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Alliance of American Football is surprise ratings hit on first night

Daniel Roberts
Senior Writer

A brand new professional football league, the Alliance of American Football (AAF), debuted on Saturday night in a primetime slot on CBS. And without much marketing or fanfare ahead of time, the two games (San Antonio Commanders vs San Diego Fleet, and Atlanta Legends vs. Orlando Apollos) scored a 2.1 overnight Nielsen rating.

That matched the 2.1 overnight rating of a big NBA game on ABC between the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder during the same time slot.

It was a ratings win on AAF’s first night.

Sunday games were not a hit

Day 2 was a different story. Sunday night’s game on NFL Network between the Arizona Hotshots and Salt Lake Stallions on NFL Network got a 0.4 overnight rating. (The other opening weekend game was on Sunday afternoon on CBS Sports Network, which does not report its ratings.)

As Sports Media Watch points out for comparison, the XFL earned an eye-popping 10.3 overnight rating in its NBC debut in 2001. But ratings soon tanked and the league lasted only one season. AAF founder Charlie Ebersol, whose father Dick Ebersol co-created the XFL with Vince McMahon, told Yahoo Finance last week that the AAF specifically avoided over-marketing its launch.

“The thing we didn’t want to do is what my dad and Vince [McMahon] did 17 years ago, which was start hammering promos seven months before the XFL,” Ebersol said on the Yahoo Finance Sportsbook podcast. “You pound people with it too much and at a certain point in time their expectation is so out of whack.”

De'Vante Bausby (No. 41) of the San Antonio Commanders celebrates with fans after intercepting a pass during the third quarter against the San Diego Fleet in an Alliance of American Football game on Feb. 9, 2019 in San Antonio, Tex. (Ronald Cortes/AAF/Getty Images)

Positive buzz on social media

Perhaps because the expectations were not sky-high, reaction to the AAF’s debut on social media was overwhelmingly positive.

The AAF’s mobile app became the No. 1 sports app in the iOS store, the league quickly amassed more than 200,000 followers on Twitter and Instagram, and ESPN showed highlights from Saturday night’s games on SportsCenter.

Two plays in particular from the first night were feverishly circulated on social media and even got posted to ESPN’s social accounts: a brutal sack of quarterback Mike Bercovici in the San Antonio vs San Diego game, and a thrilling trick play in the Atlanta vs Orlando game.

NFL alum Kurt Warner (not a disinterested party, since he hosted the first game’s pregame show) tweeted that the AAF had a “successful — well received — & entertaining opening night” and that the AAF players “need this league to get a 2nd chance.”

At the very least, Saturday’s numbers suggest that Americans have an appetite for more football on TV during the NFL offseason.

The AAF is off to a promising start, but now it must maintain the steam—and eyeballs—over the course of its three-month season. One hurdle: AAF games won’t be back on national CBS until the championship game on April 27. Until then, its games will air on CBS Sports Network, NFL Network, Bleacher Report’s streaming platform B/R Live, and one game on TNT.

Listen to AAF CEO Charlie Ebersol on the Yahoo Finance Sportsbook podcast:

Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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