The Alliance of American Football made its debut on Saturday, and the TV ratings indicate a preliminary success. The league’s debut CBS broadcast drew 2.9 million viewers, which exceeded the 2.5 million viewers of ABC’s competing primetime broadcast of the Houston Rockets hosting the Oklahoma City Thunder.
On Sunday, Arizona hosted Salt Lake on NFL Network at 8 p.m. ET and drew a 0.4 rating. That amounts to approximately 408,000 viewers. One expert on the topic of sports TV ratings believes the league would be happy with that kind of number. By comparison, Johnny Manziel’s Friday night CFL debut on ESPN2 had a 0.3 rating. It is not an entirely apples-to-apples comparison, but it gives us a little bit of context.
The AAF broadcast two games on CBS at 8 p.m. ET on Saturday. The San Antonio Commanders hosted the San Diego Fleet, and the Orlando Apollos hosted the Atlanta Legends. Different regions got either game, but together they combined for the 2.9 million average. Moving forward, the league will not be scheduling concurrent games, and they will not air again on CBS until the championship game.
There is a contrast to the XFL’s big opener in 2001
In 2001, the XFL debuted to a huge number, with 9.7 million viewers providing NBC with double their normal viewership in that time slot. A week later, their ratings split in half, and continued dropping, with only a slight increase in Week 8 and for the championship game. The WWE and NBC decided to cancel the league at that point.
There are several differences between the AAF’s debut and the XFL’s debut. Most notably is the promotion for the league. The WWE and NBC heavily promoted the XFL debut. They talked up the drastic changes they were offering, raising the curiosity factor.
There was a curiosity factor to the AAF’s debut, but the promotion factor has not been the same. The league has promoted itself with national media, and there have been commercials to get people interested. However, the AAF has not been nearly as aggressive in promoting itself out of the gate. It does not view itself as a renegade league like the XFL branded itself. The AAF has made numerous rule changes to improve the viewing experience, but it is not promoting them as “not your dad’s NFL” like the XFL did 18 years ago.
Which brings us to…
An NFL partnership seems inevitable
The NFL is not a formal partner of the AAF, but it seems inevitable that a formal partnership emerges between the two. The NFL approved a Super Bowl commercial for the new league, and NFL Network is broadcasting two games per week during the season. The NFL will most assuredly not do that with when XFL 2020 launches.
The AAF has worked hard to brand itself as a developmental league, and we have seen numerous former NFL players and personnel involved in its launch, including Troy Polamalu, Hines Ward, and Michael Vick. The NFL will inevitably steal some of the league’s better ideas (dear God, please offer the instant replay review transparency!), but this seems like a future version of NFL Europe where ex-college players can go to hone their craft and get on the radar of NFL teams.
The NFL will never voluntarily give up the free development system they get from college football, but the AAF will provide an opportunity for players on the fringe of rosters. The changes in college football have created a wider development gulf for players trying to transition into the NFL. Practice squads provide a chance for 320 players (ten per team) to get time on an NFL roster, but the development time for those players is incredibly limited.
A formalized partnership would seems like the inevitable end goal of the new league. It could provide an arena for players, coaches, and referees to get development time they cannot get in the NFL where you need to win now or you’re out the door.
People love their football
The NFL wrapped up the 2018-19 season a week ago when the New England Patriots beat the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl 53. It was a dull affair, but it will still finish the year as the highest-rated telecast on television. The NFL remains the king, with playoff games exceeding most everything else, sports or otherwise. Last year, five of the top 10 telecasts were NFL, with a sixth being the college football national championship.
The AAF provides another test to see how badly people want football during the offseason. The league is running from Feb. 9 to April 27, which means it will compete with the NBA, NHL, the NCAA basketball tournament, and the opening weeks of the baseball season.
The Arena Football League has faltered at times, but it has shown that there is a market for an alternate spring league. Arena football offers a drastically different version of the game, but the AAF is offering its own nuances. It is the very familiar version of football we know and love, but they’ve removed kickoffs, removed field goals in overtime, and sped up the game with fewer commercials. Tracking ratings this season will help us get a better handle on if little improvements like that can overcome a lesser quality of play.
The quality of play will be something to track
The biggest issue the AAF faces is the quality of play. The XFL got big ratings as a curiosity, but the play quality quickly proved to be atrocious. The AAF has some quality ex-NFL players involved, but offensive line and quarterback play is problematic. That’s to be expected considering the NFL has its own problems finding enough decent quarterbacks and offensive lineman to fill out their own rosters.
Poor play could lead to ratings issues, but if the league is able to expand into a more formal arrangement with the NFL, it opens the door for subsidization if sponsors decide it’s not worth heavier investment. The NFL previously tried to figure something out with NFL Europe, but eventually decided it was not worth the cost. The NFL has turned into a revenue juggernaut, and might be a little more open to subsidies this time around.
Fantasy and gambling could keep people tuning in
All of this is important in the big picture, but what will get people to keep watching on a regular basis in the first couple years of an alternate to the NFL? Fantasy football and gambling have been critical to boosting NFL ratings and revenue, and they could prove even more important to the AAF building a sustainable audience.
The 2.9 million debut audience is a solid debut, and beating a high-profile NBA matchup is something to talk about. However, it is worth noting that number is for the first ever broadcast, and it was on CBS. Between now and the playoffs, every game will air on either a more expanded cable channel (CBS Sports Network, TNT, NFL Network) or streaming on Bleacher Report’s B/R Live. It would be a stunning surprise to see another 2.9 million viewership number for a time slot this season. The 0.4 rating from Sunday on NFL Network could be improved, but it shows the disparity between airing on a basic broadcast channel and airing on a channel that usually requires an expanded cable tier.
That being said, the AAF’s attempts to lean into fantasy football and gambling could help it develop a consistently decent week-to-week audience. The league has placed tracking chips on each player to track everything from where they are on the field to how fast they are running.
On the AAF website, this tracking system let you follow players in games you weren’t watching, and in turn predict play outcomes. Out of the gate, it’s a fairly simple set-up with no stakes for the fans. Eventually, the league hopes to have a system in which its gambling partners can provide in-game odds, and accept wagers on a variety of proposition type bets. The league also hopes to develop this from a fantasy angle that does not require wagering.
Sports betting is growing in popularity as more states legalize it in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2018 decision to strike down the federal prohibition. The AAF is launching at the perfect time to ride the growing wave of legalization. They have not formalized the betting and fantasy aspects of the league, but if they lean into that, they can develop the kind of audience that will help incrementally grow the AAF into a sustainable league.