YOU’RE WELCOME: XFL owners Gerry Cardinale of Redbird Capital Partners, Dany Garcia and Dwayne Johnson attend a game between the Seattle Sea Dragons and DC Defenders at Audi Field in Washington, D.C. Together, they purchased the XFL in 2020 for $15 million. (Getty Images)
The XFL is off and running with new stadium relationships in San Antonio, Las Vegas and Orlando and brand partners including ZOA Energy to help kickstart the reboot of the eight-team professional football league.
Actor and former WWE star Dwayne Johnson, his ex-wife Dany Garcia and Redbird Capital Partners purchased the league for $15 million in 2020 after the league filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. In 2001, Vince McMahon, chairman and CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, and Dick Ebersol, chair of NBC Sports, started the short-lived renegade league, which eschewed many of the NFL’s rules and safety protocols and billed itself as a more extreme and entertaining gridiron affair.
McMahon brought the league back in 2020 but, after the COVID shutdown, the league collapsed in the pocket(book).
The XFL is one of two major spring pro football leagues.
On April 15, the eight-team USFL, branded after the old 1980s league of the same name, starts its second season of play.
For the XFL, eight teams share a hub at Choctaw Stadium in Arlington, Texas, with participating teams flying to scheduled games and hosting events with fans in each market. Carryover teams from 2020 are Houston, Seattle, St. Louis, Washington, D.C. and Arlington.
Teams that did not return for 2023 are Los Angeles, New York and Tampa, Florida.
Identifying markets and partners for the current season was an intentional and lengthy process looking at market size, fan base and other tenants, according to Janet Duch, chief marketing and team business operations officer for the XFL. They settled on a mix of venues, including Cashman Field in Las Vegas, which typically hosts the Las Vegas Lights FC of the USL and was originally built as a baseball stadium.
“We knew the demand for spring football was there,” said Duch, who served as president of the old New York Guardians during the previous incarnation of the league in 2020. “Being disciplined and making that sustainable long term was the vision of new ownership.”
The XFL regular season, 10 games for each team, five home and five away, kicked off Feb. 18.
The dome in San Antonio drew more than 24,000 people for the Brahmas’ first home game on Feb. 19. It was the largest crowd for any of the spring football league’s games on opening weekend, according to league officials.
“San Antonio sports fans are among the most passionate of any in the country, especially when it comes to football,” said Steve Zito, general manager of the Alamodome. “From the first day, the XFL became a reality for the Alamodome, supporters were all in on the new local franchise, from ticket sales to merchandise. The evidence of that could be seen and heard in the league-record 24,000 fans who packed the dome for the debut, and the continued popularity of the team in the days since.”
The Alamodome, which celebrates its 30th anniversary on May 15, will be the location of the XFL championship game on May 13. More than 1 million patrons have come through the doors at the Alamodome since January 2022.
“San Antonio has become a viable market for all genres of entertainment,” Zito said. “Over 30 years the dome has been the centerpiece of that.”
The XFL has a small staff at each venue to help handle operations. Logistics vary among stadiums and include everything from ordering goalposts to determining if the venue allows tailgating.
“We are a single entity,” Duch said. “So, the league is operating all eight teams and it comes down to organization.”
Collaboration is key. The league is aggressively engaging with its audience with activities that include field access for hundreds of fans during warmups. “In some buildings, it works and in some buildings we all compromise,” Duch said.
The league tailors marketing for each team. “We need to be part of the fabric of these cities,” Duch said. “Each city has its own fan base and a unique voice, a unique attitude and responds to things differently from a marketing standpoint.”
The XFL carefully selected team colors, logos and names, “staying focused on making sure that voice and that team brand is reflective of the community they are playing in,” Duch said.
The league controls all marketing and media buys, but ticket prices are dictated by the individual markets.
“A $20 ticket in the end zone is not true across all of our venues,” Duch elaborated. “We have different pricing models in each. One price really doesn’t fit all.”
The XFL and Ticketmaster announced a multiyear ticketing partnership on Aug. 2. Fans can use their mobile device to manage verified tickets via a download to a digital wallet or the XFL mobile app powered by Ticketmaster.
Additionally, fans can use a “virtual venue” map with 3D stadium views to make informed seat selections.
On the brand partnership side, there is a relationship with Under Armour, Progressive Insurance and Westgate Resorts among others, including ZOA Energy, which counts Johnson and Garcia as founders.
“As a startup brand, having these partnerships to reach a new audience is really important to us,” said Duch. “Having that innovation and creativity to co-create new programs and engagement on digital channels and in-stadium is where we have zoned in.”
ZOA Energy, which launched in 2021, was the presenting sponsor for kickoff weekend. ZOA is the official and exclusive energy drink of the XFL for the 2023 season with curated fan experiences, including pre-game tailgaters, ZOA Plinko and taking a virtual picture with Johnson, whose WWE ring name is “the Rock.”
Stadium activations include branded giveaways, tastings, promotions and access to exclusive ticket offers for all home games. During games, the end zones at each stadium are dubbed the ZOA Energy Fan Zone.
“Our ZOA Energy team will be immersed in each XFL city and stadium across the country,” said Johnson in a press release.
“Through this growing partnership, the XFL and ZOA Energy are opening the door for fans to participate in immersive activations and events — providing our community even more opportunities to engage with the league,”
added Garcia in a release.
The XFL did not make Johnson and Garcia available to speak for this story.
John Galloway, president and chief marketing officer of ZOA Energy, sees mutual benefits.
WASHINGTON, DC – MARCH 05: A general view as Daniel Whelan #19 of the DC Defenders punts against the St Louis Battlehawks during the first half of the XFL game at Audi Field on March 5, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
“A partnership with XFL, one of the most exciting professional sports leagues in the world, was a natural fit,” he said. “We both share a passion for our fans — to our very core — and we are working together to bring that energy
into stadiums every game, providing fans with even more opportunities to engage.”
The strategy behind the venue activations was simple. “Simply put, we wanted to achieve two main objectives at the venues: add value to the consumer experience on game day and educate them on our brand, which is still
quite young in the marketplace,” Galloway explained.
As part of the partnership, ZOA+ pre-workout supplement sponsors the XFL weight room, capturing video content that provides fans a sneak peek into the players’ performance and training at the Arlington hub.
ZOA is also utilizing its social channels in collaboration with the XFL to highlight game day activities.
“When we are not in stadiums, we are focused on our full-time job: selling ZOA at hundreds of thousands of retail outlets around the U.S.” Galloway offered. “As part of our XFL partnership, we have been able to take the XFL to these retail locations, with promotions giving consumers the chance to win trips to the XFL championship while spreading the awareness of the league.”
Technology, innovation and accessibility are central to the league’s game plan for reaching fans where they can connect. “We skew young, so we’ve got a channel strategy with our content and marketing teams of meeting the
fans where they are,” Duch said.
On the digital side, the focus is on storytelling for players and engaging with coaches. Because all the teams train and practice in one location, it’s easier to streamline and package video content.
The league broadcast partner is The Walt Disney Company and ESPN through 2027. Games are carried on ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, FX, live on ESPN+ and ESPN Deportes, which televises at least one game in Spanish each week.
The league also produced ESPN docuseries “Player 54.”
Camping World Stadium is owned and operated by the city of Orlando. According to Chief Venues Officer Allen Johnson, city officials were interested in hosting a team for several years, even after Tampa was ultimately
selected for the short-lived 2020 XFL incarnation.
“But, now, it’s exciting that they came to us,” Johnson told VenuesNow when the deal was announced. “We’re really enthusiastic about the new ownership and their investment into this product as well as the relationship they
have with ESPN and ABC.”
In week three, the XFL had an average of 571,000 viewers, which was a 13 percent drop from week 2. By comparison, week three viewership in 2020 for the league averaged 1.6 million.
In response, programmers are adjusting game schedules.
“They have got the pulse of football and we are building a fan base together,” Duch said.