Lessons from Fan Attendance in the Early XFL Season

The new incarnation of the XFL has now played three weeks of football, with each of the league's eight franchises playing at least one home game. After impressive television numbers in Week 1, the ratings have dipped each of the last two weekends. Week 3 games had just 52 percent of the opening weekend's viewership. If this trend continues, it won't be good news for the league in the bigger picture. But it's also worth noting that attendance numbers are on the rise — after four games drew 69,818 fans in Week 1, the total was up to 81,942 two weeks later. Of course, some XFL stadiums are larger than others, so crowd size isn't an apples-to-apples comparison. But two teams — the St. Louis Battlehawks and Seattle Dragons — have established themselves as popular draws. Putting a franchise in St. Louis has shown to be one of the XFL's more successful decisions. The city lost the Rams after the 2015 NFL season, but there's still a hunger for professional football that simply doesn't exist in other markets. To further exemplify this, the BattleHawks' Twitter account has nearly 93,000 followers, easily the most in the league. Meanwhile, only one team has come close to actually filling its stadium so far this season — the D.C. Defenders. They play at Audi Field, a 20,000-seat soccer stadium that hosts D.C. United in MLS. So while attendance numbers may look low, the games take place in front of a near-sellout crowd, creating the league's most raucous atmosphere. It helps the XFL's cause that D.C., which has suffered through nearly 25 years of frustration with the Redskins, has a new team to rally behind for the next couple months. Attendance figures and social media followings also point to a lack of traction in oversaturated markets. New York and Los Angeles, both in cities with two NFL franchises, are in the bottom half of the XFL in both attendance and Twitter followers. The L.A. Wildcats have struggled to fill a 27,000-seat soccer stadium, drawing just 14,997 for their opener and a season-low 12,211 for their next game (a drubbing of D.C.). The league's other four markets all have NFL teams, which seems to correlate with middling attendance (Seattle drew over 29,000 for its home opener but welcomed just over 22,000 the following weekend). These numbers contain some potential lessons for the XFL if it considers expansion in the near future, or for the next professional league that inevitably comes along someday. It's important to find a market that will embrace a new team on the block. Maybe the XFL will look at San Diego or Oakland, who've recently lost teams, or Atlanta, which dominates MLS attendance. The ratings might ultimately determine whether or not the league succeeds and continues, but it's worth studying this fan behavior on the local level. What factors seem to consistently draw fans to new teams? How can the XFL get their attention? And then, of course, how can they keep it?

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