XFL: Time to Play
The XFL’s fate won’t be decided on its Feb. 8 opening day or even in 2020, league president Jeffrey Pollack said, but league offices and team operators will be watching fan feedback closely for early signs of success or struggle.
Owner Vince McMahon’s second attempt at breaking the NFL’s monopoly on pro football is among the biggest gambles in sports business history, and industry eyes are on every step. Partly because McMahon is willing to spend $500 million over three years to get the league going, Pollack can afford to ask for patience instead of making big promises.
“This is what we’re trying to accomplish: Start to earn our stripes and build a fan base, that is fundamentally what we need to start doing,” he said. “And that is going to take more than a first game, a first weekend or the first season. It takes time to earn fandom, and we’re prepared to invest that time.”
The XFL is avoiding any public expectations for TV viewership on rights holders Fox and ABC/ESPN, or for live attendance. Industry sources say the broadcasters will be content with a 1.5 million average on broadcast and 800,000 on cable.
TV ratings will have the most direct financial ramifications for the league, but healthy, vibrant environments at home games in each of the eight markets are critical, too. Team leaders have made inroads with local political leadership, and local sports media is covering the teams, Pollack said, which are good early signs.
The XFL expects to average between 10,000 and 12,000 fans per game on its opening weekend of Feb. 8-9, Pollack said. They expect Seattle and St. Louis to clear 20,000 at their home openers on Feb. 15 and 23, respectively.
“Having a live audience is important, but we understand it’s going to take time to build the crowds we want, and that’s OK,” Pollack said. “People need to sample us before they make real commitments to us, and we understand that.” Later, he noted: “The first Super Bowl didn’t come close to selling out, right, and look at it now. That’s the type of perspective we’re keeping in mind.”
The league’s goals in the early days, Pollack said, are to build a fan base; support TV partners; and “begin to welcome our fans to our form of game day” and“learn as we go. Mistakes are OK, mistakes come with doing something new and fresh.”
One of the most important indicators will be feedback from the XFL’s Football Advisory Network, dubbed “F.A.N.,” a group of fans who have volunteered to act as a sounding board on rules, game presentation, the fan experience and broadcasts.
That feedback gets to one of the most important questions the XFL will face in the early days, an “eye test” of sorts — is the product worth a second look? Given McMahon’s wealth, ticket sales and other revenue streams can take time to develop, but consumers will make snap judgments about the product’s viability early on.
The XFL wants to be seen as fast-paced, fun and affordable, and the feedback panel will help the league gauge, in near real time, whether it’s meeting those goals, and to drive changes if it’s not. So far, feedback led the New York Guardians to hold an open practice at West Point rather than two other possible locations, and validated the league’s release of its rules designed to speed up the game.
“For all sports properties, sports marketing fundamentally begins on the field of play, and we’re very focused in designing a game we believe our fans want to see,” Pollack said.
The XFL launches Feb. 8 when Seattle visits D.C. on ABC.