For the XFL, 18k wasn’t gold

An XFL crowd at MetLife Stadium, courtesy Ajay Suresh's Flickr

Though the XFL 2.0 suspended its season1The right call, as they all were. But imagine being these assholes, who believe TV ratings would have been worth risking lives. after just five weeks2Two weeks longer than Antonio Brown predicted it would last. because of the coronavirus pandemic, there’s actually a lot we can glean from the half-season reboot of Vince McMahon’s alternative league.

First, and perhaps most importantly, it wasn’t a disaster. The original XFL was an overhyped, tawdry pastiche of bad football and smut that deserved all the mockery it got and didn’t so much slide into oblivion as fall off a cliff into the junkyard of failed leagues. But this reincarnation stayed away from the carnival barker/Vegas strip club hypeman ethos of the original, focused largely on the game on the field, hired actual football people with gravitas and – and this can’t be overstated – downplayed McMahon’s involvement. The result was a league that proved it could stage games that people would attend, watch on television and talk about. (I don’t subscribe to the idea that there were five things3It’s always five things with these clickbait people. the league needed to or could do rightthissecond that would have righted the ship. Their situation wasn’t nearly that dire.)

But the signs were obvious that it wasn’t taking off and that it would only last as long as McMahon’s ego and checkbook would permit it. While attendance was promising in a couple of markets, it was an overall “meh” and could not have come close to paying the bills. Below are the crowd figures for the eight XFL 2.0 teams, which you can compare to the final numbers for the 2001 edition, but, again, this is just barely enough data to draw some conclusions from:

St. Louis BattleHawks257,08128,54128,54129,55427,527
Seattle Dragons251,23225,61625,61629,17222,060
Houston Roughnecks354,69118,23017,81519,77317,103
Dallas Renegades351,30817,10317,02618,33215,950
DC Defenders348,53616,17916,34217,16315,031
Tampa Bay Vipers230,36615,18315,18318,11712,249
New York Guardians229,75014,87514,87517,63412,116
Los Angeles Wildcats339,37113,12412,21114,97912,181
XFL TOTAL20362,33518,11717,13329,55412,116

Obviously, New York (pictured at top) and Los Angeles were trouble spots, which is kind of a red flag from the get-go. Leagues always seem to make noise about having a presence in the two largest markets, but people there largely ignored the XFL. St. Louis, the only XFL market without an NFL team currently, led the league in attendance, but spite doesn’t feel like a sustainable business model. Overall, 18 thousand fans per game was not going to be enough for this league to make it, especially with no TV revenue coming in.

The decline in ratings of XFL 2.0 in 2020And television was another issue. As you might expect (and as was the case for last year’s Alliance of American Football) ratings were strong initially but then slid to the point where the fifth week of games drew audiences less than half the size of week one on all the networks carrying games. (See chart at right.)

Still, a million and a half viewers isn’t nothing, and had they been able to stanch the bleeding and maintain that audience, that would be one thing. While we’ll never know now, I think it’s more likely the downward trend would have continued, and once March Madness took hold, the XFL would have been hard-pressed to grab eyeballs. And given the long-term future of an alternative football league lies in its ability to generate media revenue, it’s hard to see how networks would have ponied up enough cash to close the gap between revenue and expense, which had to be substantial. (Do the math here: if their final projected attendance, assuming every team kept its initial average, was 750,000 in total, and they were able to get $25 a ticket – a bit of a stretch, maybe – that’s a little under $19 million in gate revenue, or $2.3 million per team4The XFL is a single entity, so revenue differences between clubs is mitigated a bit.. Even at an average wage of $55,000 per player, those costs alone are around $22 million. And that’s before you buy one set of shoulder pads, pay one coach, buy one airline ticket or rent one stadium. The startup costs for any enterprise are substantial, and football is the most expensive sport to pull off, given the size of rosters and support staffs, equipment, travel, technology and advertising.)

Yes, McMahon has a lot of money to devote to this effort, as much as half a billion, reportedly, so losing even $20 million the first year wouldn’t seriously dent that nest egg. But you don’t get to have $500 million to spend on a vanity project by being dumb, and if there’s no clear way forward, there’s no clear way forward. No one throws money at an unsustainable investment forever.

And this version of the XFL – even though it avoided the mistakes of the original – was unsustainable. The football was spotty, the vaunted all-access, though raw and interesting at times, grew tedious, and the most memorable play of the season was the beer snake in DC. Those aren’t promising signs.

The XFL insists it will be back in 2021 “and future years,” and it wouldn’t be surprising at all if, barring completely unforeseen circumstances, we see the league back (with some tweaks) next year.

But it’s obvious by this point that the market for spring professional football is not nearly as large as we’re always led to believe. There’s a market for this. It’s simply not a big enough market to make it sustainable. The pandemic kept it from being painfully obvious, but it’s obvious nonetheless.

Kenn Tomasch

Kenn Tomasch