Friday, May 1, 2020

So long XFL, we hardly knew you...

So long XFL, we hardly knew you...

And perhaps you hardly knew yourself.

Because if you did, you would know that before the Coronavirus-induced suspension of play, the laying-off of all employees, and the Chapter 11 bankruptcy, there were some positive signs of life. And, yes, the viewership was consistently decreasing week-over-week (a pattern not unique to the XFL, mind you), but the league was at or near its floor in viewership - the solid base of fans it could count on. And the magnitude of this fan base would put it in some very good company - namely the other major, non-NFL, sports leagues.

There was never really high expectations for this year's Xtreme Football League (XFL) given that it was the second incarnation, the original of which had folded after just one season back in 2001. That original XFL was also hardly the first American football league with the lofty goal of becoming a legitimate rival to the mighty National Football League (NFL). Yet, insofar as these attempts to develop a viable competitor, none have found success.*

Yet despite the poor track record of all the previous endeavors, the 2020 version of the XFL saw an opportunity to not just bring the more of the same American football, but to deliver on a unique brand of football: kick-offs were modified, PAT kicks were eliminated, and it seemed that nearly everyone in the stadium would be mic'd up.

Thus, on 8 February 2020, the XFL was (re)born. This eight-team league kicked off a ten-week schedule just seven days after the NFL Super Bowl. Each member team was slated to be in action each week and all games broadcast nationally on ABC, ESPN, FOX, or a counterpart thereof. The  first games were generally well-received by the 3.3M fans that tuned in and the style of play in was described as "quirky" but "a lot to like." While these television audience sizes were less than half of what the 2001 predecessor attained during its debut, this year's viewership was certainly enough to label the XFL 2.0 a viable product - if it could only keep it up.

Below I plot the number of viewers for each XFL game and add a simple logarithmic trend line before a Coronavirus-induced hiatus was announced. By week three, we can see why, after a tepid, yet acceptable start, people predicted this league was doomed: the average viewership had dropped by 50% compared to its debut. However, it should be noted that this pattern has been seen time and time again, such as NFL's Thursday Night Football: the large hype for the first event of the season does not last long.

Alas, the XFL viewership declined in a somewhat predictable way, but this decline began to settle around week four. If we think that the XFL had in fact bottomed out, the average viewership for the remainder of the season would have been around 1.25M. When comparing this estimated average viewership to other major sports leagues, this is a very reasonable level (below I use the most recent full season of other leagues to compare against):

Perhaps the XFL hoped to have garnered interest enough to rival that of the NFL, but with a 2019 average of 15M viewers per game, the NFL remains way out of the XFL's league - pun intended. The XFL also fell just short of keeping pace with NCAA college football which averaged 1.7M viewers on ESPN in 2019.

However, if we move the goalposts just a bit, two places where the XFL stood out from crowd was against the 243K viewers of ArenaBowl XXXII (the Arena Football League's version of the Super Bowl) and the 200K viewers of the 107th Grey Cup (the slightly more polite version from the Canadian Football League - a game played on a oft-snowy field in November in Canada where Shania Twain once rode a dog sled with a Mountie for the half-time show).

The point is that XFL wasn't really a strong competitor of the NFL. But as a league of second-tier talent and an informal moniker of 'minor-league' football, the XFL had outstanding success. Perhaps they fell victim to their own hubris and lofty expectations, or perhaps other, unknown issues befell the league but sadly, XFL, you were gone too soon.

RIP XFL - you will be missed ... ?

* The exception being the American Football League whose outstanding strategy of having teams based in then-untapped markets led to a merger with the NFL.

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