FALCON POINTS

XFL makes a good first impression, but history tells us that's the easy part for start-ups

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The XFL debuted to a surprising buzz over the weekend. The games were well attended (all around 17,000), the product was better than expected, and TV ratings were solid.

The Houston entry, the Roughnecks, were one of the most impressive teams over the weekend, led by quarterback P.J. Walker, whose escapability and playmaking gave local fans something to cheer about.

Disclaimer: The games are being broadcast live on our station, ESPN 97.5, with the incomparable John Granato on the call. So I hope the league succeeds, because that is good for business. Having said that…

First impressions

New leagues always do well opening week. Fans are curious and tune in. Sustaining it is always the issue. The first night of the original XFL drew a TV rating of over 10. The AAF had almost three million viewers in its debut and barely lasted a few more weeks. The new XFL topped that, but can it continue to keep fans interested?

I can't speak to the in-stadium experience, but plan to attend this week's game. However, the TV broadcast was terrific. Hearing the refs talk through the reviews and the transparency that came with it was fantastic. The coach interviews and playcalling were interesting too. There is always a chance the TV product is so good people do not go to the games.

The quality of play was pretty solid and clearly better than the AAF, although only one of the four games was close. That's to be expected with a startup, though.

The embracing of gambling is a good thing, although the announcers clearly have little knowledge in that regard and were just pandering to the audience. That, too, is to be expected.

The rules changes had surprisingly little impact on scores. The kickoff rule is interesting, as are the extra point options. But in general, teams stayed conservative and it was a lot closer to traditional football than some weird hybrid.

So what happens next?

Sustaining the crowds and TV ratings is a must. The league itself has solid coaching, which should make for more competitive games down the road. It also has Oliver Luck running things, which is a positive. Luck knows what he is doing.

But none of that matters if they can't keep people engaged. They have a smart model; they aren't trying to be the NFL, or hope the NFL subsidizes them like the AAF. They are trying to be a fun spring football league.

Can it work beyond Week 1? That remains to be seen, and it is easy to be skeptical. People have short attention spans, and March Madness is around the corner. Will people still be interested then?

A lot to learn

One of the criticisms is that most people don't know many of the players. That's fair. The league is hoping stars will emerge and people will get to know them then. P.J. Walker is clearly off to a good start in Houston. It's safe to say no one in Houston had heard of Nick Holley before Saturday. Players will need to emerge so fans will buy jerseys in addition to generic gear.

Judging from TV, there was a surprising number of fans in that gear at the game. Whether it was curiosity, the throw back to the Oilers with the name and logo, Bill O'Brien fatigue or the combination of all of the above, it went over well with a fan base that was engaged. They seemed to have fun. Our SportsMap coverage of the opener was well received.

Like them, as a football fan and a person who likes to wager, I enjoyed Week 1. But I'm also like a lot of people; will I stay interested in Weeks 4 and 5?

That is the XFL's multi-million dollar question. And we won't have an answer after one week.


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Everyone should be talking about the Cougars! Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images.

You’re burying the lead!

Lately I’ve been watching our local news … “and now here’s (fill in the blank) with sports.”

“Over at Toyota Center, the Rockets came up short and dropped another one to the Jazz or maybe it was the Pelicans or … does it really matter?”

It doesn’t matter. The Rockets have lost 10 games in a row, 15 of their last 16, and they’re in last place in the Western Conference with the NBA’s worst record. They’re on track to finish with an even worse record than last year, when they also had the worst record in the league. Their last three losses were all blowouts, dropping each game by 20-plus points. They’re terrible and getting terrible-er.

Meanwhile in the shadow of downtown there’s another basketball team with “Houston” on the front of their jerseys. That team is a different story, and it should be the lead story.

The University of Houston is 17-1, undefeated in the American Athletic Conference, riding an eight-game win streak, ranked No. 1 in the country and the betting favorite (+550 at Fanduel) to make the Final Four and win the whole March Madness tournament. That’s No. 1 ahead of Kansas, Duke, North Carolina and all the other traditional college powerhouses. The NCAA title clash essentially could be a home game for the Cougars on April 3 at NRG Stadium in Houston.

It all ties into a neat little bow for coach Kelvin Sampson and the red-hot Coogs.

And here’s another reason why the Cougars deserve our support and the sports section headline: every player on the UH team came here because they wanted to play for Houston. Rockets players are in Houston because that’s where they were drafted or traded, or in some cases because they couldn’t get a better deal with any other team.

UH players fell in love with Houston. Rockets players are in arranged marriages.

So why are the UH Cougars relegated to a mere mention before the sports anchor hands it off to the weatherman for a final update on tomorrow’s forecast?

It’s would be understandable why the Rockets hold the media’s attention ahead of the Cougars if this were a typical big market. The pros are bigger, faster and better than college players. But this is Houston, where the local college team is No. 1 in the country and the pro team is dead last in the NBA.

Even if all things were equal, which they’re not, the UH story is more compelling than the Rockets’ tale of woe. UH has a personable, inspirational coach, Kelvin Sampson, one of the most successful figures in the college game. The Rockets coach, Stephen Silas, has a low-key personality and, not entirely his fault, one of the most futile won-loss records in NBA history.

UH has a legit superstar, Marcus Sasser, a first-team All-American pick, a team leader who’s playing in his final season for the Cougars. The Rockets’ top veteran is Eric Gordon, a sourpuss who wants off the team in the worst way and the Rockets are trying their best to accommodate him.

UH is on track to make a lot of noise on the road to the Final Four, like they’ve done six times, the most recent in 2021. UH holds the frustrating record for most Final Four appearances without a championship trophy. Another good storyline. This could be their year, and what better place than their own backyard at NRG Stadium?

It’s not like the Rockets have a serious shot at the NBA Finals, but apples to apples, the NCAA tournament is a bigger deal than the NBA playoffs.

March Madness charges more for TV commercials than any sports event in the U.S. with the exception of the NFL playoffs. March Madness brought in $1 billion in ad revenue in 2021, more than the NBA playoffs and double MLB’s postseason.

Last year’s March Madness championship game had 18.1 million viewers. Last year’s championship game of the NBA Finals drew just under 14 million viewers.

It’s estimated that some 35 million Americans will fill out a bracket for March Madness contests. I’ve never worked in an office where everybody puts down $5 to buy a square in a pool for the NBA Finals. I know a guy who scheduled his vasectomy for the start of March Madness figuring he was due some serious couch time.

March Madness is a national passion. The NBA Finals are a sports event.

Bottom line: the Cougars are the No. 1 team in college hoops, and they’re taking aim at the biggest, most celebrated prize in basketball. They are the pride of our city. So let’s give the UH Cougars the respect they deserve. Give ‘em the top story.

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