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The USFL accomplished what the last two attempts at spring football failed to do — make it through its first season.

As the league prepares for Sunday night’s championship game between the Birmingham Stallions and Philadelphia Stars at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, where it goes from here is the bigger question.

Fox Sports president Eric Shanks announced earlier this week that the USFL will return next season. Ratings have been steady, with games averaging 1.034 million viewers on Fox and NBC. The overall average is lower (715,000) when games on USA Network and FS1 are included.

While those ratings are slightly above the 2019 Alliance of American Football, which ceased operations after eight weeks, they are behind the 2020 XFL viewership average of 1.9 million. The XFL ceased operations midway through its season, mostly due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think we’ve said pretty consistently that the number one goal for this season was to establish that we could do viewership at the same level as other sports that have been part of the spring calendar for a long time (Formula 1, Major League Soccer, English Premier League). I think we’ve more than held our own,” Fox Sports executive vice president Michael Mulvihill said.

The league took a huge step toward ensuring financial stability by playing all of its regular-season games in Birmingham, Alabama. League officials announced 17,500 fans took in the first game on April 16 between the Stallions and New Jersey Generals but did not release figures for the other 39 games, which appeared to be played in a mostly-empty stadium.

The plans for next year include the same eight teams, but they will play games in at least two cities or as many as four.

The league was able to adjust to concerns throughout the season. The sensor inside the football for tracking was altered after feedback from quarterbacks and kickers about it how it was affecting them. The league also expanded rosters due to injury concerns late in the year.

“This league was put together by people that understand what an alternative football league is about,” Philadelphia coach Bart Andrus said. “People may have experienced the other part of it, losing the league or not having one make it. But they understand what it takes. I think that’s been the difference.”

Besides Shanks, the USFL includes former Dallas Cowboys standout and Fox NFL commentator Daryl Johnston as executive vice president of football operations, along with Brian Woods, the founder of The Spring League, as president of football operations and Mike Pereira as the head of officiating.

“We will always consider ourselves as a standalone professional football league that hopefully continues to build that relationship with the NFL,” Johnston said. “There are some things that we’re talking about internally that hopefully will come to fruition. We want to create that synergy with them, where it’s a relationship that benefits both sides.”

USFL games averaged 2 hours, 58 minutes, which is 14 minutes faster than an NFL game. While league officials were happy with the game pace, they would like to see more plays and more attempts at 2- and 3-point conversions.

The USFL averaged 158 plays per game — 20 fewer than the NFL. Even though teams could attempt a 3-point conversion from the 10-yard line after touchdowns, it only happened five times during the regular season with one successful conversion.

The USFL has a working relationship with the NFL but doesn’t want to be seen as its developmental league. But it is also not a challenge to the NFL, which puts it in a strange middle ground.

The 2023 season is expected to start in mid April so that the USFL doesn’t have to compete against the NCAA basketball tournament and the Masters. The XFL plans a return next season with an expected start of February 18, the week after the Super Bowl.

But the primary focus for the weekend will be on Sunday. The Stars (6-4 regular season) upset the 9-1 Generals 19-14 in last weekend’s semifinals. The Stallions (9-1) advanced with a 31-17 victory over the New Orleans Breakers (6-4).

Philadelphia is led by receiver/returner Maurice Alexander, who led the league in kick returns. Meanwhile, Birmingham linebacker DeMarquis Gates had 10 tackles for loss and 5 1/2 sacks. The Stallions won the first meeting 30-17 on May 15.

Johnston also wants to make sure that everyone takes a moment to celebrate getting to the end of the season once the trophy is raised.

“I’ve talked to everybody about this,” he said. “Let’s make sure we take the time to celebrate what we’ve accomplished and pat each other on the back because it’s been a lot of hard work by a lot of really, really good people that’s gotten us to this point.”

___

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Orioles pitching prospect DL Hall to make major league debut Saturday vs. Rays

Left-hander DL Hall will make his major league debut Saturday afternoon against the Tampa Bay Rays, Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said, adding an electric arm to the club’s pitching staff for the season’s final stretch.

With a 10-3 win over the Tampa Bay Rays on Friday night, the Orioles (59-53) hold a half-game lead over Tampa Bay for the third and final American League wild-card spot. Hall, the Orioles’ No. 4 prospect and the sport’s No. 59 overall prospect according to Baseball America, will face Baltimore-born left-hander Shane McClanahan, who started the All-Star Game for the AL this season and is a leading Cy Young Award candidate with a 2.24 ERA.

Orioles veteran right-hander Jordan Lyles will start the series finale Sunday afternoon.

“I’m just excited to see the look on his face when he’s experiencing everything for the first time,” rookie catcher Adley Rutschman said of Hall’s debut. “Our group chat has been going off with him, so it’s been fun.”

Hall, 23, was Baltimore’s first-round pick, No. 21 overall, in the 2017 Major League Baseball draft out of Valdosta High School in Georgia. He has since established himself as one of the game’s top pitching prospects, with his dynamic stuff — including a fastball that touches 100 mph — helping to overcome spotty command. He’s experienced an up-and-down season spent mostly at Triple-A, with a 4.76 ERA at that level but 114 strikeouts in 70 innings.

Hall was off to an impressive start to the 2021 season at Double-A Bowie before he suffered a stress fracture in his pitching elbow, which ended his season after seven starts. Baltimore has been cautious in building up its No. 4 prospect this season, but he’s worked deeper into games of late.

On Aug. 2, he reached the 100-pitch mark for the first time as a professional, but it came as he walked five and allowed three home runs in four innings in a second straight rough start. He bounced back Sunday by pitching into the sixth inning on 99 pitches, striking out eight while allowing two runs.

“We saw DL for a brief time in spring training,” Hyde said. “He obviously has a very special arm and we’re excited for our future. Like I said, we’ll see how tonight goes and we’ll go from there.”

The young left-hander would be the latest top prospect to join the Orioles this season, following right-hander Kyle Bradish, catcher Adley Rutschman and infielder Terrin Vavra. Since being called up May 31, Rutschman has built a strong case to be considered AL Rookie of the Year. Baseball’s former top prospect entered Friday batting .250 with a .791 OPS in 64 games while leading a resurgent pitching staff, helping the Orioles go from eight games below .500 at the time of his call-up to the thick of the wild-card race.

Hall, meanwhile, could be the first of the next wave of top prospects to arrive in Baltimore in the fourth year of the club’s rebuild under executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias. Triple-A Norfolk shortstop Gunnar Henderson was recently named the sport’s top prospect by Baseball America, while Norfolk right-hander Grayson Rodriguez threw off a mound Wednesday for the first time since he landed on the injured list with a Grade 2 lat muscle strain. Rodriguez is the game’s top pitching prospect at No. 4 overall.

Last month, Elias acknowledged that Henderson, Hall and infield prospects Vavra and Jordan Westburg were pushing to join the big league club sooner than later.

“Anybody who’s playing as well or as talented as the four of those guys are, it could happen at any moment,” Elias said.

MASNsports.com was the first to report Hall is joining the team in Florida.

This story may be updated.

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