Football is the most popular sport in the US by far. Most of the highest-rated TV broadcasts in any given year are NFL games. And of course, Saturdays in the fall are the home of College football on every major broadcast and multiple cable networks. Major college conferences have multi-billion-dollar contracts. This is probably why Disney bought in big time with the third iteration of the XFL. So far it doesn’t look like there is much appetite for the spring offer.
Broadcasts and streams of the XFL, which are available on ABC, ESPN, ESPN2 FX and ESPN+ have declined week by week since the first week of action brought in 1.3 million viewers. The previous week averaged 571,000 viewers across the 4 channels.
This has led Disney, the exclusive TV partner of the league to change its TV strategy by pulling four games from FX and putting them in a more high-profile place on its family of networks. In week 5 a matchup between Houston Roughnecks’ clash with the Seattle Sea Dragons will now be shown on ESPN. The Sea Dragons’ tilt with the Orlando Guardians in week 6 will get major event status on big 4 network ABC and the Roughnecks’ game against the DC Defenders will air and stream on ESPN2. In Week 7 the Defenders’ game against the Guardians will be shown on ESPN at 6pm ET.
Disney has a 5-year contract for the XFL, but it of course remains to be seen if the league will even make it to a second season. Its first iteration failed spectacularly under the weight of over-hype and high expectations while Covid shut down competition the second time around. Disney knows the TV and the sports business well, but I have to wonder if its ratings problems could have been avoided if the league were just easier to find. While the NFL has a deal with each of the major broadcast networks along with ESPN and Amazon, fans have had years to fall in love with the league and each time a new partnership is set up like say Sunday Night Football on NBC it is promoted heavily for months feature breathless announcements of the studio team, anchors. The XFL on the other hand is basically a start-up. In the months leading up to the season kickoff, fans were glued to the NFL, not anticipating the third XFL season.
If its games were exclusively on ESPN or ESPN2 or even FX, viewers would have a chance to build a habit. See you next week at 2! No network trying to make a new show successful would move it all over the place that way.
What Disney Should do
Make it through the season and see if the league does so as well. If we have an XFL season 2 it should start with a unified plan with a couple of well-placed options. It will be difficult to grab oxygen from the NFL during the fall but with all of the outlets it has at its disposal for cross-promotion there is no reason it can’t at least put itself in a position to build an audience. Plus, with The Rock (an XFL co-owner) able to get on camera almost any time there is a built-in spokesman for the league.
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