XFL Championship Game Ratings Cap Solid Debut Season For ESPN
By Liam McKeone
On Saturday, May 13, the Arlington Renegades defeated the DC Defenders in the XFL Championship Game to cap off the league's first season under the patronage of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and in partnership with ESPN. To be able to finish the season at all made the league a success after the previous iteration collapsed before reaching the playoffs thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, but the XFL and ESPN should feel great about 2023 through pretty much every lens. Everything went off largely without a hitch, the talent pool was solid, the new rules made the game interesting, and most importantly, the league's ability to draw eyeballs was about what was expected.
The 2023 XFL season was bookended by two significant viewership events. The season debut in February, broadcast on ABC, averaged 1.3 million viewers and boasted the highest-watched game of the year at 1.6 million viewers. The championship game in May (also broadcast on ABC) averaged 1.4 million and peaked in the last 15 minutes of the contest at 1.8 million. Those numbers are important, not because they are gigantic -- although they are definitely good for a sports league in its first season featuring players that aren't famous. Instead, they are important because it suggests interest was more or less sustained over the three-month season.
As previously observed on this website after the Week 3, the biggest fight the XFL has is to keep audience interest. There is very little loyalty to any of the teams even in the markets they reside in because they're new. There are a few players out there who were good enough in college to be draws on their own but no one name is moving the needle for the league. The level of play needs to be high, the game needs to be similar but a little different, and the promotion needs to be consistent in order for the XFL to succeed in its early days. Those three boxes appear to have been checked.
The XFL wasn't a ratings monster, of course. Once the broadcast moved off ABC to ESPN2, viewership dropped like a rock for a few weeks before steadying out. All-in-all the regular-season audience on ESPN2 averaged out at 647,000 viewers across 40 games. There were tough weeks, like Week 5, which went up against March Madness and suffered as a result. But it was never realistic to expect the XFL to compete with bigger, more established sporting events. The opportunity this year was the weeks in between those events, where the only competition was regular-season basketball or the start of baseball season. That is why the season kicked off after the Super Bowl -- to fill the football-sized gap in the audience and whet the insatiable American appetite for the sport while the NFL rested.
An ESPN spokeswoman told The Big Lead that the 2023 XFL season met the network's expectations. They felt the campaign showcased a high quality of play, as evidenced by nearly two dozen XFL players (and counting) signing with various NFL teams over the last week. From a fan experience perspective, the network said it looks forward to working with the XFL on the gameday experience for next season, and the innovation from the production crew made for a tremendous viewing experience.
The 2023 season represents an ideal foundation for the XFL. Baseline viewership fluctuated to start but settled into a rhythm as the season went on and the championship game delivered the audience expected. There is still a ways to go before the league is a true pipeline to the NFL for late bloomers, but professional teams are obviously watching the games. And it can be used as an experimenting ground of sorts for ESPN's production team to try out things they would prefer not to debut on a Monday Night Football broadcast. It would not be a surprise if some aspects of the XFL broadcast from this spring ended up in an NFL broadcast come September.
The goals for next year will be twofold: to continue to steady out viewership and keep attracting as much talent as possible. Those objectives are related. The XFL will never reach NFL levels of television audience because literally no program on television can match the NFL in that department, but the numbers from this year suggest there is a space for it to exist and thrive. If football is on TV and it is competitive, a bit different but not too gimmicky, then people will watch. More people will watch the NFL Draft and Furman upset Virginia, but enough will watch the XFL to give it life.
So far, so good. Both for ESPN and the XFL.