XFL owners Dany Garcia, Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson take stock at season's midway point
XFL chairwoman Dany Garcia called it "a milestone."
With three Week 6 games over the weekend, this latest iteration of the XFL officially crossed the halfway point of its first regular season – while also surpassing the point at which the 2020 version of the spring football league shut down amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The monkey is off our back," Garcia told USA TODAY Sports on Friday. "We are now creating our history – a history that will not be compared to what happened in (the past), but our XFL history."
Garcia, actor Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and private investment firm RedBird Capital Partners purchased the XFL and its assets for roughly $15 million in August 2020, a few months after its previous ownership entity, led by World Wrestling Entertainment founder Vince McMahon, filed for bankruptcy.
Under this new ownership group, the XFL has expanded into new markets – including Las Vegas and San Antonio – while continuing to tinker with the rules of the sport, introducing several rules changes that have drawn interest from the NFL.
But the spring league has also grappled with many of the same challenges that its predecessors faced, fighting to draw eyeballs and fans during a busy stretch on the sports calendar.
With the second half of the XFL's season underway, Garcia and Johnson sat down with USA TODAY Sports on Friday to discuss the league's path to this point and its future.
TV ratings and attendance
The 2020 version of the XFL was generally viewed as a moderate success.
In the five weeks before it shut down amid COVID-19, the league drew an average television audience north of 1.8 million viewers per game, according to Sports Media Watch, and an average attendance of roughly 18,000.
By comparison, average TV viewership for the 2023 version of the XFL was down 64% over the same five-week period. And average attendance figures were down 21%.
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."
In addition to touting the XFL's digital engagement numbers as one of the areas in which the league is "making traction and how we're winning," Garcia also called attention to a second-half shift in the TV schedule.
While nine of the league's 20 games in the first half of the season were shown on harder-to-find FX, 13 of 20 in the second half are on either ABC or ESPN.
"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."
A long-term strategy
Another differentiating factor between the old XFL and the new, according to Garcia, is in the business strategy.
Where past spring leagues have played one season and sought to find a foothold, she said the XFL – and its partners like Disney – planned for the long haul from the start. That's why, even midway through their first season, they have already started to secure dates and plan for their second.
"This will come out later as far as what these dates are, but we have our showcases, we have our future combine, we are planning our dates," said Garcia, the first female owner of a major sports league.
"Absolutely, there will be a 2024 XFL football season."
Johnson said their passion for the league dates to their early time together at the University of Miami, where he played football and Garcia was on the Hurricanes' crew team. They married in 1997 and divorced a decade later but remain business partners.
Johnson has referenced his unsuccessful attempts to make a career in pro football, including a brief stint in the Canadian Football League. He referred to himself as "Player 54" – the guy who fell just outside the NFL's roster limit, which is 53 players – and described the XFL as the "connective tissue" that could've maybe given him another shot. It's part of the reason why he invested in the league.
"This isn’t one-and-done," Johnson said. "This isn’t 'let’s expand the portfolio, let’s make a little money and let’s get out of the game.' This truly is a passion project that has dated back to when we were kids coming out of the University of Miami."
Relationship with the NFL
The XFL announced last year that it would be partnering with the NFL to share data and ideas in a few key areas, including player safety, equipment and game data.
NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent referenced the importance of that data – and the need for more of it – in discussions about potential rules changes at the NFL owners' meetings during the weekend. The NFL has considered, among other tweaks, incorporating part of the XFL's kickoff rules in an attempt to prevent injury.
"We continue to stay close (with the NFL). We have collaboration, we have dialogue," Garcia said. "Obviously our rule changes are having a wonderful influence and are now being considered and examined – as they should be, as was the intent."
Johnson said "there is no competition" between the XFL and NFL, noting that the XFL specifically designed its schedule to give its players the best chance of latching on with an NFL team in May.
When asked if they foresee a time when the XFL could serve as a more formal feeder league for NFL teams, however, Garcia said not necessarily.
"I wouldn’t say intentionally we’re looking to be a feeder league to the NFL," she said, "but it is part of the evolution that, in success, we would be absolutely thrilled to see our athletes there."
Though the XFL's average attendance in the first half of the season hovered around 14,000, Garcia and Johnson said they've been thrilled by some of the atmospheres they've seen so far – from 38,000 fans at a St. Louis Battlehawks game in Week 4 to the sporadic rowdiness of smaller venues like Audi Field in Washington.
"That DC fandom is strong and passionate, and it’s creative," Garcia said. "And that beer snake is impressive."
Johnson said he understands why people might be hesitant or cynical about diving headfirst into XFL fandom, given that two of the past three attempts at spring football have come crashing down after less than a full season. (The USFL will return for its second season in April.)
But he also credited those who have come out to games, calling it "one of the coolest things I’ve experienced in sports."
"It’s one thing when we all go to a game and we go to see our favorite players and they’re stars and the world knows who they are," Johnson said. "It’s another thing when it’s just for the love of the game and the love and pride of the city, and the respect you have for these players who are just working their butts off, trying to make it."
Contact Tom Schad at email@example.com or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Dwayne Johnson, Dany Garcia assess XFL at season's midway point