The XFL ceased operations on April 10 due to COVID-19, leaving us to wonder what could have been for the spring football league. XFL teams made it halfway through their 10-game 2020 schedule, though, so we got a good glimpse into what the league was shooting for.
And while the product was far from perfect – quarterback play was suspect, leading unders to hit in 12 of 20 games – things were going reasonably well for the XFL. Ratings were solid, even if they predictably trended downward after Week 1. ABC and ESPN networks averaged 2,084,000 viewers per game in Weeks 1-4, while Fox averaged 2,019,000. All 10 of the XFL’s broadcast games ranked among television’s top 10 shows that week, also true of four of the six cable games. Viewership fell off by 56% between Week 1 and Week 4, but an average of 1.38 million people tuned in for the latter, still a decent clip.
XFL fully embraced sports betting culture
The league’s abrupt ending is particularly brutal for direct personnel and the TV networks, but next on the list are sports bettors and the industry at large. The XFL embraced sports betting more than any US professional or collegiate league ever has, going as far as to consult Las Vegas sportsbook operators to tailor its product for gambling interest.
“Our goal this year has been to plant flags across the gaming landscape to set ourselves up for long-term success,” XFL president and chief operating officer Jeffrey Pollack told ESPN in March. “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.”
Rules tailored to wagering
Point spreads and over/unders were displayed on every broadcast alongside the actual score, and the rules were designed to be betting-friendly. The XFL aimed to do so by condensing games, making the product more digestible, by using a 25-second play clock (it’s 40 in the NFL) and eliminating virtually automatic plays such as extra points. There were also “comeback periods” in the final two minutes of each half, the only time of the game where the play clock would regularly stop – it was meant to keep the spread alive longer.
And after touchdowns, teams had the option to go for one point from the 2-yard line, two points from the 5-yard line or three points from the 10-yard line.
“This enhances a team’s ability to make a comeback,” XFL senior vice president strategy and business development John Scheler said in February. “Your bet’s in play longer because the team potentially has the ability to come back and cover the spread.”
Betting handles weren’t overwhelming, but they were significant – the average handle of an XFL game had been comparable to that of second-tier college basketball games, according to Caesars Sportsbook. The XFL was also leaning into daily fantasy sports, inking deals with FanDuel and DraftKings, though those are also sportsbook operators.
No more spring football
While the XFL wrapped its arms around sports betting, the new rules proved challenging for bookmakers. Circa Sports was the first sportsbook to post Week 1 point totals. “For me, it was a huge guess,” sportsbook manager Chris Bennett said.
To be clear, the XFL’s demise isn’t threatening to the sports betting industry – it has bigger worries in COVID-19. But the league was beginning to play a role in normalizing sports betting, and even had it topped out as a series of second-tier college hoops games every spring weekend by handle comparison, its effect on the industry would have been positive.
With the failure of the AAF last year and the XFL’s short stint in 2020, if will be fascinating to see if another spring football league pops up in the near future.