MIAMI, FLORIDA – JANUARY 29: XFL Commissioner Oliver Luck (center) participating in “media row” … [+]
Getty Images for SiriusXM
When I think about key factors which enhance the likelihood of any start-up business achieving success, things which come to mind include:
- Proven leadership
- Solid financial backing
- Visibility and exposure
- Introduction of innovations which create product differentiation
- The ability to identify customer “likes” and “dislikes”
- The ability to swiftly attend to customer needs/demands/suggestions on-the-fly
And, for start-ups in the entertainment industry, let’s add the ability to create something fun and enjoyable for consumers. All consumers. Not just the ones attending the event in person, but for those watching a broadcast or following on social media.
With the XFL’s relaunched beginning this weekend, I am cautiously optimistic the league will achieve success.
What is success? Well, in the long run, profitability. In the short run, credibility generated by visibility, stability, and quality entertainment.
Yes, I do believe those are attainable goals for the XFL…and here’s why:
1) Proven Leadership
WWE CEO Vince McMahon was shrewd enough to hire established industry leaders like Oliver Luck (Commissioner of the XFL) and Jeffrey Pollack (President) to provide the strategic direction for the league both on and off the field.
Furthermore, the roster of team presidents hired have all demonstrated sports business acumen in their prior endeavors to be uniquely positioned to lead their respective markets.
Though strong leadership alone isn’t a sufficient criteria, it is certainly a necessary component of success. And the XFL has it.
2) Solid financial backing
A component which doomed the Alliance of American Football league in Spring 2019, McMahon is investing $500 million in the XFL.
Most start-ups in this country would love to have this kind of initial seed money in their business. The XFL has it.
And while not sufficient to ensure long-term profitability, it is a necessary component to ensure enough time to begin the brand-building and customer-connection process.
3) Visibility and exposure
Unlike its predecessor, the rebooted XFL will begin play Saturday with multiple national broadcast partnerships. Games will air on Disney-owned ABC and ESPN, Fox and Fox Sports One throughout the 10 weeks of the XFL’s inaugural season.
This type of exposure on highly-respected networks where sports fans go for their trusted sports consumption confers an immediate air of legitimacy which is tough to put a price on.
Again, not a sufficient facet of the overall picture, but a necessarily crucial element to help build fan and corporate support longer term.
And if the AAF last spring was able to draw decent ratings, this bodes well for the XFL’s expected ratings. Remember, despite their financial issues, the AAF saw CBS (one of their broadcast partners) add 2 games of coverage in March 2019 because the league’s ratings were comparatively decent.
4) Product Innovations to Establish Product Differentiation
When you build something from scratch, it’s got to stand apart from the crowd.
The XFL is introducing 5 gameplay innovations (including the option of going for 1, 2, or 3 extra points after each touchdown), 5 timing changes (e.g. 25-second game clock and greater usage of a running clock), and 5 common-sense rules (e.g. one foot in-bounds for a catch, shorter halftimes, one refereee dedicated to simply spotting the ball after each play) in an effort to enhance the speed, pace, and excitement of the game.
Then there are the production innovations in audio which are highly anticipated on the broadcasts. According to Sports Business Journal, telecasts will have much more access to players and coaches, the sounds of the game will be amplified, networks will interview players and coaches on the sidelines immediately after touchdowns or turnovers, as well as cameras in the replay review booths to interview the replay review official immediately after decisions are made.
As someone who enjoys the pace and fluidity of hockey, I am confident these innovations will resonate with younger audiences who have shorter attention spans and want to see more flow and excitement.
5) Identifying Customer “Likes” and “Dislikes”
Certainly linked to the quality of the league’s leadership, the central decision-makers of the league wisely sought input well in advance from various experts (football, television production, social media, technology) as well as from the public.
Subsequently, the on-field innovations described above are a byproduct of conducting significant market research with consumers while also obtaining insights from leaders in sports innovation and strategy.
Being responsive to customer “likes” and “dislikes” conveys a level of empathy towards your consumers which builds brand loyalty, and the XFL seems poised to listen to fans and tailor the on-site and televised experience for their benefit.
6) Swiftly Attending to Customers’ Needs/Demands/Suggestions to an Underserved Market Segment
According to Statista, the median price for one ticket to attend an NFL game in 2019 was $113.
And according to Team Marketing Reports, the average cost for a family of four to attend an NFL game is $540.
With the XFL promoting that XFL attendees can take in a game with their family of four for $100, this is an extremely affordable alternative.
Though youth participation numbers in football may be declining due to health-related concerns, there are still thousands of kids playing football at the youth level…and many of these kids come from families where paying $540+ for a Sunday afternoon outing at the football game is not financially feasible.
Thus, by being more accessible, the XFL helps meet the demands of an underserved market segment that may have a passion for the sport but couldn’t afford the more expensive alternative.
The success of numerous minor league baseball franchises across the country, along with G-League basketball and minor league hockey, offers evidence that fans are open-minded about attending sporting events which emphasize accessibility, affordability, and fun.
And, with the XFL’s embracement of a proliferated utilization of technology, they will use that to their advantage to quickly respond to customer/viewer feedback to make tweaks along the way to cater to consumer insights.
The only negative I see with the XFL is that I believe it will have a tougher time succeeding in large markets where there is considerable competition for the entertainment dollar.
In this respect, it was unfortunate that some of the AAF markets were unavailable for XFL selection at the outset, because some of those markets drew extremely well last spring (especially Orlando, San Antonio, and San Diego…each consistently drawing at least 20,000 fans).
You have to crawl before you walk, so I’m not advocating a meteoric league expansion. However, I would not be surprised if XFL leadership hasn’t made inquiries in select markets (like the ones I mentioned above) to be on standby to either replace one of the larger market teams (should they falter) or join the XFL within the first 3 years of the league’s existence.
Again, I go back to minor league baseball. Minor league baseball works in several mid-sized markets. Partly because it’s one of the only games in town in a smaller market, and partly because of the fan-friendly element (accessibility, affordability).
So why not the XFL for some of these former AAF markets if they showed considerable business promise last spring?
Just as the G-League has been a training ground for select NBA players, and the same for Triple A Baseball and AHL hockey, and even if informally with no formal relationship between the NFL and XFL, why can’t the XFL (eventually) be that training ground for a select group of guys who need just an extra bit of seasoning before becoming ready for the NFL?
For example, as of September 2019, 8 former AAF players were on 53-man NFL rosters and 9 former AAF players were on practice squads. That’s not a flood of people, but it shows that opportunities exist.
And with the college athletics landscape becoming increasingly interesting, might there be opportunities down the road for juniors and seniors who believe a product like the XFL is a better environment for them than remaining in college?
In short, not only can the XFL serve a purpose of providing an accessible affordable football alternative to fans, but it could serve the professional purpose of honing the skills of players on the cusp of the NFL while shepherding younger players who feel the XFL is a better final training ground before graduating to the NFL.
For all these reasons, I’m cautiously optimistic the XFL can be a short-term success with fans and ultimately become a profitable entity in time.
If the action is compelling, this should bode well for future media revenues which are essential for eventual profitability. Such deals would give the league added credibility, likely yielding additional revenues from corporate partners.
Let the next spring football experiment begin.
This is the XFL.