Already in 2019, professional football fans have already seen the AAF (Association of American Football) come and go. The league’s on-field product was pretty good, but not good enough to stave off an abrupt ending to play prior to the end of its first (and only) regular season.
A bankruptcy filing followed soon thereafter.
What did we learn from the “Crash & Burn” AAF this year?
- There are some die-hard fans that are willing to watch a less-than-NFL quality brand of football once the Super Bowl ends.
- Unfortunately, there may not be enough of those fans willing to pay for tickets (even at $20 apiece) to show up in winter conditions (cold and rain) for a minor-league level quality of play.
- Don’t play football in cities which can’t fill-up at least half of the stadium. Ever. You need television viewers to see that fans of the team are supportive and having a good time.
- Don’t televise football games on networks (CBS Sports Network, NFL Network) which aren’t available on most cable and satellite providers.
- Expect (and prepare) to lose a ton of money in Year 1 and, likely, in every subsequent year of play thereafter.
- Define what your objectives are (a merger with NFL or a peaceful co-existence as the official developmental league for the NFL) in advance and do not lie to your fans about it beginning on Day 1.
- Have all of your league’s funding (in cash and ready to spend) available from Day 1 and expect to lose three times more cash than you initially budgeted.
With all of those harsh lessons learned by the fledgling AAF this spring, it’s time to welcome back the XFL (Version 2.0) beginning the week after the NFL ends play in February, 2020.
Yes, the XFL is returning to try a reboot after its own “One and Done” football season back in 2001.
Yes, the XFL II will be owned and controlled by the same primary owner, Vince McMahon, who runs the professional wrestling company WWE.
Yes, the XFL (apparently) has plenty of cash as Mr. McMahon has cashed-out a lot of his WWE stock (upwards of $500 million). My question is whether he has the stomach to see it all disappear in a heartbeat to bankroll the start-up costs to fund his new venture.
Let’s now examine our “AAF Lessons Learned” questions above as it pertains to the XFL II:
- The original XFL (2001) averaged only 23,500 fans per game for games played during the winter and early spring. The AAF’s average attendance was only about 15,000 per game. Even though the AAF played in a few smaller markets and the XFL II, fans shouldn’t be expected to sit outside in wet and cold conditions. I wouldn’t expect a significantly increase in local attendance with XFL II.
- What should be the average ticket price to charge fans to watch a winter-time minor-league football? I think the XLF II will be hard-pressed to sell tickets for more than an average price of $30-40 per seat.
- That said, will enough fans fill the seats to make the viewers at home believe that the on-field product is worth watching? The XFL II is beginning with eight teams in seven current NFL cities. On the east coast, there are teams in New York City, Washington DC, and Tampa. On the west coast, there will be teams in Seattle and Los Angeles. In the middle, XLF II will begin with teams in Dallas, Houston, and St. Louis (the only market without an NFL team right now). I have a hard time believing that these NFL communities will support an additional season of minor-league football.
- This is the one area where the league benefits from having Vince McMahon as its fearless leader. With a three year deal, XFL II games (Saturday and Sunday afternoons) will be telecast on ESPN/ABC and Fox Sports/FS 1. The odd thing, though, is that the networks will not pay the XFL anything (that’s right – zero) for the broadcast rights as the league will apparently “sell” its own share of commercials in a barter-type broadcast arrangement. From the networks’ perspective, the potential for losses are minimized while the upside is generous.
- How much money will the league lose? Let’s review the XFL of 2001. According to reports, the league lost about $70 million during its first and only season. Vince McMahon lost half of that amount and NBC (the 50/50 partner) lost the other half. After the debacle of the AAF this spring, I suspect that the XFL II should be prepared to lose at least $100-150 million in Year 1.
- What are the goals for the league? The only thing which the XFL II has said is that it does NOT want to become a developmental league for the NFL. Got it. Do they really want to go head-to-head with the NFL at some point? The American Football League (AFL) went head-to-head with the NFL for ten seasons before a merger deal was worked. This is quite unlikely as the NFL won’t plant another franchise in seven of the eight markets. My best guess is that the league (if it survives) will need to be content as “football light” and hope that enough televisions viewers will watch and, in turn, allow the XFL to make recoup losses on the field via television revenues.
- Though it is true that Vince McMahon has sold more than $400 million of his WWE stock, that doesn’t mean he has the willingness to lose all of that money in two or three years. Other than his fantasy of grabbing his share of revenue from the billions of dollars generated by the NFL, he seems to be a prudent businessman. Though the XFL II could syphon off less than 10% of McMahon’s net worth, I cannot see him feeding a loser for more than one season.
The XFL II is going to fight an uphill battle against the ghosts of the AAF and its own XFL-Version 1.
The league will have to prove that it has enough fans willing to show-up in person and plunk down their money to watch the games, enough fans willing to watch every week on television, and ownership willing to lose copious amounts of money for at least three seasons to establish credibility.
If the XFL II starts and completes two full seasons, I, too, will be quite surprised.