What have we learned about the XFL? Six midseason takeaways
Kevin Seifert
Posted: 2020-03-09

The novelty of the XFL has worn off. It's no longer surprising to hear coaches making their playcalls on national television. Fans should be used to watching replay officials make decisions. The kickoff alignment no longer looks funky, the quarterbacks are less mysterious, and it's not so odd to see the over/under splashed on television chyrons.

The initial sheen has washed away, making way for a moment of hard truths -- both good and bad -- in the league's effort to finally establish spring football amid the American sports landscape. Quality of play has been uneven, and attendance figures and television ratings have trended downward since a raucous introduction.

"We still understand and remind ourselves every day that we have to earn our stripes," XFL president and chief operating officer Jeffrey Pollack said. "Fandom is earned, not given, and it's going to take time for us to really build our base. But we're underway, inspired by the early response and even humbled a bit by it."

Where does the XFL stand at midseason? Here are six takeaways at the midpoint of the XFL's 10-game regular season, which will conclude April 12 before two weeks of postseason play.

1. Games are indeed shorter and faster-paced

The XFL has cracked the longstanding challenge of minimizing dead time in pro football. By implementing a 25-second play clock and expanding the use of coach-to-player radio communication, the league has shaved about 15 minutes off the typical NFL game time without sacrificing volume of action.

The average XFL game has wrapped in 2 hours, 50 minutes. But the average number of plays per game (122.6) compares favorably to the NFL's tally in 2019 (126). "That's something very important to us," commissioner Oliver Luck said. "We're happy with the way it's worked out. It's allowed us to have as many meaningful plays in that shorter time frame. That's been the most consequential and arguably the most important rule change that we've had."

Two other innovations have helped maximize the moment. Adjustments to the kickoff have led to a return rate of 93%, compared to 34.1% during the NFL's 2019 season. The elimination of PAT kicks has guaranteed another offensive play after every touchdown. Both drew the attention of the NFL competition committee during meetings last month at the NFL scouting combine.

2. Quarterback play has been uneven

The XFL correctly identified quarterback play as an outsized driver of game quality, committing in some cases 10 times the standard base salary to acquire what it hoped would be a group of consistent and viable leaders. The most significant name to emerge is Houston's P.J. Walker, a former practice squad player for the Indianapolis Colts whom the XFL signed in part on a recommendation from Luck's son, Andrew. Walker has thrown for a league-best 1,338 yards and 15 touchdowns in leading the Roughnecks to a 5-0 record and an average of 31.6 points per game.

St. Louis' Jordan Ta'amu has been a steady hand for a run-based offense, completing a league-high 72% of his passes in five starts. D.C.'s Cardale Jones started strong but struggled in two games in which the Defenders scored a total of nine points, before being benched in Week 5. The league's other five starters -- Dallas' Landry Jones, New York's Matt McGloin, Los Angeles' Josh Johnson, Seattle's Brandon Silvers and Tampa Bay's Aaron Murray -- have all missed at least one game because of injury.

Overall, teams have averaged 20.5 points per game. Week 5 brought the XFL's lowest-scoring game to date (D.C.'s 15-6 victory against St. Louis) and its highest scoring (Los Angeles' 41-34 win over Tampa Bay). The under has hit on 12 of 20 games in over/under betting throughout the season.

"You never have enough good quarterbacks, and it doesn't matter where you are," Luck said. "Pro football, amateur, you name it. I think that we've got a couple guys that have really developed into stars in P.J. Walker and Jordan Ta'amu. I think Cardale Jones has been as hot as anybody in the league and as cold as anybody. And I like the fact that we've had a couple of backups step up. ... But I'm not sure we'll ever be satisfied with the quarterbacks. You always need more. You always need better."

3. The broadcast transparency has been real

Television sideline reporters have mixed it up with players and coaches on the sidelines during games, approaching them for comments after on-field fights, missed field goals and big scores. The results of some were regrettable, including a profanity in Week 1 and uncomfortably clipped answers on several other occasions.

Luck said earlier in the season that "some of the sideline interviews might have gotten a little too close to raw emotion." Overall, however, they have provided unique insight into the true emotions and real personalities on a football sideline.

Meanwhile, live microphones on referees and replay officials have provided insight into how in-game decisions are made and an important public backstop to the XFL's gambling initiatives.

"I think that's awesome," Luck said. "It shows football fans that officials are human, and it's a hard game to officiate. It shows they're just trying to get it right. Nobody has ever seen or heard those conversations."

That transparency can also reveal mistakes in real time, requiring swift league response. When it became clear that a clock error had robbed Seattle of a chance to tie Saturday's game against Houston, the XFL released a statement within hours apologizing for the mistake and announcing that the game's officiating supervisor had been reassigned.

4. A painless lean-in to gambling

By simply acknowledging the realities of sports betting, both on its broadcasts and with its partnerships, the XFL has helped de-scandalize a connection long avoided in American professional sports. In addition to opening a big lane for revenue, the league's plan to "embrace the spread" is establishing at least some associations with new fans.

"Our goal this year has been to plant flags across the gaming landscape to set ourselves up for long-term success," Pollack said. "But most importantly, it was to provide our fans with the type of engagement opportunities they're looking for. The XFL fan skews younger and more millennial. Our strategy to embrace the spread is as much about being responsive to our fan base as anything else."

The XFL has reached partnership deals with FanDuel, DraftKings and FOX Bet while also signing content arrangements with the Action Sports Network and VSiN. That groundwork has taken precedence over immediate bottom-line action. According to Caesars Sportsbook, the average handle of an XFL game has been comparable to that of second-tier college basketball games.

5. Viewership and attendance have followed a predictable trend

There was every reason to think more people would tune in to Week 1 broadcasts and attend each team's first home game than any that followed. That expectation has largely proven true. Television ratings dropped, in part because of a shift from broadcast to cable, in each of the first four weeks of the season. (Week 5 numbers are not yet available.) An average of 3.12 million took in Week 1 games, and an average of 1.38 million watched Week 4 games, a drop of about 56%.

Overall, ABC and ESPN networks averaged 2,084,000 viewers per game in Weeks 1-4. Fox networks have averaged 2,019,000 per game. According to the league, all 10 of its broadcast games during that period ranked among television's top 10 shows that week, as did four of the six on cable.

Meanwhile, XFL teams have averaged 18,614 fans per game. Figures have ranged widely per team, from an average of 28,541 in St. Louis and 25,616 in Seattle to 14,875 in New York and 13,124 in Los Angeles. It is worth noting that of the three occasions when a team's attendance has risen from one week to the next, two came in Week 5 (D.C. and Houston).

In internal surveys, Pollack said, fans have consistently rated the XFL game experience in the 90th percentile.

"We think that is a good directional indicator for us," Pollack said. "Look, we're in Week [5]. We've welcomed more than [370,000] people into our venues across all of our games. That shows we're getting a look from football fans, which is what we wanted this year. ... And in the first four weeks, we had 39 million people tune in to watch our games. We don't typically like to talk about ratings, but we're talking about the numbers that have tuned in. It's inspiring to us and a good start."

6. Coaches continue to find footing with new rules

After a Week 1 loss to D.C., Seattle coach Jim Zorn acknowledged the challenges of XFL endgame math, complicated by three options for points after touchdowns. The league office distributed analytics to coaches that suggested that the most efficient option is a two-point try from the 5-yard line, and while coaches began the season by favoring the one-point attempt from the 2-yard line, they have gradually grown more adventurous. Through five weeks, they have used the two-point option on 47 occasions, while going for one point 39 times and three points 13 times.

Coaches have slowly embraced rules designed to encourage going for it, rather than punting, on fourth down in what the league calls its "go zone" between the 40-yard lines. Punts that go into the end zone or out of bounds are spotted at the 35-yard line rather than the 20, like they are in the NFL and NCAA.

"You've got to work the kinks out," Luck said. "There are a couple of situations in that go zone where I was disappointed that they punted. It flew in the face of what we wanted that rule to encourage, which is to go for it when it's fourth-and-2 and fourth-and-4 in those areas. But every coach is a little different. The guys all want to win, and you can win football games in a lot of different ways."

ESPN Chalk's David Bearman contributed to this story.



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