The USFL Poses a Problem for MLR

Today, the United State Football League debuts (or returns, depending on who you ask). That could prove less than ideal for Major League Rugby.

The latest attempt at spring gridiron football will be broadcast by the networks/platforms of both NBC and FOX. FOX is the linear broadcast partner of Major League Rugby. That creates an inherent conflict. FOX not only broadcasts the USFL, it owns the USFL.

FOX prioritizing its own product shouldn’t surprise anyone. While many games will air on the main FOX channel, others will air on FS1. Those games will be beating competing with MLR games for coverage. Expect to see the rest of the regular season of Major League Rugby on FS2.

There’s not a ton of evidence to indicate that the USFL will be around for the long term. The original version of the league ran for three years before an ill-advised decision to shift to a fall schedule and compete with the NFL led to a quick collapse. The AAF tried to get rolling in 2019 before suddenly collapsing midway through the season due to having no money in the bank.The XFL showed some promise, but viewership and attendance were declining before the pandemic prompted a cancellation. That league was purchased out of bankruptcy by a group headlined by Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. The XFL plans to try again in 2023.

The point is spring football doesn’t sell. However, the USFL faces a different economic reality. FOX has invested millions in this asset. For FOX, that money is spent whether the league succeeds or fails. Even if viewership is miserable, (and this is a league designed for broadcasting,) FOX is unlikely to pull the plug mid-year. If they did, they’d have to both eat the costs and drop new money into new content.

How all this impacts Major League Rugby is yet to be seen. Bringing another physical sport into the calendar that shoves rugby down the FOX pecking order may or may not damage the MLR, but it won’t help it.

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