CBS Sports Network Inks UFL Deal

TV rights assure football league will live to play another day

Seemingly on its last legs a year ago, the upstart United Football League has secured a much-needed national TV deal with CBS Sports Network.

Beginning Sept. 19, the cable network will air two UFL games per week (Wednesday and Friday nights) for the duration of the league’s eight-week season.

The UFL last year lost its national broadcast platforms, as NBCUniversal’s Versus (now the NBC Sport Network) and Mark Cuban’s HD Net (now AXS TV) stopped carrying the games before the season began. A handful of games were offered in local markets via Comcast SportsNet.

Versus and HDNet had offered live coverage of UFL games during the league’s first two seasons (2009 and 2010). The UFL’s ratings were modest at best—according to Nielsen, the first game (California Redwoods-Las Vegas Locomotives) drew merely 205,000 viewers on Versus.

The ratings picture didn’t get any prettier in 2010. Over the course of eight Thursday night UFL games, Versus averaged just 78,000 viewers.

The loss of the UFL’s national TV partners was complicated by a financial crisis. In January 2011, Cuban sued league co-founder Bill Hambrecht for nonpayment of a $5 million startup loan, and later that summer, it was announced that the Hartford Colonials franchise would be shuttered, reducing the number of active clubs to four.

The final two weeks of a planned seven-week regular season schedule were canceled and the championship game was moved up to Oct. 21.

While no one is expecting NFL-size ratings for the UFL, the deal gives CBS Sports Network more live sports content to go along with its coverage of Major League Lacrosse and Professional Bull Riding. At any rate, the network does not offer ratings guarantees to its advertisers, as its deliveries are not officially measured by Nielsen.

When the UFL returns for its fourth season, it is expected to suit up the four teams that closed out the 2011 campaign (Las Vegas; Omaha, Neb.; Sacramento, Calif.; and Virginia) plus an as-yet-unidentified expansion team. Jackson, Miss., and San Antonio are among the markets being considered for a fifth squad.

CBS Sports Network serves 46.3 million subscribers, or roughly 30 million fewer than NBC Sports Network. The fully distributed ESPN passes 99.1 million households.