The newest edgy FX drama doesn’t rely on biker gangs, rogue cops, rural-country drug lords or a man left alone in a world filled with women. Instead, it will focus on football players.
A gridiron game might not normally qualify for association with series like “Sons of Anarchy,” “The Shield,” “Justified” or “Y: The Last Man.” but starting this week, there will be plenty of nail-biting at FX, which is picking up live sports for the first time in years. XFL games will turn up on the network on weekends, a way for Disney to keep showing all the NBA, NHL and college matches that ESPN fans expect, while making a bid to bring other viewers in with the lure of football in the spring, when the NFL is on hiatus.
Disney intends to label the broadcasts as “ESPN on FX,” an identifier that is reminiscent of “FX on Hulu,” where most of the network’s signature series are available for streaming, The labels give shout-outs to both content and distribution, telling viewers what they will get and where they will get it. The new nomenclature “tells the fans who have come to expect that quality, that storytelling that ESPN brings, it’s going to be on the FX network,” says Tim Reed, ESPN’s vice president of programming and acquisitions,” in an interview.
Scoring a touchdown with spring football is not a given. Many have tried to find a way to give fans more of the sport between the end of the NFL’s Super Bowl and the start of its teams’ training camps. A new version of the USFL, the spring league that tried to win fans for three years in the mid-1980s, was revived last year, owned in part by Fox Sport and telecast via Fox and NBCUniversal. Another would-be player, the Alliance for American Football, tried to launch in 2019, but found itself torn apart by shaky economics.
The XFL, meanwhile, first tested the field in 2001 as a joint venture of Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment and NBC. The league lasted for one season. McMahon tried the concept again in 2020, but its debut season was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic. Dwayne Johnson and Dany Garcia, along with Recbird Capital, bought the league for $15 million later that year, and its new debut is set for February 18. In total, Disney will show 40 regular season games, two playoffs, and one championship across a combination of ABC,the ESPN networks and FX.
ESPN thinks fans will thrill to heightened access to coaches and players. Locker rooms aren’t off-limits, and some players. There are more obvious nods to sports betting, which Reed says will be highlighted in graphics and on=air commentary. “Fans will be able to get a deeper integration into the game, which we think will obviously make the overall broadcast more compelling,” says Reed, who adds: “We’ve got an opportunity to potentially redefine how football games are covered and try new things. We could end up innovating in the XFL, and that becomes something we can utilized across sports and other shows.”
One new concept is “XFL Today,” a weekly studio show made available every week across ESPN’s social channels, YouTube and the ESPN app. The program lets fans interact live with hosts Jason Fitz and Skubie Mageza and former NFL wide receiver Andrew Hawkins. The debut pops on Sunday, February 19 leading into ABC’s coverage of the St. Louis Battlehawks taking on the San Antonio Brahmas and will largely air leading into the final game of the week.
Disney and ESPN have also tapped into the burgeoning trend of using a bespoke documentary to goose fan interest. R” Player 54: Chasing the XFL Dream,” takes viewers inside the XFL’s new launch and digs into stories about individual players. Behind-the-scenes league documentaries have taken on new luster for networks after Netflix found some success with “Formula 1: Drive to Surive,” an inside look at Formula 1 racing – a sport to which ESPN holds U.S. rights.
If all goes well with the games, says Reed, fans may have an unique opportunity to see the launch of a “league of tomorrow.” The next several weeks will tell if such a sport can triumph over yesterday.
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