San Antonio, a major city that was shunned and ignored by the NFL but eager to support a professional team in 2023, was the perfect fit for the reimagined XFL.
The Alamo City did not disappoint. San Antonio, despite a limited window of marketing for a Brahmas' team that lost their top local official in week one and then 7 out of 10 games during this season, was second among 8 XFL teams when it came to attendance and TV ratings.
To be successful on a long-term basis, the league, which is owned by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Dany Garca, and Gerry Cardinale of RedBird Capital Partners, will have to attract more TV viewers and ticket buyers in its respective markets. Russ Brandon, XFL president, says that there have already been some lessons learned in season one. These include the need for more time to plan.
The XFL's season began on February 18 but the cities were not revealed until late July. San Antonio didn't learn its team name until Halloween.
'We didn’t get our schedule until January,' Brandon explained, noting that it took the league a while to finalize deals with venues. These included a minor-league baseball stadium in Las Vegas, and Audi Field which the D.C. Defenders share with an MLS club.
St. Louis was the XFL's top attendance leader, averaging more than 35,000 spectators per game. San Antonio came in second with Brahmas games at the Alamodome averaging nearly 15,000 spectators per game.
Five XFL teams averaged fewer than 12,500 fans. Las Vegas had the lowest attendance with just over 6,000 people per game.
Get ahead of the game
San Antonio wants more time to prepare for a second XFL Season. Steve Zito, the Alamodome's General Manager, hopes this will result in better scheduling and larger crowds for Brahmas matches.
The city has signed a contract with the XFL for a year, which includes two one-year extensions. The city receives $50,000 for each Brahmas game at home, plus any out-of pocket expenses such as staffing. Zito says the city gets revenue from parking and concessions.
The dome also had a similar agreement with the Alliance of American Football’s San Antonio Commanders. This team led this league in attendance and drew nearly 28,000 people on average, before folding in 2019.
Everyone was trying so hard to make the right decision, but everything was done at such a late hour. Zito stated that the window was smaller than with AAF.
The XFL's decision to part ways with Mike Sheehan as the Brahmas vice president of business operation, just days after their first game, didn't help.
Zito noted that city officials had told XFL leaders how important it was to have someone in a position of decision-making in San Antonio.
San Antonio's importance in the future of the league is evident. The XFL played its first championship in San Antonio.
Brandon spent over two decades at the Buffalo Bills and held various positions, including that of president and CEO.
He says that officials of the league will now do some soul-searching in preparation for the 2024 season.
Brandon said, 'We are all going to come together and begin to break down the things we did well and those things we can improve on. We will also be held accountable for each other.
There were a few more immediate conclusions. XFL officials think that the instant replay command centre and other features in-game, such as live audio of coaches and players, could continue to attract more fans. The XFL made some changes to the rules including changes in kickoffs, and extra point scoring. These could increase interest.
Disney, the exclusive broadcaster of the league, also had more access to the players and coaches in the locker room and on the sidelines. The company broadcast 42 games across its ABC, ESPN2, FX and ESPN2 properties. It also streamed games via its ESPN+ platform.
The XFL had an average of 1.3 million viewers in week one. ABC's broadcast of the Brahmas home opener, which attracted more than 24,000 viewers, attracted almost 1.6 million viewers.
Disney's XFL telecasts averaged 627,000 viewers over the entire season.
Tim Reed, Vice President of Programming and Acquisitions at ESPN, said that the first season's numbers were within expectations. The best part is that we now have an excellent set of data to work with and games to examine. What can we do to innovate further? This is a question which will be answered over the next few weeks and months.
The XFL, Disney and their networks are looking to increase attendance and viewers in markets that don't have NFL teams. These include St. Louis, San Antonio and other cities, who ranked as the first and second highest TV ratings respectively.
Reed stated that the markets are a football-crazy market.
The hub model of the XFL is not expected to change. In season one the league was based in Arlington, where teams practiced and lived, and traveled for home and road games. This strategy not only reduced costs, but also limited the marketing opportunities in each of the seven cities.
Brandon said that the XFL would look to improve its engagement with fans of the league in its home markets.
He said that 'being in more places, and spending more of our time there, is certainly an important part of our strategic plan'.
The XFL, which owns all of its teams and coaches, decided who would be coaching where. Hines Ward was an assistant coach with the Pittsburg Steelers and New York Jets, as well as Florida Atlantic University. He lived in Houston, where Wade Phillips, a former NFL head-coach, already held the XFL Roughnecks job. He was already familiar with San Antonio, having worked for the AAF. This helped him land the Brahmas position.
The first-time coach hopes he can help his team have a stronger presence in San Antonio.
He said, "I want us very active in the local community." I want to have a connection with my fans. I am trying to establish that connection with the town.
Alamodome officials continue to work on securing more dates for a future XFL season. Ward's team had to play five of their first seven games on the road this year due to the lack of time.
Zito stated that 'we all learned from this year'. We will do all we can to ensure that it is a success.
It's a long haul
Disney has made some changes in the season to increase audience for XFL matches. Some matchups originally scheduled for FX have been moved to other networks.
Reed stated that the company was "deeply committed" to the XFL and would also be working to build upon what it has learned in 2023. What can we do to improve? 'Everything's on the Table'
The deal for broadcasting is crucial.
Brandon stated that the Disney partnership was one of its hallmarks.
Zito said that it was about working together with all parties to provide a solid foundation for a league which had been closed twice under the previous ownership.
Zito stated that he hoped they would get an entire year of experience under their belts, and learn from both the good and bad takeaways. They should also be able to determine what works or does not work.
Brandon stated that the XFL is committed to learning lessons from its first season. He's confident that the league can succeed in Alamo City.
'Everything we want to be is a market such as San Antonio', he said. We're here for the long haul.