Much of the talk surrounding the Alliance of American Football this week has centered on the future of its existence. With reports of a $250 million investment by Carolina Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon making him the de facto owner of the entire league, questions abound as to the league’s long term viability. Dundon’s millions reportedly help the league make payroll after Week 2. While AAF executive Charlie Ebersol is attempting to calm fears of the league’s impending doom and touting Dundon’s investment as securing the AAF’s finances for the considerable future, it’s going to be a question for the rest of the season.
While finances and making payroll are obviously paramount to the AAF’s viability, its television ratings are also a huge story that will be worth following throughout the season. If you were around in the early 2000s, you likely remember the meteoric rise and fall of the original XFL. After debuting to monstrous ratings for its debut game, the XFL fell to the lowest primetime ratings ever recorded. Of course, that crash and burn in television ratings was only a precursor to the XFL’s early demise after just one season.
The AAF didn’t create the buzz and splash that the XFL did long ago, but its debut was solid nonetheless. The inaugural AAF game on CBS scored a 2.1 rating and drew 2.9 million viewers, even beating the NBA on ABC head-to-head.
The AAF won’t return to network television until the league’s championship game. However, it will continue to have nationally televised games through TNT, CBS Sports Network, and the NFL Network. And while the numbers did come down for Week 2, the league’s viewership numbers were still decent. The AAF drew just over a million viewers on Saturday afternoon for Birmingham-Salt Lake, then drew just over 400,000 viewers for two more games on NFL Network.
Week 2 #AAF TV ratings
2/16 – 1,018,000 viewers on TNT (0.64)
2/16 – 424k viewers on NFL Network (0.26)
2/17 – 425k viewers on NFL Network (0.27)
— Spring Football Hub (@SpringFballHub) February 20, 2019
On the surface, those numbers don’t sound terribly impressive. They aren’t going to light the world on fire and immediately transform the American sports landscape. However, a fledging spring football league in its second week drawing a million viewers on cable is quite the accomplishment. Saturday’s numbers saw it roughly even in the ratings with college basketball on ESPN. Sunday’s numbers put the AAF barely ahead of the NHL, which drew 421,000 viewers on NBCSN.
For the AAF to already be in the ratings conversation with stalwarts on the February sports schedule has to be encouraging for the league. Naturally, numbers are probably going to go down after the league’s premiere in primetime. But while the AAF didn’t start with the same sky-high expectations and ratings that the XFL did, it should be much steadier throughout the season.
The AAF has a huge advantage in reaching its target audience – the support of NFL Network. With two games on NFLN (and one on CBS Sports Network) each week, the league will be able to build a core audience. And what better place to reach football fans on a consistent basis than NFL Network? That outlet should give the league the ability to draw competitive ratings throughout the season.
If the AAF can stay in that 500,000 viewer range throughout the season, then it will show fans and perhaps current and future investors that there is actually a reasonable marketplace for spring football. With the AAF trying to complement the NFL instead of necessarily replacing it, that is a very important distinction in the league managing the expectations game around its ratings. Time will tell if it can also manage its financial expectations as well.