Ratings for the United Football League's debut on Versus failed to produce the frisson created when the XFL launched eight years ago, but were largely in line with network averages.
The Oct. 8 season opener posted a .11 (146,000 viewers) in the key 18-to-49 demo in "live plus same day" performance. That was down about 13% by one measure from Versus' average for the 52-week season that ended last month.
The UFL kickoff game also yielded a .14 household rating, down from the .19 (220,000 homes) that marked the Versus average for the 2009-10 season. The game did go against a college game on ESPN and the baseball playoffs.
The UFL is the latest attempt to launch a pro football league alongside the NFL. In February of 2001, the XFL kicked off on NBC with a boffo rating, prompting some to believe it would be viable. But viewership cratered soon after, and the games were pulled off the air.
Only 14,000 fans attended the UFL opener in Las Vegas last week (between the hometown Locomotives and a San Francisco-area team) in a stadium that seats 40,000. The UFL is a four-team league that also includes teams in the Orlando, Fla. and New York areas.
Versus has committed to carrying games mostly on Thursdays, leading up to the title battle Nov. 27. HDNet is another broadcast partner, and offered its first game Oct. 10. Both networks are known to take gambles on unproven content.
Versus did not embark on an expensive promotional blitz for the UFL, using on-air promos, some online plugs and a staged interview with one of the league's coaches during a college game it carried.
The Comcast-owned network is in the midst of a protracted battle with DirecTV over sub fees, resulting in the satellite operator having dropping the channel. Dish Network has stepped in to make it available across its footprint. As a result, the network is in about 70 million homes -- a net loss of about 5 million due to the DirecTV standoff.
Other failed efforts at launching a second pro league include the WFL in the 1970s and the World League of American Football in the early 1990s, which folded despite the support of the NFL. Even the indoor Arena Football League, considered a success at some level, seems to have gone belly-up.
In the 1980s, the USFL received considerable publicity with Donald Trump as a team owner; the signing of multiple Heisman Trophy winners to contracts; and an antitrust suit against the NFL. It won in court, but received only $3 and subsequently folded.
On Oct. 20, ESPN will air a documentary about the oft-wacky league.
The USFL's undoing may have been abandoning its spring-summer schedule and looking to compete head-to-head with the NFL in the fall. The XFL, too, envisioned succeeding based on fan hunger for football after the NFL season.
The UFL has tried to find a niche in the fall even as ESPN offers college games up to four nights a week, and the NFL is more popular than ever.