Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson gives a speech ahead of the XFL kickoff game on Feb. 18, 2023. Credit: Raymond Carlin III-USA TODAY Sports

There’s been a lot of discussion of how the ratings are going for the third and current incarnation of the XFL. The average TV audience through five weeks this time around has been 656,900, which is down 63 percent from the 1.78 million average for the league’s first five weeks in 2020 (which itself was down significantly from the performance of the first version of the XFL in 2001, although that was a very different era). But there is some context to the current ratings, and XFL co-owner Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson brought that up as part of a wide-ranging discussion he and XFL chairwoman/fellow co-owner Dany Garcia had with Tom Schad of USA Today, which was published Monday. That discussion also included Garcia guaranteeing there will be a XFL season next year:

Here are some of the comments from Johnson (seen above speaking to the crowd before the XFL season opener on Feb. 18) and Garcia to Schad on the ratings:

Garcia and Johnson said that, while they know the numbers, they do not view the old version of the league as a fair measuring stick for the new one.

“I think it’s really not apples-to-apples here,” Johnson said. “However, we do keep a close eye on these things. And you have to.”

The 2020 version of the XFL did not have to compete for viewers with the NCAA basketball tournaments, which were canceled due to COVID-19. And Garcia noted that the current XFL has different broadcast partners, with games televised entirely on Disney networks. (The 2020 iteration of the league split its rights between ESPN/ABC and Fox.)

“That distribution is important,” Garcia said. “It’s one piece of a really elegant puzzle that includes what we’re doing digitally, who we’re reaching.”

There are some valid points there. The lack of NCAA Tournament basketball competition in 2020 certainly matters, as both those men’s and women’s tournaments have been drawing well.  Granted, we don’t know how the XFL would have done against those tournaments in 2020: the league started its season Feb. 8 that year, 10 days earlier than this season’s start, and it cancelled the remainder of its season after five weeks due to the pandemic, a cancellation that took place at a similar time to those NCAA cancellation and so many other cancellations across sports. But the NCAA tournaments are definitely notable competition. (As was the well-watched World Baseball Classic, which was not held in 2020.)

And it’s been the last few weeks where the XFL ratings have looked particularly rough. The league averaged 506,000 viewers in Week 4 and 264,000 in Week 5, as per Jon Lewis at Sports Media Watch. (Ratings for this past weekend’s Week 6 games are not yet in). Week 4 faced competition from conference tournaments (which the XFL did face in 2020), but Week 5 saw it going head to head with the first weekends of both of the NCAA tournaments. Here are the full XFL ratings through five weeks in both 2020 and 2023, from that Sports Media Watch link above. (A viewable/copyable Google Sheet with this data is here.)

As that data shows, the XFL ratings certainly are way down in 2023 versus what they were in 2020. But the different broadcast arrangements are a notable part of that as well. Many of the games in 2023 start at later times (there have been 9 p.m., 10 p.m., and even 10:30 p.m. ET starts) than the 2020 XFL (which had 6 p.m. ET as its latest start window). And the 2020 split between Disney and Fox meant two different broadcast networks were involved, and they accounted for 12 of the 13 most-watched games through the XFL’s five-week runs, while this year has only Disney’s ABC. And ABC has only shown four XFL games so far (two of which were this past weekend and are not yet included in the ratings numbers above), thanks in part to the NCAA women’s basketball tournament. That tournament has had five weekend games on ABC to date, and will also air the championship game on April 2.

So there’s a huge lack of broadcast TV coverage for the 2023 XFL season so far relative to the 2020 XFL season. And the broadcast to cable divide is even wider in 2023 than it was in 2020 thanks to increased cord-cutting. The broadcast versus cable divide is not going to fully change in the second half of the season (only three of the remaining 20 regular-season games are set for ABC, plus the May 13 championship, so that remains much less broadcast TV exposure than the 2020 XFL had.

However, as Schad notes, nine of the XFL’s first 20 games this year were on FX, including five of the seven least-watched games. (Another ESPN one was simulcast on FX.) Only one of the remaining 20 is there, with six more on ESPN2, three on ABC, and 10 on ESPN proper. According to Page 11 of Disney’s 2022 annual report (released in November; their fiscal year ends in October), all three of those networks had estimated carriage (cable, satellite, and virtual MVPD) of 74 million households in September 2022 (thanks to Disney’s success at using their leverage to get all their channels carried), so there isn’t an actual access hurdle in terms of how many people can watch a game they’re looking for on FX rather than ESPN proper. (All XFL games until the playoffs are also simulcast on ESPN+ regardless of where they air linearly, so there’s extra access there also.)

But ESPN is a destination where people will watch whatever sport is there. ESPN2 is less so: that’s why ESPN ratings tend to be stronger than ESPN2 despite similar carriage, and that’s why it’s notable when an ESPN2 event beats an ESPN one. And FX is not a particular channel many sports fans automatically turn to. So Garcia’s comments to Schad on liking the distribution setup better for Week 6 and on have some merit:

“We have been very much in the pocket of understanding of where our ratings would be,” Garcia said. “We understood the challenges that would happen, all the way through Week 5. And as we get into Week 6 and the latter half of the schedule, we knew where it would open up. So we’re really pleased – really, really pleased with the execution.”

As we discussed on a recent episode of alternative football league podcast The Markcast, though, the question is what the ratings are going to be going forward. The trend with most spring leagues to date has been to start well, then see drops each week until playoffs and championship games. And we’ve seen that with the XFL to date, but with even a lower start than the 2020 XFL. We’ll see if better distribution for their games in the second half is enough to buck that trend.

It is, however, notable (as discussed up top) that Garcia publicly committed to at least a second season for the XFL here. Her full quote to Schad was “Absolutely, there will be a 2024 XFL season.” So, at least as per that, that decision is already made regardless of the ratings.

[USA Today, Sports Media Watch; photo from Raymond Carlin III/USA Today Sports]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.