Prior to the season, analysts believed the XFL needed the gaming industry. Now it looks like the opposite could be true. The new football league, which offers different rules from the traditional NFL and a unique style of play, relaunched in early February. After more than a decade away, officials hoped to draw in fans with a variety of new tricks, including stronger links with the sports betting world.
While it’s still too early to make predictions as the season is just over two weeks old, the data has raised a potentially interesting question. What if, instead of just drawing new fans to the XFL, the presentation and marketing brought new customers into the gaming world? It’s a theory not without support. Each game features betting lines on screen, with prop bets and other occasional industry talk brought up by the commentary teams. If a viewer is unfamiliar with gaming concepts, seeing the lines might make them want to learn more.
Can XFL Grow Gaming Audiences?
It’s not like this hasn’t been tried before. The American Alliance of Football promised close gaming ties when it launched last year, but it never followed through. In addition to struggles on the visual presentation, the product itself wasn’t that exciting. This was minor league football, with mistakes not even seen on a college level. As a result, ratings dipped from a 10.3 to a 3.8 and finally 2.9 by the end of the season. If the XFL wants to learn from those mistakes, there needs to be one key difference, analysts say.
“If the sport becomes popular and compelling, the bets will follow,” said USA Sports Gaming managing editor Marcus DiNitto. “That’s just how it goes. The most bet upon events are the ones that get the highest tv ratings. Viewership doesn’t necessarily follow betting. It’s usually the other way around.”
In theory, the idea is simple. Even non-gamblers will get curious when they watch a product and start asking what prop bets are or who is favored in a game. Over the course of a season, those non-bettors can slowly be convinced to try their luck, either competing against friends or by just using the DraftKings app on their phone.
“The league sees it as a way to engage their audience in a meaningful way,” DiNitto said about the betting lines. “The XFL’s TV partners will be displaying point spreads and totals on their screen and encouraging announcers to talk about it. If they can put a good product on tv and in their stadiums, they might have a chance.”
Gaming Presents Challenges for League
So far, the numbers seem positive. According to the PointsBet site, there was a 20 percent increase in turnover from the first Saturday of the season to the second. That’s a key difference with last year’s AAF, where there was no improvement in betting after the first week. One challenge is that gamblers can’t simply walk in with a knowledge of the product. In fact, this is something entirely new in many ways. It may seem like the same sport of football, but multiple rule changes will affect everything from the spread to the various prop bets.
“This is a challenging thing for bookmakers and bettors,” DiNitto said. “Take the extra points for example. The numbers 3 and 7 are going to be a lot less meaningful. That’s going to create some uncertainty.”
He’s referring to the fact unlike in the NFL, extra points in this new league aren’t earned by simply kicking a field goal. Instead, teams have options to score 1, 2 or 3 points, with the difficulty increasing at each level. There’s also overall uncertainty about the teams, as all rosters are newly formed. It’s hard for bookmakers to get a handle on which operations should be favored.
“Some of the odds vary from book to book significantly,” DiNitto said. “One has the New York team ranked second and one has them last. It’s sort of a guessing game right now, which creates some opportunity for bettors.”
That can be both a positive and negative. On the one hand, never has there been a more level playing field for prop bets or overall wagers. Gamers and even those who have never placed a bet have the same knowledge about the league, the rules and the players. It could bring in new gamers or drive experienced ones away.
Partnerships Help Light the Way
One way the league hopes to navigate these challenges is through partnerships. For one, DraftKings serves this season as the official gaming operator for the XFL. Each week, the multiple DraftKings platforms help gamers place a variety of bets.
“The XFL is an innovative, fan-first league and DraftKings shares a mutual commitment to delivering a top-notch gaming experience,” said Ezra Kucharz, DraftKings CBO, in a statement. “We are confident that through this collaborative partnership, our highly engaged customer base will enjoy betting on the XFL.”
Much like the Barstool deal we discussed earlier this month, DraftKings helps the XFL by integrating the league’s marks, logos and player images into its gaming platforms. You make experienced gamers curious about the new league. At the same time, seeing DraftKings logos and images on XFL broadcasts can do the same for football fans, possibly getting them interested in sports betting.
“Sports betting has really been the missing aspect (of football broadcasts),” said Matthew McEwan, senior betting analyst with Sports Betting Dime. “Seeing how willing they are to promote it is going to really help this league stick around. I didn’t expect this league to do extremely well, but they’ve identified an opportunity.”
In his column, McEwan points out that some sportsbooks reported action above $100,000 for the league. That’s above what’s expected for a new league and highlights a growing interest for gamers. Now the question for the gaming industry is if this interest can be sustained.
Vice President of Communications, JBK International