As the weeks continue to mount without any updates from the XFL itself, most of the chatter about the league, at least on Twitter, has been about the location of the eight teams. McMahon offered few hints at the opening press conference, saying that “all cities are on our radar,” and brushing aside specific questions about Pittsburgh and San Diego. A more intriguing answer came in response to a question about international television rights: “By simplifying the rules, I think it makes the XFL a more global friendly environment.”
When trying to think this through from the outside, the most important thing to understand is that in terms of being a money-making entity, the XFL isn’t really a football league. It’s a broadcast property. This is driven home when you listen to how Vince McMahon talks about the league: faster play, no halftime, easier to understand rules, and especially, a two-hour game. These are all changes that are designed to produce a better television product, not necessarily a better football game.
So when considering whether City A or City B makes more sense for the league, it’s not just a matter of which city can draw fans and provide support at the gate. It’s also a matter of how well that market can draw television viewers worldwide, how the stadium and crowd will look on television, and how that city can increase the value of the broadcast rights.
The advantages to looking outside the United States are obvious: you can better penetrate outside markets with a team in the country. There’s nothing stopping the XFL from selling its broadcast rights in Canada regardless, but the league will be a much more valuable property to Canadian broadcasters with a Canadian team (or two) in the league.
The downsides are not insignificant. Doing business in another country adds a layer of cost. Travel is more expensive and, depending on the country, scheduling can become much trickier. The XFL has also selected a relatively quiet period in the U.S. sports calendar that does not necessarily translate internationally.
What won’t work?
Before we get to the international cities that might make sense, we can eliminate most of the world. Anywhere without a reasonable interest in American football is a non-starter, as the league needs to be able to play in front of strong crowds to create a strong broadcast.
Regions with too great a disparity in time zone are also unworkable from a broadcast perspective, so we can cast aside otherwise intriguing options like Japan, where the game has achieved considerable popularity: Nearly 23,000 fans came out to watch this last season’s X Bowl, the country’s professional championship game, and 34,500 showed up to watch the Rice Bowl, which pits the X Bowl champion against the Japanese college champion.
The most qualified candidate that likely won’t earn serious consideration for Year 1 is Mexico. The proximity to the United States makes scheduling painless, and the NFL has been putting in a lot of work in the country to grow the popularity of the sport. Most recently, the Raiders and Patriots played a regular season game in front of over 77,000 in Stadium Azteca in Mexico City.
Despite its qualifications, what will most likely hold the Mexico back is the relatively instability and McMahon’s unfamiliarity with the country’s business landscape. WWE runs shows in Mexico, but it’s not a stronghold, despite its proximity. There was actually a lot of chatter around Monterrey landing a UFL franchise before that league’s 2009 kickoff, which fizzled out after cartel violence destabilized the region. For a startup league like the XFL, there are probably too many challenges for it to make sense initially.
What could work?
First, there’s a limit to how many international cities the XFL would likely be able to start with in 2020. The priority is establishing a foundation in the United States, and that likely requires no fewer than six American teams. That allows the league to place a team in the north and south of the east coast, west coast, and fly-over states, creating a national brand.
Within this framework, one viable option is going into Canada. Most of the country speaks English, there are no scheduling challenges, and WWE has a long history of operating successfully in the country. Toronto was on the XFL’s short list in 2001, with the league going so far as to engage in talks with the Skydome. Vancouver’s recently renovated B.C. Place is probably the best stadium situation in the country for the XFL, with a canopy system that allows capacity to be reduced from 54,500 to 22,120. Montreal averaged over 28,000 fans in the World League of American Football, although the language barrier, the return of the Alouettes to the CFL in 1996, and the over sized nature of Olympic Stadium makes it the least attractive viable option.
Canada carries plenty of challenges. The CFL has never been healthier, and unlike putting an XFL team in an NFL city, the XFL represents true direct competition. (If the XFL goes back to San Francisco, for example, 49er fans need not worry that they’ll poach Jimmy Garoppolo or Kyle Shanahan. That’s not necessarily the case for Argonaut fans in Toronto.) The XFL will also face considerable competition from the NHL, as the national sport commands the country’s attention during the league’s stretch run. Finally, the most obvious candidate, Toronto, has been the country’s most apathetic toward the CFL. The Argonauts averaged a league-worst 13,914 fans despite fielding a Grey Cup winning team in 2017.
It’s unlikely that more than one Canadian city would get the call. There are diminishing marginal returns for a second city, and there are enough question marks in certain regions of the United States (namely, the Midwest and Southern California), that being able to hedge bets stateside would be a welcome luxury. (That’s an essay for another day.)
Alternatively, the league could go to Europe, putting a team in London and a team in either Frankfurt or Dusseldorf. London is undoubtedly the sexiest option, given the amount of effort the NFL has poured into the market over the years. There is no language barrier, and WWE is very comfortable in the country, operating an office in the London and running an annual UK tour. Americans are getting accustomed to consuming UK sports live and visa versa. The time zone difference isn’t too large, as an evening game in the UK fits nicely into an afternoon window on the U.S. east coast. Finally, the London Monarchs got off to a fast start in World Football League, drawing over 40,000 fans in 1991 before interest waned.
Meanwhile, interest never waned in the German cities of Dusseldorf and Frankfurt, where the Rhein Fire and Frankfurt Galaxy were consistent draws at the gate for NFL Europe. The Fire averaged over 26,000 fans per game in their 13-year history, and the Galaxy drew over 30,000 over 15 seasons. After 1995, Rhein and Frankfurt finished finished first or second in attendance every single season.
There are a number of hurdles, including the German language barrier and the fact that the XFL season is head to head with the end of the European soccer seasons. None is bigger than the travel costs and logistics; a flight from Frankfurt to San Francisco is a nearly 12 hour trip. But by putting two teams in Europe makes the travel and scheduling slightly easier; American teams making the trans-Atlantic flight can knock out two games in a trip rather than just one. In addition, the two European teams would have a built in rivalry that should help sustain interest.
Will it happen?
In all likelihood, the league will stick with just American teams for 2020. It keeps things simple for a league that will have all sorts of other complexities to deal with. But for a league’s whose future rests on selling broadcast rights, there is little question where the upside is higher.
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ESPN-NFL relationship suffering
The Sports Business Journal reports that the relationship between the NFL and ESPN is fraying, as the network is unhappy with the quality of the games assigned to Monday Night Football and the league is unhappy with unfavorable reporting on programs like Outside the Lines. This sets the stage for an interesting three years, as ESPN holds NFL broadcast rights through the 2021 season. From the XFL’s perspective, any potential opportunity to court a relationship with ESPN is welcome news. ESPN’s role as a taste maker is waning in the social media age, but it has not yet evaporated, and the XFL will need all the allies in the media it can get.
MLB, MLS announce social media broadcast deals
Major League Baseball announced that 25 regular season games will be streamed exclusively on Facebook this season. Terms have not been announced, but it supposedly will cost the social media company between $30 and $35 million. The games are midweek day games, primarily on Wednesday, which are generally MLB’s weakest properties. Meanwhile, Major League Soccer announced that they have agreed to a three-year contract with Twitter to broadcast matches, including 24 in the 2018 season. The value of the deal has not yet been made public.
MLS closing in on Austin
The Austin soccer community has started to celebrate, as Columbus Crew owner Anthony Precourt released a statement saying that his group will focus exclusively on a city-owned site in North Austin. The site always figured to face the least resistance, as it is not on parkland and not adjoining a neighborhood; the biggest question was whether the Crew ownership would be willing to accept it, as it is not technically downtown. It’s still not a done deal, but all signs seem to point to a deal getting done and Austin getting an MLS (and thus XFL-appropriate) stadium.