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USFL vs. NFL – What’s The Difference?

The USFL and NFL are both professional football leagues in the United States. However, there are quite a few differences between the two organizations.

The NFL is a well-known global brand that has been the premier football league for decades. In contrast, the USFL was only established in 2022 and is trying to compete for a piece of the professional football pie.

In this article, we’ll break down the significant differences between the two leagues, so keep reading to find out more.

Major vs. Minor

In sport, there are major and minor leagues. Major leagues are considered the premier league or competition in a given sport in each country.

In the four biggest American sports, the NBA, NHL, MLB, and NFL are the major leagues.

Each sport also has minor or development leagues that can be affiliated with the major league (like the NBA G League) or not. This is the case with the NFL and the USFL.

The USFL is a competitor for the NFL. There is no affiliation or developmental aspect between the two leagues, but the level of competition is stark.

To make it to the NFL, players have to enter the NFL draft, which is one of the most rigorous selection processes in all professional sports.

Playing football at the college level isn’t a requirement, but the overwhelming majority of players drafted to the NFL have played for division 1 college teams.

While many USFL players also competed in division 1 at college, the NFL draft selects the best of the best. The USFL has to make do with the best of the rest.

The NFL is the undisputed biggest American football organization in the world. While the USFL tries to compete, they also have to contend with other leagues like the CFL or XFL.

And in the end, money talks.

Brand Power And Budgets

Every high school football player dreams of playing at college, then getting drafted into the NFL.

There’s no comparison with other leagues; even a mediocre NFL career can set a player and their family up for life.

Elite NFL players are some of the highest-paid athletes in the world, and on average earn around $2.7 million a year.

👉 Top 10 Richest NFL Players Ever

Playing in the NFL brings a huge amount of prestige and potential commercial opportunities off the field too.

Social media followers, sponsorships, and celebrity status grow if you become a prominent player in the NFL. The USFL can’t even come close to this.

To highlight the contrast in brand power and exposure between the two leagues, the NFL has over 26 million followers on Instagram. USFL has just 96,000.

League Organization

The NFL has 32 teams that play 17 times in the regular season. The USFL is much smaller and only has eight teams that each play 10 times in the regular season.

Due to the dominance of the NFL, the USFL season also runs at different times of the year. The NFL season generally starts in September and ends in February.

In contrast, the USFL begins in April and ends in July.

The NFL off-season is long, and by spring, many football fans long to see some gridiron action.

This is what the USFL is trying to capitalize on, rather than scheduling in direct competition with the NFL.

Difference In Rules

To compete with the NFL and attract new viewers, the USFL has tried to create an alternative rule set for football.

Instead of copying the NFL’s blueprint for professional football, the USFL has chosen a hybrid between NFL, college, and other minor league rules.

Here are the significant differences:


Like in college football, the USFL has opted for a ‘shootout’ should games go to overtime. This seems like a great move from the league that hopes to create some viral moments to boost popularity.

If the teams are tied after regulation, they get alternate attempts at a 2-point conversion from the 2-yard line.

Each team gets three tries, and it’s scored as a best-of-three. If it’s still a tie after both teams have had three attempts, it goes to sudden death.

Kickoff And Onside Kicks

Another critical difference in the rule set between the NFL and USFL are kickoffs and onside kicks.

The USFL is taking inspiration from the XFL for kickoffs, and games will start with the kicking team at their 25-yard line, as opposed to the halfway line in the NFL.

This is designed to increase the number of kick returns in a game, something that will excite fans and players.

However, to minimize risk to players, the USFL has also introduced a ruling that the kicking team’s players mustn’t start any further back than the 24-yard line, so they can’t get a run up.

There is also a ‘set-up zone’ for blockers of the receiving team.

This means at least eight blockers from that team must be between the 35 and 45-yard lines, again reducing the chance of high-speed collisions.

Onside kicks may also be a thing of the past in the USFL because it’s not the only option if a team needs the ball back quickly.

Teams can opt to take a fourth and 12 from their 33-yard line (the same place they would kick from), instead of taking an onside kick.

They keep the ball if they succeed and convert on the fourth down. If not, they turn it over.

Pass Interference

Defensive pass interference will be called very differently by USFL refs than NFL ones.

Firstly, if a defender is judged to have intentionally interfered with a receiver beyond 15 yards of the scrimmage line, it is a spot foul, like in the NFL.

However, in the USFL, if defensive pass interference is deemed non-intentional, it will be just a 15-yard penalty, no matter where the infraction occurs.

Also, any defensive interference within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage will be spot fouls. So, if interference takes place 10 yards ahead of the line of scrimmage, it’s a 10-yard penalty, not 15.

Offensive pass interference is also different. In the USFL, OPI calls can only be made on passes that cross the line of scrimmage.

Game Clock

The USFL will have a 35-second play clock, whereas the NFL uses 40 seconds. This is designed to increase the number of plays in a game, as teams won’t be able to hang on to the ball as long.

Also, the USFL will stop the game clock after first downs in the final two minutes of both the first and second half.

Again, this is designed to increase the number of plays in a game, maximizing excitement for fans at the end of the halves.

Two Forward Pass Rule

Like the XFL, the USFL has allowed teams to throw the ball forward twice.

The first pass must be completed behind the line of scrimmage, and both passes have to be thrown from behind the line of scrimmage too.


The USFL will give coaches just one challenge per game, unlike the two that NFL coaches get.

However, the ‘replay crew’ of officials will have the authority to overrule incorrect personal foul calls made on the field.

The replay crew will also judge whether pass interference was intentional.

Lead image: Mike Russell/Wikimedia Commons

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