UFL 2024: Year 2 evolution to include more innovation, player development


by Eric Williams | FOXSports.com

UFL 2024: Year 2 evolution to include more innovation, player development

Champions of the UFL’s inaugural season, the Birmingham Stallions will get an opportunity to defend their title.

Daryl Johnston, head of the league's football operations, confirmed there will be a second season of the spring football league that has taken on a life of its own. While there was talk of expansion, Year 2 will feature all eight teams returning to their home markets as the league works to refine things during the offseason and build a better product in 2025.

"We are going to be able to dial into the details," Johnston told FOX Sports. "We’re going to have a traditional offseason calendar where we can be ahead of the curve instead of being in a position where we have to chase it a little bit.

"I think that’s something that everyone’s excited about."

Innovation and player development will continue to be mainstays as the league works to improve the on-field product, according to Johnston, along with growth in the home markets as the UFL moves forward with a second season.

Here’s a closer look at some takeaways from the inaugural UFL season.

Improved QB play leads to better on-field product

From UFL MVP Adrian Martinez to veteran stalwarts like AJ McCarron and Luis Perez, more polished quarterback performance from the XFL and USFL merger — going from 16 to eight teams — has led to a better product on the field. That included Michigan using four QBs and San Antonio using three during the regular season en route to the playoffs.

Perez led the league in passing (2,307 yards), while Martinez led the league in rushing (528 yards). Among starters, San Antonio's Chase Garbers led the league in completion percentage, connecting 68.6% of the time.

Scoring was also up slightly. Games averaged 43.7 combined points during the regular season, which was more than both the legacy USFL (42.3 combined points) and XFL (42.9 combined points) last year.

Along with more competent quarterback play, Johnston also pointed to improved and more competitive offensive lines leading to more cohesive offensive performances. "We’re starting to get guys like a Matt Corral or an Adrian Martinez, an A.J. McCarron, a Wayne Gallman or a Hakeem Butler," Johnston said. "There [are] names that people are familiar with that are coming into our league, so I think that’s the biggest thing. We’ve created some trust and belief that this is a viable option. We are sustainable. We’re going to help you put together 10 weeks of film … to get back to the NFL."

TV ratings are up

Heading into Sunday’s title game, the 39 UFL telecasts averaged 832,000 viewers across FOX, FSI, ABC, ESPN and ESPN2, which was up 34% from last year’s average for all USFL and XFL games through the playoffs (619,000). The USFL averaged 715,000 viewers when it returned in 2022.

Johnston said with more time to plan the upcoming season, the league should do a better job of finding the best windows to show games based on what’s happening in both the home markets and in other sports nationally.

"This was a better platform for distribution, but I still think next year we’ll be better with our windows," Johnston said. "Because of the late timing of the merger coming together, they probably weren’t ideal windows. … There were better options for us. We seem to run into a lot of things that were already going on in some of our markets. Whether that’s St. Louis with the Blues or the Cardinals playing or in Memphis, where we have some events that are around the stadium. …

"There were a number of occasions where there were things going on in our markets and that was the best window we could have, and we were going head-to-head with not necessarily another sport, but an actual established event in that community that people were much more familiar with than a spring football game."

Kickers made their mark

Jake Bates was the face of this year’s impressive year for kickers in the UFL, making three field goals from beyond 60 yards. The Panthers star has reportedly signed a two-year deal with the Detroit Lions to compete for the starting job.

Former Stallions kicker Ramiz Ahmed signed with the Washington Commanders to compete for that team’s starting kicker job, and there could be others from the UFL joining those two, including Andre Szmyt of the St. Louis Battlehawks, JJ Molson of the Houston Roughnecks, Matt McCrane of the DC Defenders and Matt Coghlin of the Memphis Showboats.

UFL kickers made 83% of their field goals this season and finished 63.4% from 50-plus yards, making five kicks from beyond 60 yards. Last season, NFL kickers made 69.5% of their field goals from 50-plus yards during the regular season and 86% of their total field-goal attempts.

Can anyone take down the Stallions?

The Stallions have proven their dominance by taking home a third straight championship, this time keeping the Brahmas off the scoreboard entirely in Sunday's 25-0 rout.

Head coach Skip Holtz and Stallions general manager Zach Potter have shown they’ve got this spring league thing down, so what’s next on the dynamic duo’s agenda — defending the team’s UFL crown in 2025 or pursuing greener pastures?

Holtz worked as a coaching consultant for Northwestern last year, while Potter cut his teeth in college at Iowa Western Community College and Nebraska before joining Birmingham three years ago. With the college football landscape changing because of name, image and likeness (NIL) and the transfer portal, perhaps a forward-thinking D-I school could tap into Holtz and Potter’s ability to find prospects and develop them into a sustainable winning program?

"It is hard to continue to win," Holtz said after Sunday's championship game. "You put a target on your chest, and everyone is shooting for you. Everybody is circling that game, and you are going to get everybody’s best effort.

"But as I’ve told the team, the only thing better than playing against the Stallions is having the opportunity to play for them. The pride that they take is knowing that everybody is going to take their best shot at us."

Improving in Year 2

Johnston said a focus of this offseason will be growing the fan base in the UFL team’s home markets.

While the Battlehawks averaged over 34,000 fans a contest, the league averaged just 13,512 fans a game this season, which fell below the 14,703 fans the XFL averaged per game last season.

"With our home markets, we’ve got to build that trust there — that we’re not going to leave or [that] the league isn’t going to fold," Johnston said. "We’ve got a couple cities that historically have been a part of spring football, they’ve committed to a team and that team has left. … We’ve still got some trust to build in our home markets. …

"I think we were selling tickets for the home opener in Houston seven days out and in Michigan seven days out. Last year was getting the merger completed, getting everything in place and then putting the season together. This year, we’ve already been planning for season two of the UFL nine months out."

The league will also continue to build on the innovations that might receive some momentum in the NFL, including the league adopting the former XFL’s kickoff rule, along with UFL’s TrU Line ball-spotting technology, expanding coach-to-player communication, sideline tablet video availability and the transparency of the spring league’s official replay system.

"One of the great things is not just what we allow them to do from a standpoint of making sure we get the play correct, but what I like is the ability for the viewer to hear the process they go through," Johnson said when asked about rules analysts Mike Pereira and Dean Blandino’s on-field interactions with officials. "To pull that curtain back a little bit and hear how Mike or Dean talk through it, I think that really helps fans understand the why of some of the calls that are being made."

Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him at @eric_d_williams.


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