Two weeks into the season and discussions are running rampant on how successful (or not) the XFL has been so far in its infancy. Media engagement, TV rating analysis, and comparison to previous spring football leagues is swirling about.
Expansion is an exciting and engaging topic. The back and forth between media and fans about why city A would be better than B is fun conversation and shows the excitement the league is generating. But expansion may be farther away than conversations lead on. While there are plenty of encouraging signs for this league compared to leagues past, the overall approach from the XFL has been focused around pacing itself and getting things right.
The XFL Approach
From the announcement of the reincarnated XFL, January 25, 2018, to the kickoff in game one, February 8, 2020, there was over a two-year lead time.
The short-lived Alliance of American Football, or AAF, was announced more than two months after the XFL and kicked off their league less than 11 months after that. The AAF infamously closed its doors mid-way through its first season and the league in total only lasted for 13 months.
True to their approach, the XFL stuck with their timeline not succumbing to the pressure of a rival league.
During the more than two years the XFL spent establishing the foundation of the league, they strategically navigated the sporting industry to anchor themselves with prominent industry names. A key move by the league, at that point in time mostly by XFL founder Vince McMahon, is the hiring of Oliver Luck. Luck made his mark in the college football scene where he was part of the first playoff selection committee and was an executive vice president for regulatory affairs. With Luck, the XFL have themselves an experienced executive leading and navigating this venture.
One of the biggest praises and early successes for the XFL is the TV deal they signed with ABC/ESPN and Fox. These two widely recognized sport broadcasting names bring football onto cable and popular sports channels. Their background in NFL/NCAA coverage is a welcomed experienced partner.
Viewership through two weeks has benefited from all the above. The XFL is a more established product on two widely recognizable networks.
*numbers in millions of viewers
In the XFL, teams are well distributed geographically in major metropolitan areas. In contrast to the AAF where teams were more condensed and questionably excluded the populated Midwest and East Coast. All but one of the XFL teams, the St. Louis BattleHawks, share a city with a current NFL team. It is no coincidence the eight selected XFL cities already have strong professional football fan bases. This move highlights their strategy to garner support in planning for success.
We’re reaching the point where the XFL and AAF can [finally] stopped being compared. The XFL continues to differentiate itself from other spring leagues. Viewership is bound to fluctuate. Remember those critical of support now, they aren’t helping the league grow but let’s see if they want in on the action when it does.
Expansion in Due Time
A common talking point for an XFL expansion timeline is at the expiration of the current TV deal (estimated around 2021 or 2022). The XFL isn’t making money on the current deal but also isn’t spending any either; this allows them to focus capital resources more towards the product itself. If you’re not already familiar, TV deals are a substantial source of revenue in sports. Until the XFL can start making money across the board, especially on the TV side, expansion is unlikely.
While this argument is certainly a factor, I don’t see it as the end-all-be-all.
More importantly, the quality of football the league can produce will be the quintessential factor in determining the fate of the XFL; whether the league will be a long-term success or another failed attempt at a spring football league. The league seems to have the approach of ensuring a stable foundation before advancing to the next step. Seen with the paced approach from the announcement of the league to first kick, the XFL cares about the quality of the product.
Viewers want to watch good football, good football means more viewers, more viewers mean more TV network interest, more TV interest means more revenue for the league, and more revenue means an opportunity for growth.
Again, the XFL’s preparation indicates the league is interested about the quality of the product.
Through two weeks, players across the league are starting to establish themselves as top talent. Should this talent find success in the NFL, football players around the nation will take note. There is talent out there that could play for the XFL but is currently is not for a variety of reasons. Since the start of the season, three notable CFL players have signed with the XFL. Seeing the opportunity this league could create may entice fringe NFL players and overlooked guys from college to consider joining to league to try and get in on the action.
The pool of potential talent is only moderately tapped. If the XFL can open the flood gates of talent, then this is when the league will truly be poised for expansion. Without a nine team talent surplus, expansion risks putting a lower quality product on the field that would seemingly damage the brand currently being built.
Until then, keep on having fun with speculating potential expansion cities, I know I will.
Note from the writer: There currently is no indication from the XFL about expansion. There are publications from 2018 with potential cities and nothing points to these actively being considered at. As with all news, try to find the source of a claim before believing it as true.
Mike is a freelance writer and loyal sports fan. He is a current contributor to all things St. Louis BattleHawks. Originally from Ohio, he grew up a Cleveland fan and connects with the Midwest. He understands the connection sports team have to their communities and is excited to watch the connection between the XFL and St. Louis.