The UFL silently opened play last week in Las Vegas at 45,000-seat Sam Boyd Stadium in front of an annouced crowd of 14,209, although reports suggested the actual number of fans in attendance was much lower.
(The local paper, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, suggested real attendance was about a third of that, putting attendance in the range of 5,000, but doesn't really say where they attained that number. 10,000 would be my estimate looking at the number of fans in the stadium. You can stream UFL games live from their website to reach your own conclusions.)
The league played its second game of the year at Orlando's 65,000-seat Citrus Bowl in front of an announced crowd of 11,203, but Shannon Owens, a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, reported some of those in attendance were using giveaway tickets.
These are, to put it bluntly, horrible numbers. They are the kind of numbers a very bad team in the first year of a pro startup league might see at the end of a lengthy season. To see them in the first to games is shocking to say the least.
To give some perspective on the perception those teams might have locally, UNLV drew almost 30,000 to see the Rebels beat Hawaii's Warriors a couple weeks ago. UCF drew 40,000 to their stadium in Orlando to see a matchup vs. the Memphis Tigers recently. Those aren't even BCS schools, which makes these attendance figures look really bad to the public in these cities.
Both of those college teams were not playing at home those nights, so it isn't like the UFL teams were competing against the FBS teams for fans last week.
Compounding matters, the UFL's lack of promotion about the launch of the season has skunked their TV numbers. The Internet is full of people like myself who loudly bemoaned the fact they didn't realize the UFL season started and as such missed the opening broadcasts.
I have never watched Versus in my life, but I apparently have it as a channel on my cable. If I had seen some kind of promotional reminder, I'd have watched the game on Versus.
The fact that the games are on the UFL's site is a good idea—it allowed me to see the first two games—but still doesn't make up for a lack of sufficient promotion.
How many potential fans are going to think to look on the UFL site for games? How many are going to want a to watch a three-hour game on their computer? How many are going to watch a game that has already been played?
The lack of promotion just hurts their broadcast partners and hurts the measurables that will be used to judge the viability of future seasons.
The Premiere Season Plan
The whole concept of the Premiere Season was to play a limited schedule (as there were only a couple of owners) and show that the league can be viable in the league's preferred markets. The teams would theoretically draw well as the games would be rare curiosities and each cities home schedule would conclude before fans grew jaded or lost interest.
The TV carriers had extremely modest goals, so anything that happened on that regard could be spun to be positive.
The point was to create a strong arguement to entice other rich prospective owners into buying in.
These attendance numbers instead loudly send the message that the league's core concept is not viable and threaten to turn the Premiere Season concept into a wrecking ball hammering away at any shred of perceived viability the league possesses.
Consider the fact that the UFL plays their second and final game in Vegas this week. There is no time for a marketing staff to launch and implement a program to correct the first week's troubles. There is no way that game exceeds 12k in real attendance, and after that the UFL season in Vegas is done.
Vegas will have averaged 10-12,000 in the UFL's first year.
That can be taken as the thoughts of football fans on the UFL applied to the Vegas market. No owner is going to want to play a six-game home schedule in front of a crowd that history suggests will be that size or smaller next season. IMO, the UFL has just burned Vegas as a market.
(It should be noted that the initial plan was for the league to open in San Franscico, but a baseball playoff run by the Giants made the stadium's availability questionable forcing the league to move the opening game to Las Vegas. San Franscisco would have been a much better draw. Still, drawing 12,000 at any of their cities, especially opening week, is just inexcusable.)
It is clear that it is not valid to compare this league to leagues like the XFL or USFL.
Those were pro leagues.
As startup pro leagues, they drew startup pro attendance numbers. The Las Vegas Outlaws of the XFL averaged 22,619 in 2001 when Las Vegas was a much less populous city and Sam Boyd Stadium was considered a bit of a trip. The city suburbs have expanded outwards since then.
The USFL's Orlando Renegades were a relocation of that league's worst franchise, but they still averaged 24,136 to the Citrus Bowl over 20 years ago. Orlando has grown a lot in the last 20 years.
The league has spent a lot of time trying to brand itself as the NFL's new minor league—the new WLAF.
Well, Commissioner Huyghue...Mission accomplished.
The UFL owners are seeing the result of selling their league as a minor league.
A comparison to the CFL's Las Vegas disaster might be reasonable—their average attendance at Sam Boyd was just under 9,000, and they drew 12,213 to their home opener. But even the CFL, with their team's modest attendance numbers, quickly admitted the Posse was a disaster.
The UFL for it's part announced the league was hoping for 15,000 on opening night --- presumably to dampen expectations.
That the UFL could not meet their low expected attendance numbers or even pull half of USFL or XFL numbers in either of those NFL-free cities, in spite of those cities growing dramatically since those previous competitive leagues failed, is a huge red flag to any prospective owner.
It says very bluntly that either the concept underlying the league is a bad one or the people in charge have proven incapable of delivering. Either take on these measurables will smother whatever appeal the UFL may have to new owners.
This league may turn out to have Arena Football League-level support and perhaps Arena Football League-level revenue streams as well. That league folded with each team having fewer than half the players to pay that each UFL team employs.
Is there any hope for the UFL?
Well, there is always hope.
The UFL owners are quite wealthy. Maybe they are rich enough that this is all funny money to them. Maybe they are willing to eat huge losses for quite a while and pay out of pocket to start additional teams in the future if no new owners buy in.
Looking at other assets of the league, a lot of very talented and hightly regarded people work for the UFL. For example, the league's marketing arm has produced a very impressive printable 100+ page guide to the UFL with player, owner, and coach profiles as well as details on the league's development (available at the league's website).
Clearly the League has employed some talented people. (One wonders if those people had much of a role in establishing the league's promotional plan for opening weekend.)
Will we see major improvements in attendance in later games? Certainly San Franscisco will out draw Las Vegas, but you probably won't see a major improvement. San Francisco and New York tend to be very strong football attendance regions and should be strong cities, but the problem is it appears this league's identity has been established with the football viewing public.
The majority of the league's potential fans have deemed this league an afterthought not long for this world.
Could some star power turn this around? Probably not. J.P. Losman is the only guy in the league who shows any star talent, but he needs a ton of work on his mechanics, discipline, and consistency to tap it.
The only star power I see in the league is color commentator Doug Flutie, who as many other have pointed out is a star in the making with good unique insights communicated clearly, but obviously no fan will ever attend a football game for a TV color commentator.
Best hope for the league owners to save this league
I used to handle marketing for an Inc 500 company. Not the same animal, I know, but I know enough to at least look at this thing from the right perspective.
It is a lot easier to market to consumers when they haven't already made up their minds about a product.
Unfortunately, that ship has sailed.
The fans think this is a minor league that probably won't be able to draw the numbers to survive. The public has deemed it not worthy of notice.
The potential UFL fans aren't going to want to throw their entertainment dollars down the money pit on a non-viable, boring, one-and-done minor league.
Now the owners are going to have to spend more than twice as much in marketing to change that view of this league.
The awful numbers in Vegas and Orlando will depress attendance in good attendance markets San Francisco and New York and may totally skunk a bad one like Los Angeles if corrective action is not taken.
Will the owners spend the money now and try to save the league, or would that type of effort be seen as throwing good money after bad (a cardinal sin in the minds of successful business owners)?
(Keep in mind the XFL's TV guys knew after the first half of their initial game that their league had failed. The UFL probably had some numbers in mind --- Did they come anywhere near those numbers?)
A new aggressive plan needs to be implemented immediately to save the Premiere Season and the League's future viability. Will the people the owners have hired make the right choices to make this a possibility? The past policies implimented by those employees do not suggest Michael Huygue and the current leadership will deliver for the owners.
Huygue was hired to build a solid competitive league. His resume suggested that was in his skillset could deliver. Huygue and staff have built what their skillset suggested they would --- a minor league that employs a bunch of credible NFL caliber backups.
Can they convince fans it is worth watching a pair of Jr. Level Kansas City Cheifs each week instead of MLB, the NFL, college football, or even high school football? The UFL needs a P.T. Barnum. Is there anything in the resume of Huygue that suggests he posesses those instincts and skills?
The UFL has problems to work through.
Really after the first few games, heads should be rolling...but that is an article for another day.