, not two. Second, how would other programming in those spots have done? Third, these are projections by the USFL, not official numbers from whoever or wherever the currently-accepted official numbers come from. As the world continues to shift and change in viewing habits and devices, it’s apparently becoming much harder than it used to be to track reliable numbers.

Whatever the measurement employed, however they’re made, and whether the numbers from any source ever reflect the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth as to the actual audience metrics, the question becomes whether people will keep watching the USFL. Sunday’s three-pack of games on NBC, USA, and FS1 was delayed for roughly an hour by weather, and the images from Birmingham repeatedly featured a complete and total lack of fans in the stands.

For any alternate football league, it becomes much harder to persuade people to watch it on TV when they see that few in the vicinity of the event have bothered to show up to watch it in person. Whether the solution is to give tickets away, give food away, give both away, refrain from showing images of empty seats, or play the games in a venue that has no stands, the impact of wide swaths of nothing can’t be ignored.