Inside the Numbers: Breaking down the XFL opening weekend

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The XFL won’t have the same dramatic dropoff from Week 1 to Week 2 that we saw back in 2001. How’s that for spin?

The opening game of the ’01 XFL, which actually happened, despite the repeated efforts over the weekend from ABC, ESPN and Fox to pretend that it didn’t, drew 14 million viewers.

Not anywhere near there for the 2020 second coming.

The ABC and ESPN games averaged 2.9 million viewers, which is one way of saying that the Saturday game between Seattle and Washington averaged 3.3 million, and then the Sunday game between St. Louis and Dallas averaged 2.5 million.

The Saturday Fox game, Houston-Los Angeles, drew 2.8 million viewers, which, notably, that one was the second game of the day, after the opener on ABC, and later in the day, particularly on a Saturday, usually means more eyeballs.

As of this writing, the numbers for Sunday’s New York-Tampa Bay game, are still not available, but don’t expect them to be any better, given that the game was broadcast on FS1, which most folks aren’t aware exists.

So, good news there, right?

That you’re not going to see it go from 14 million one week to death spiral a week later?

On the field: Apples to apples

I’m spinning, like everybody else in the media, telling you that the XFL just had a great opening weekend, that the numbers were good, that the football was good.

Which, OK, so, when the AAF debuted last spring with numbers in the same range, you didn’t foresee it cratering the next week, from 3.3 million for that league’s opening game on CBS to a little over a million for TNT and less than half that on NFL Network.

Or, maybe you did.

The football in AAF just wasn’t that good, and despite all efforts to make the XFL seem otherwise, sorry, it’s just not.

That. Good.

The promised quick games – we were told early on in the planning that the goal was to keep XFL games to two hours, before the goal was adjusted to two hours and 45 minutes – also didn’t materialize.

The opening game dragged on past three hours on Saturday, in part because it felt like everybody involved – players, coaches, officials – were still learning the rules on the fly.

(To be fair, they probably were.)

There were some neat innovations. The eavesdropping into the conversations between the coach and the quarterback on play calls, for example, OK, a lot of garbled lingo, but it gives you insight into how things are done, from setting formations to route trees.

The extra points seemed interesting on paper, but not so much in practice. The XFL pretends to hate kicks, so the extra points are plays from the 2 (for one point), the 5 (for two points) and the 10 (for three points).

The results: teams were 4-for-11 on one-point plays, 3-for-8 on two-point plays, and nobody tried a three.

Meh.

The effect was seeing the score be 6-6 or some version, leaving you with the sensation that you were watching a high-school game, which, not fair.

It was more like good FCS.

And on the matter of pretending not to like kicks: mixed there, from the numbers.

The games averaged 3.25 field-goal attempts per; the NFL, in Week 17 of the regular season in 2019, saw an average of 4.31.

The XFL opening weekend had an average of eight punts per game; NFL, Week 17, there was an average of 7.81 punts per game.

What is clear is: less offense.

Games in the opening weekend of XFL action averaged an aggregate 618 yards of total offense and 124 plays from scrimmage; Week 17 of the 2019 NFL season averaged 700.8 yards of total offense and 156.1 plays.

So, less offense, less plays – 32.1 less plays per game, to be exact on that.

And the average length of game for Week 1 was two hours, 56 minutes.

The average length of game for NFL Week 17: 3:06:47.

Bottom line: they cut out 32.1 plays and 82 yards of offense to shorten the game 10 minutes.

But, hey, we can hear the coach tell a quarterback whose name we don’t know what play to call.

Yippee.

Prognosis: Not good

It will only get harder from here. Every week that passes from here is a week closer to the beginning of March Madness.

NASCAR begins its 2020 season on Sunday with the Daytona 500.

Fox spends a lot of money on NASCAR. ESPN spends a lot of money on college basketball.

ABC spend a lot of money on the NBA, which edges closer and closer each week toward its money season, with the playoffs beginning in April.

None of the above spend a cent on the XFL, which isn’t getting anything from its broadcast partners in rights fees.

They’re just testing the XFL as weekend afternoon fodder, and if it doesn’t work, whatever, it doesn’t work.

It wouldn’t be fair to say that the first weekend of XFL was bad, but it’s also not fair to say that anything about it was good.

It just … was.

I assume it makes it, unlike last spring’s AAF, all the way to the end of Season 1, but beyond that?

There isn’t a path for this to get to profitability. I’ll put it that way.

Story by Chris Graham



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