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Sports betting helps boost XFL opener, but future viewership uncertain

Sporting new rules and telecast innovations, Vince McMahon's rebooted XFL played to largely good reviews and solid ratings during its opening weekend.

Whether fans and viewers will return for the spring football league's second week and beyond remains unknown. World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. Chairman and CEO McMahon, who experimented with a more extreme version of the XFL back in 2001, has sold some of his WWE stock to fund Alpha Entertainment LLC, the sports and entertainment vehicle launching the XFL.

The attendance for each of the four XFL games on Feb. 8 and Feb. 9 exceeded 17,000, while three of the four telecasts surpassed the 3.25 million viewers for the Alliance of American Football opener on CBS (US) last year. Notably, the AAF, another spring alternative to the NFL, folded in April 2019 after its eighth week in the face of financial shortfalls.

'Good start'

Lee Berke, president and CEO of consultancy LHB Sports, called the XFL's opening weekend "a good start."

"The telecasts looked good, and there are certainly people looking for more football after the Super Bowl," he said, though he did acknowledge the failures of other spring football leagues.

With a schedule featuring most games on FOX (US), ABC (US), ESPN (US) and FOX Sports 1 (US), the XFL has a stronger TV lineup than the AAFL, whose contests largely ran on CBS Sports Network (US), NFL Network (US), TNT (US) and streaming offering B/R Live.

But Berke questioned whether the XFL can sustain fan interest in the weeks ahead as the NBA All-Star Weekend, college basketball's March Madness, the start of the baseball season and then NBA and NHL playoffs compete for eyeballs.

Advertising

Jim Minnich, vice president of revenue and yield management for sports at Disney Advertising Sales, said 75 advertisers have positions on ESPN and ABC's XFL coverage, ranging from schedules in every regular-season game and the playoffs to those who have bought single units.

He put commercial sell-through at about 75% and expects that level to grow another 5% to 10% over the balance of the second quarter. Minnich said the company is not basing its selling strategy solely off the first-week deliveries and is holding inventory in reserve in the event it has to make good for any potential audience deficiencies and to capitalize on late-season opportunities.

SNL ImageFOX's coverage of Los Angeles-Houston on Feb. 8
averaged 3.29 million viewers.
Source: XFL

While he declined to speak about specific client commitments, Minnich said insurance is the "leading category by a long shot." Tech, telecom and male grooming are also strong, he said, with "a smattering" of consumer package goods and pharmaceuticals schedules also in the mix.

Minnich said there will be more integrations on the XFL telecasts "as we've had more time to sell and develop those elements."

FOX Sports declined to discuss its ad sales efforts.

Sports betting

The XFL has different rules from the NFL around pass receptions, kickoffs and punts, as well as extra points and less time between plays. There are also betting components.

For instance, ABC and ESPN's score box featured the point spread and the over/under line, furnished by Caesars Entertainment Corp., throughout their telecasts. As part of a multifaceted deal, Caesars is ESPN's official odds data supplier across TV and digital properties.

Similar info also intermittently popped up on the FOX telecasts under the heading of FOX Bet, the media and sports wagering partnership in the U.S. between Fox Corp. and The Stars Group Inc. As an authorized gaming operator of the XFL, FOX Bet also has developed a free-to-play game for the 10-week regular season, the semifinal rounds and the championship contest.

Other XFL graphics listed teams' championship odds, while commentators discussed where the action stood relative to the spread and over/under lines.

"Betting is a good call. As more states legalize sports betting, awareness and interest will grow," said Berke. "It's the right time to integrate graphics. Other leagues will be following suit."