Was the XFL a ratings success? Well…it’s complicated

A complicated analysis of the XFL's 2023 television viewership numbers.
A complicated analysis of the XFL’s 2023 television viewership numbers.

I hate writing about television viewership.

In an ideal world, ratings wouldn’t matter: A product would be judged on its quality rather than the number of eyeballs it attracts. Alas, that’s not the world in which we inhabit.

Plus, I get enough of this type of content in my other job, covering professional wrestling for the Pro Wrestling Torch. Much of the weekly discourse is about the ratings WWE Raw, or WWE Smackdown, or AEW Dynamite drew, how much they were up or down week-to-week or year-over-year, what that means for booking decisions, etc., etc. Everything we see on television is analyzed through the lens of what will draw the best ratings.

Look, I understand that these numbers are important: Viewership determines, in part, the ad rates the network can charge for commercials, as well as the carriage fees they can squeeze out of cable companies. Ratings also dictate how much, if at all, a network is willing to spend on the rights to air the product. For most pro sports leagues – and in pro wrestling – this is where they make the bulk of their money. For a league like the XFL, it could play a major role in whether or not it survies over the long term.

The problem with analyzing the numbers the XFL drew in 2023, or any ratings number for that matter, is that in many ways, what you see is in the eye of the beholder. There are so many variables and so much context that needs to be added to each viewership number that anyone can look at any piece of data in this sphere and deem it “good” or “bad” using their own reasoning – and they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. In other words…it’s complicated.

And this is to say nothing of the media, social and legitimate, who try to spin the numbers to fit their narrative. Like comparing XFL’s 2023 ratings to 2020 without pointing out the drop-off in homes that get cable during that period (over 11 million by some estimates). Or comparing head-to-head viewership of the XFL to other football leagues as if it is apples-to-apples when one has a significant presence on network TV and the other’s games are mostly on cable. It’s hard to tell if these arguments are being done by people in bad faith or are just printed out of laziness.

Because ratings and viewership numbers are complicated, how then to best analyze them? For this article, I’ll compare the numbers throughout the year for games airing on the same network. It doesn’t seem fair to me to compare what games on FX drew versus what games on ESPN drew versus what games on ABC drew. They’re all at different levels of availability and visibility, so the most useful way, to me, is to compare them to themselves. All data below courtesy of Showbuzz Daily.


Sat 2/18 – WK 1 8:30pm ORL @ HOU 390k N/A N/A
Thur 2/23 – WK 2 9pm STL @ SEA 524k N/A N/A
Sat 2/25 – WK 2 7pm DC @ VEG 601k N/A N/A
Sat 3/4 – WK 3 7pm SEA @ VEG 528k 162k .29
Sun 3/5 – WK 3 1pm STL @ DC 665k 222k .36
Sun 3/5 – WK 3 4pm ORL @ ARL 550k 173k .33
Sat 3/11 – WK 4 7pm HOU @ ORL 405k 95k .22
Sat 3/11 – WK 4 10pm SA @ SEA 343k 141k .21
Sat 3/18 – WK 5 7pm DC @ STL 320k 94k .19
Sat 3/18 – WK 5 10pm ORL @ VEG 234k 72k .15
Sat 3/25 – WK 6 7pm STL @ VEG 371k 148k .20
Fri 3/31 – WK 7 7pm SEA @ ARL 177k N/A N/A
AVG 425.7k

A couple of things worth noting here: First, the week one game was a simulcast of the ESPN Saturday night game, and he was still only slightly under FX’s average for the season. Second, of the 12 games that aired on FX, seven day/timeslot combinations were used. That makes it very difficult for the more casual fan to know when to tune in, especially when FX itself is not known as a destination for live sports. For reference, in 2022, FX averaged somewhere between 415,000 viewers and 462,000 viewers in prime time, depending on the source. That puts the XFL around the station average, perhaps slightly better when taking into account the loss of cable homes year-over-year.

It could be a small sample size, but the St. Louis Battlehawks attracted the highest FX audience of the season, and in the final three weeks, were involved in the two most-viewed games. The other takeaway is the experiment, or perhaps more accurately the scheduling necessity, of weekday games did not pay off. The XFL had two Thursday games, a Friday game, and a Monday night game across FX, ESPN, and ESPN2. Only one of those, the first Thursday night contest on FX, you can say drew a decent rating.


Sun 2/26 – WK 2 7pm ARL @ HOU 678k 229k .40
Sun 3/12 – WK 4 4pm ARL @ STL 572k 207k .32
Sun 3/12 – WK 4 7pm VEG @ DC 691k 236k .40
Sun 3/19 – WK 5 9pm ARL @ SA 246k 79k .16
Mon 3/27 – WK 6 7pm HOU @ DC 371k 137k .22
Sat 4/1 – WK 7 3pm SA @ VEG 356k 82k .22
Sun 4/9 – WK 8 7pm DC @ SEA 487k 179k .28
Sat 4/15 – WK 9 7pm ORL @ SA 235k 79k .12
Sun 4/23 – WK 10 7pm VEG @ SEA 378k 114k .22
AVG 446k 149.1k .26

Like FX, there was no consistency to the scheduling on ESPN2 – six of the nine games were on unique days/timeslots. You’ll notice the viewership craters in week five, which was the beginning of March Madness. That tournament ate into the numbers in a big way, though not unexpectedly. However, the viewership never really recovered to the same levels after that. In 2022, ESPN2’s primetime average, according to Variety, was 335,000 and 110,000 in 18-49. As you can see from the table above, the XFL blew by those numbers pretty handily (removing the two non-primetime games from the average doesn’t alter it much). Part of the context that is often swept aside in the “XFL drew ‘X’ viewers on average” discussion is what the station average is or has been. So while 446,000 doesn’t sound impressive, it is when you compare it to the alternatives.


Sat 2/18 – WK 1 8:30pm ORL @ HOU 751k 301k .42
Sun 2/19 – WK 1 8pm SEA @ DC 918k 384k .49
Sun 2/26 – WK 2  4pm SA @ ORL 781k 259k .44
Sun 3/5 – WK 3 8pm SA @ HOU 543k 212k .32
Thur 3/16 – WK 5 10:30pm HOU @ SEA 256k 116k .17
Sat 4/1 – WK 7 6pm DC @ ORL 365k 146k .19
Sun 4/2 – WK 7 2pm STL @ HOU 502k 148k .29
Sat 4/8 – WK 8 1pm VEG @ STL 868k 274k .46
Sat 4/8 – WK 8 4pm ARL @ ORL 679k 212k .36
Sun 4/16 – WK 9 12pm ARL @ DC 670k 275k .37
Sun 4/16 – WK 9 3pm SEA @ STL 570k 196k .33
Sat 4/22 – WK 10 12pm ORL @ STL 636k 239k .36
Sun 4/23 – WK 10 3pm HOU @ ARL 403k 148k .23
Sat 4/29 – PLAY 7pm ARL @ HOU 675k 247k .38
Sun 4/30 – PLAY 3pm SEA @ DC 478k 163k .28
AVG 606.3k 221.3k .34

ESPN had the largest slate of games, though at midseason the XFL took a backseat to the Women’s NCAA Basketball Tournament, with only a single game on ESPN during one three-week stretch. While FX and ESPN2 games struggled to reach the heights of the first few weeks, ESPN held pretty consistently to the end. Times and days were all over the place as there were 12 different day-time combos of the 15 games shown on the network. Only six games aired during what are considered prime time hours (8-11pm EST), so comparing it to ESPN’s 2022 average wouldn’t be very relevant, especially as the network’s numbers are skewed heavily by Monday Night Football.


Sat 2/18 – WK 1 3pm VEG @ ARL 1.535m 527k .93
Sun 2/19 – WK 1 3pm STL @ SA 1.570m 461k .87
Sat 3/25 – WK 6 1pm SEA @ ORL 1.047m 283k .65
Sun 3/26 – WK 6 3pm SA @ ARL 753k 172k .45
Sun 4/9 – WK 8 3pm HOU @ SEA 1.006m 259k .52
Sat 4/15 – WK 9 12:30pm VEG @ HOU 878k 231k .53
Sat 4/22 – WK 10 3pm DC @ SA 832k 156k .51
Sat 5/13 – CHAMP 8pm ARL @ DC 1.436m 459k .83
AVG 1.132m 318.5k .66

Though they didn’t start with staggeringly high numbers, it has to be encouraging that the XFL retained 93% of its audience from week one to the Championship game, and 87% of its 18-49 viewers. ABC went a long stretch without hosting any games, but picked back up for the late-season run. The lowest-rated game in week six butted up against March Madness NCAA college basketball games that drew 8.3 million and 11.3 million viewers. For the finale, the XFL finished behind three CBS shows, two NBC shows, and FOX Saturday Baseball in total viewers on Saturday night, but trailed just baseball and soccer on Univision in the network 18-49 demo battle.

Final Analysis

If you’re looking for me to give a black-and-white answer – either ratings were “good” or ratings were “bad,” or even somewhere in between – I can’t do that. Words like “good” and “bad” are relative, so the ratings are good or bad relative to what? Other sports competition? Other competition elsewhere on television? What the channel generally draws in that timeslot? Or something else altogether?

That “something else” includes ESPN and XFL’s expectations, which have not been made public. All ESPN has said about the XFL’s viewership is that “it performed within our expectations,” which isn’t all that helpful. All the ratings analysis from people on the outside is just noise; the only ones who know where these ratings fall on the scale of acceptability are the two with the most to gain or lose on those ratings: ESPN and the XFL. And they’re not telling.

The other major piece absent from the ratings discussion is ESPN+ viewership for the games. That’s proprietary information that ESPN doesn’t release (nor do most if not all streaming services, by the way). ESPN+ subscribers increased by 400,000 in quarter one of 2023 to 25.3 million, giving cord-cutters an alternative place to watch XFL games as all were simulcast on the platform. There’s simply no way of ever getting a reasonable estimate to the number of XFL viewers on ESPN+ – it could legitimately be anywhere from 100 to 100,000 or more. It’s possible, maybe even probable, that a substantial number of people watched games on ESPN+, which would potentially alter how we assess the league’s viewership numbers. We just don’t know, and it’s a major piece of the ratings puzzle missing.

I also want to point out the competition the XFL faced this year and will face in future years. While the February-to-May window has its benefits, the sports competition is one drawback. The beginning of the regular season coincides with NASCAR’s Daytona 500 and the kickoff to the stock car racing year. Usually airing on Sundays, NASCAR has consistently drawn around 3.5 million viewers per race when on FOX this year (races also air on FS1 during the first half of its season).

The World Baseball Classic siphoned some viewers from the XFL this year but the tournament does not occur every year. The Master’s and other major golf events take place this time of year, too. It’s undeniable that the USFL’s kickoff in week nine of the XFL season negatively affected the ratings of both leagues. Ideally, the XFL puts out its 2024 schedule earlier this year than it did last year and the USFL works with its broadcast partners to avoid those timeslots. That still won’t account for football fatigue, when even if games are on different times throughout the weekend, fans with, you know, lives may still have to pick and choose the games they watch.

Speaking of the USFL, what’s interesting in looking at its ratings this year compared to the XFL’s is just how strong the XFL is in the 18-49 demographic compared to the USFL. The 18-49 demo is key for advertisers in deciding where to spend their money. For example, in week nine, the USFL had the game with the most viewers, but two XFL games beat it in 18-49. In week 10, a USFL game with 160,000 more total viewers than an XFL game still drew fewer in 18-49. And during playoff week, the Seattle vs. DC game, drawing 478,000, had more 18-49 viewers than USFL games that had 776,000, 761,000, and 563,000 total viewers. It does make sense that the USFL skews older, as the original USFL’s heyday was in the early 1980s. If they draw an audience based on the nostalgia of that era, then those folks would likely be outside the key demographic.

Back to sports competition: The biggest culprit eating into the XFL’s ratings is March Madness. It’s also the most obvious when looking at the charts above – you can clearly see at what point of the season the tournament begins. It’s not just competition on other channels, though: ESPN/ABC’s deals with the NBA and NHL limits the XFL’s broadcast window as those properties are going to get priority in scheduling over the XFL. Both sports entities close out their season and begin the playoffs during the XFL’s season, meaning not only will marquee games there kick the XFL to lower channels like ESPN2 or FX, but they’ll also likely conflict in time periods, drawing viewers away from football. Being able to cross-promote the XFL during these games is the positive of sharing a network with the NBA and NHL but the scheduling situation is a pretty big negative.

However, the sports world turns year-round; there’s no safe haven time period during the calendar year where the XFL could play in which they wouldn’t face some level of competition. The post-Super Bowl schedule is helpful in match up the league with the NFL’s offseason so that players can more readily take the leap into the big leagues (and the XFL can draw a higher-caliber of players with that schedule). Facing tougher sports competition is a sacrifice the league has made to line up its schedule better with the NFL offseason and OTAs.

There are things the XFL and ESPN/ABC can do in year two to improve ratings: First, as the USFL has done, the partnership can work on putting more games on ABC and establishing a more consistent time for games from week-to-week. I listed above all of the permutations of when the games aired, making it difficult for die-hards to know when games are on let alone casual fans. Airing more games on ABC may be easier said than done given that network’s commitment to other sports on the weekends.

Another complaint many fans had through the first season was the lack of marketing of the games. It was thought that ESPN didn’t do enough to push the games and the league during the season (not to mention the XFL’s own lack of advertising both in-market and nationally). ESPN’s vice president of programming and acquisitions, Tim Reed, told The Athletic that “planning for next season will focus on schedule optimization and how games are marketed to maximize viewership.” It appears, then that the network is on the same page with those critics and will look to rectify some of the issues from 2023.

Unfortunately, after writing all these words, I’m not sure we’re any closer to figuring out the answer as to the question of how well the XFL did in the ratings in 2023. Next year, we’ll have a new set of data points with which to compare. It should be easier to analyze next year: Growth good, decline bad. Though it never really is that simple, is it? See, this is why I hate writing about ratings.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.