If you watched any of the first weekend of the rebooted XFL (version 1 came and left in 2001) Saturday and Sunday, the level of professional football seems a lot like the failed spring professional football leagues of the past.
The 2020 XFL features eight new teams with unique nicknames and color schemes, a roster of mostly no-name players and retread coaches, and stadiums which were half-filled with very enthusiastic fans.
Last year at this time, we were evaluating the first week of the now-defunct Alliance of American Football (AAF). Like the new incarnation of the XFL, the AAF fielded eight teams.
This week, the XFL’s four home games had an average attendance of about 17,500 fans. The 2019 AAF teams averaged about 15,000 fans per home outing. That is not a significant difference.
Both leagues feature game ticket prices as low as $20 for end zone seats.
This week’s first XFL game attracted 3.3 million television viewers for ABC. Fox and ESPN handed the other three games. Last year’s AAF first week featured a game on CBS which garnered 2.9 million viewers. Again, this is not a significant difference.
Week #2, though, is where we’ll get a better indication if the XFL has the secret sauce that the AAF (and other spring leagues before them) lacked.
It’s all about television at this point.
Week 2 of the AAF saw the league banished primarily to cable television’s CBS Sports Network and the NFL Network. The CBS Sports Network and the NFL Network are not seen in a significant number of American households compared to ESPN and FS1, for example.
Television ratings for the 2019 AAF tumbled beginning in week 2 as the games were banished to those lesser-known cable networks.
This weekend, Week 2 of the new XFL will again have all four of its football games televised on major networks ABC/ESPN and Fox/ FS1.
The XFL is owned by Vince McMahon. Yes, that’s the same Vinnie Mac who runs the WWE wrestling organization.
The WWE’s 2-hour “Smackdown” television program is now seen every Friday night on the Fox television. Like most WWE wrestling programs, the televised events draw a large number of young male viewers.
Young male viewers.
It is the foundation of the WWE’s success and exactly what the XFL is hoping to attract and keep for its ten-game winter/spring football season.
Did you know that the XFL’s TV partner networks will not pay the XFL anything 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.
The television production of the new XFL had a similar look and feel to WWE’s wrestling shows, too. This weekend’s XFL games featured energetic announcers who were covering the action while also selling the new brand’s moniker “For the love of football”.
They have to do that, because the majority of players are unknown to television viewers. The XFL is trying to capitalize on the opportunity for “The Little Guy” to earn their first (or second) chance to play in the NFL.
By most measures, the XFL’s first weekend was a success on the field and on television.
The lack of fans in the stands, though, is another matter. Most venues were smart enough to block off the upper deck and only sell tickets in the lower bowl. Having less than 20,000 fans squeezed into the lower portion of the stadiums helped keep enthusiastic fans close to the field and in view of the television cameras.
A smart move, indeed.
Fortunately for the XFL, Mother Nature generally cooperated in Week #1. With seven of the eight XFL teams playing outdoor games (the St. Louis Battlewings will play in a domed stadium), there’s a good reason why the NFL season has ended by February and basketball and hockey are popular at this time of year.
Playing football games in cloudy, cold and wet weather conditions (rain/sleet and snow) will dampen local enthusiasm in the weeks to come (just like what happened to the AAF). It’s just a matter of time.
Other so-called “big changes” of the XFL on the field were a mixed bag.
I thought the biggest success was the designated ball spotter. After every play, there is one official (wearing a red cap) whose sole job is to get the ball and place it down for the next play. The XFL’s 25 second play clock and the game clock begin immediately at that time (even after incomplete passes). The game keeps moving at a faster pace than the NFL and college football as all of the XFL’s initial slate of games ended in less than 3 hours.
I also liked the kickoff changes (where both teams line-up 5 yards apart from each other on the receiving team’s 30 yard line). The kicker is left alone to boot the ball toward the opposing goal but not into the end zone. Once the receiver touches the ball, the opposing defense is cleared to forge through the blockers try tackle the ball runner. This change is to reduce kickoff injuries, and I think it is a good change.
The XFL’s much heralded extra point options (1, 2, or 3 points) were a big dud, though.
The league doesn’t kick extra points. You receive 1 point for converting from the two yard line, 2 points from the five yard line, and 3 points from the 10-yard line. I watched parts of two games, but I didn’t see any team go for 2 or 3 points.
The bigger question is whether the coveted young male television viewer will continue to return to watch the XFL’s football games over the next two months and continue to deliver a marketable target television audience for the XFL’s television networks to pitch an assortment of products to.
Sustained television viewership and associated ad revenue will be the key to survival of the XFL. The cost of operations with teams averaging less than 20,000 fans per home game is a recipe for disaster (ask the AAF).
The XFL met expectations in Week 1. The long-term viability test, though, begins now.