Midway through the original XFL’s first (and only) 10-game regular season in 2001, TV ratings were plunging toward rock bottom and the league had already become something of a laughingstock.
Nineteen years later the rebooted, reimagined circuit is in much better shape – at least through five games.
Certainly it’s far too early to dub XFL 2020 “The Little Spring League That Could” because it hasn’t yet. TV ratings have steadily declined since Week One and attendance numbers are also falling.
The sky isn’t, though.
Unless you’re an insider you can’t really know the health of a fledgling sports league, of course, but by all indications the XFL will be one that finishes the season and has good reason to return again in 2021. Unlike last year’s short-lived Alliance of American Football, no late-to-the-party sugar daddy is needed to make sure the checks don’t bounce.
Vince McMahon has sunk his own millions into the single entity league, meaning everyone from players and coaches to support staff are getting paid regularly. It’s always refreshing when you get this far into a new venture and haven’t heard stories of missed payrolls.
But money issues aren’t on the minds of casual fans – football is. And the only question that matters to us is whether or not it’s worth watching.
To me, it is.
Through 20 games there have been a mixed bag of performances, but there is no doubt each of the eight clubs has plenty of good football players.
But wait, you say … it’s still minor league, right?
Well, yeah, compared to the NFL it is. But “minor league” has a negative connotation that isn’t always deserved. The XFL is a step down from the top level, but it’s not a letdown.
I’ve seen thread-the-needle passes, acrobatic catches, and hits that would rattle the cage of any player at any level.
And I think the highest compliment I can pay the league is that once I start watching a game, I stop comparing it to what I see in the fall.
The XFL Houston Roughnecks couldn’t hang with the NFL Houston Texans, but they don’t have to for me to enjoy the brand of football that they play. For example Sunday’s clash between the Los Angeles Wildcats and Tampa Bay Vipers – a 41-34 L.A. victory – was as entertaining a football game as you’ll find.
That being said, the XFL has plenty of competition for my affections.
This coming Saturday the undefeated Roughnecks – led by the league’s most effective quarterback, P.J. Walker – play the New York Guardians at 2 p.m.
The Guardians are the club I picked as the XFL team I’d follow before the start of the season and are now led by Luis Perez, who QBed my hometown Birmingham Iron last year in the ill-fated AAF.
But that game is going head to head with the Premier League, Bundesliga and several roundball conference tournaments, and there’s a really good chance I’ll choose to watch soccer or basketball instead.
For me, football will also lose out to the NHL and NBA in most cases this time of year. I like the XFL, but I don’t build my weekends around it.
Thus the conundrum of offseason football.
In order to survive, league officials (especially McMahon) will have to be patient. If the XFL ever turns a profit, it’ll be only after millions of dollars have been spent to keep it afloat.
The largest attendance weekend was Week Three when 81,942 fans (an average of 20,485 per game) bought tickets, while last week was a season low of 64,246 (16,061).
Teams like the St. Louis BattleHawks and Seattle Dragons are hits at the box office, but major market fans in New York and L.A. have been far less enthusiastic. Once this season is done, XFL decision makers will have a better idea of where the league does best geographically.
As for TV ratings, XFL games are still competitive when slotted against the NBA and golf. That’s encouraging, even though the upcoming NCAA Basketball Tournament will surely test couch potato support.
To become a stable league and thrive the XFL has to earn its place in the late winter/early spring sports lineup. The novelty has already worn off, so the trick is to figure out how to make sure interest in year-round football does not. That’s a job for better marketing minds than mine.
However – barring a monumental collapse in viewership – I think the XFL deserves a chance to grow. The football is entertaining and packaged by what looks to a well-run business.
Hopefully it’ll get the time necessary to show whether or not it can be a profitable one.
UPDATE: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the league released the following statement on Wednesday afternoon:
Based on the proclamation issued Wednesday by Washington Governor Jay Inslee, the Seattle Dragons will host the LA Wildcats this Sunday, as scheduled. The game will take place at 4 p.m. PT at CenturyLink Field without fans in the venue. The game will be broadcast live, also as scheduled, on ESPN2. – Jeffrey Pollack, XFL President & COO