The XFL has returned and speculation about how long this league can last has began. Spring football of any type has struggled to find any footing, since the USFL. Week One of the XFL averaged 3 Million viewers. Interest will always be high in the first week, so Week Two is extremely important for the new XFL. Week Two of the XFL on ABC averaged 2.2 Million viewers, which is a drop off from Week One, but is expected for any new league. As of this writing the ratings for Week Two of the XFL on Fox have not been released.
The biggest question is if the XFL can keep this audience. For example, the NBA on ABC & ESPN averaged 1.99 Million viewers for the entirety of the 2018-19 season. The NBA on TNT averaged 1.5 Million, it’s lowest since the 2007-08 season. This means that if they XFL can keep half of its premiere audience, the ratings would be on par or in some cases exceed ratings from the NBA. When it comes to Major League Baseball, the ratings struggled to hit 2.5 Million in the middle of the season. For example, last season it took until July 30 for ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball to hit 2.4 Million viewers. The game featured the Yankees and Red Sox.
An argument against the XFL would be that half the games are on free tv (Local ABC & FOX Channels), but there is more to it than just that.
The NBA and MLB have long seasons, which creates viewer fatigue during the season. In the NBA, the two best teams in the Western Conference play in Los Angeles and the best team in the Eastern Conference plays in Milwaukee. Unlike the NFL, the NBA is can’t rely on star players to draw viewers in for every game. Every game in football counts, which is what makes the NFL and College Football so popular. The College Football Playoff itself has been predictable as teams like Clemson, Alabama, and Oklahoma are in, just about every year. CFB and ESPN has done a masterful job of creating week to week urgency through the entire season. Even with its predictability the small turnover in the playoff keeps people invested year to year.
The NBA and MLB don’t have the ability to manufacture urgency for their games, until the end of the season, when the games have more meaning. In the NBA’s case, it’s only 2 or 3 teams in each conference who are fighting for the playoffs. It’s rare that the lower seeded teams make any type of run in the playoffs or even win a game in their series. MLB’s playoffs can be more unpredictable, but the season is so long that the public’s interest isn’t there on a national scale, until the playoffs start. Wild Card teams in baseball have a better chance to make an ALCS or NCLS more than a 4 to 8 seed in the NBA’s playoffs. Some of this is because seeding doesn’t matter as much in Major League Baseball’s playoffs.
All of this is to say, don’t count out the XFL. Football has the first and second most popular sports leagues in the United States, which are the NFL and CFB. Maybe it’s the physicality of football, perhaps it’s the urgency of only having one game a week, or some combination of both. Football’s short schedule makes every game feel important, which other sports can’t do with their games.
This version of the XFL is presenting football differently and feels like a fresh product. The XFL will have a lot to overcome, but it has the potential to become the 3rd most watched sport in the country. The XFL will have to overcome the stigma of being a “minor league” and they will have to develop QBs to some extent to stay relevant, but it’s off to a promising start. The XFL may not work long-term, maybe it’s just a one and done league that influences the NFL to make a few rule changes. Maybe just maybe, the XFL will break through, where it’s predecessors couldn’t. Maybe this XFL can succeed where the original XFL couldn’t. If history has taught us anything, we should know to never discount football’s popularity in the United States.