CASE STUDY: XFL Dragons
Launching A “Reign of Fire” Over Seattle Sports
The original XFL, launched in 2001 by wrestling magnate Vince McMahon, was supposed to be a wilder brand of pro football than the NFL. That experiment failed after only one season but lived on in popular culture thanks to its colorful approach to marketing itself and its stars, like encouraging players to use nicknames – like The Truth, Deathblow or, most famously He Hate Me – on the back of their jerseys. The XFL was rebooted in 2020 as a more traditional football league that partners with the NFL to test innovative rules and technology. The league has not completely abandoned its roots in professional wrestling, as it is owned in part by former WWE superstar Dwyane “The Rock” Johnson, who serves as the face of the XFL.
The Seattle Sea Dragons (formerly just Dragons) are one of eight XFL teams, and play their home games at Lumen Field, home to the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, MLS’ Seattle Sounders and NWSL’s OL Reign. They are coached by former NFL Head Coach of the Year Jim Haslett, and feature a number of former NFL players, including star receiver, and former Seahawk, Josh Gordon.
Regardless of whether it competes directly against the NFL, launching a successful new professional football league in America has proved exceedingly difficult. The most successful, The AFL, lasted nine seasons from 1960-1969, and eventually merged with the NFL. The USFL launched in 1983 and was able to sign star players including Herschel Walker, Reggie White, Jim Kelly, and Steve Young, but still folded after just two years. Meanwhile other leagues like the Alliance of American Football and the original incarnation of the XFL didn’t even last full seasons.
Succeeding in such a challenging business environment requires more than a compelling product but also a connection with the community and with fans. Such a connection is even more important in a city like Seattle, which is well known for its enthusiastic sports fans – from “The 12’s” who literally make so much noise it can be measured on a Richter scale, to the 15 year movement to #SaveOurSonics – and for memorable fan experiences, like the Sounders’ famous March to the Match, or the unique tradition of “sailgating” on Lake Washington before Husky games. That is why the Seattle Sea Dragons turned to posterGIANT for the launch of the XFL in 2020.
Relying on years of experiential and out-of-home marketing, posterGIANT conceived of a launch campaign that would both build enthusiasm ahead of the Sea Dragons first ever home game, and create a tradition that would resonate with fans. The centerpiece of the campaign was the production and distribution of thousands of orange towels emblazoned with the team’s logo – the goal for this initiative was two fold: First to give fans a tangible means to establish a connection with their new football team, and second to create a memorable visual gameday atmosphere, where thousands of twirling towels make it look as if Lumen Field has been engulfed in dragon’s fire.
posterGIANT assigned two dozen people to street teams that engaged with members of the community at major events, and at sports bars across the city, handing out towels and driving excitement for the Launch of the XFL and the Sea Dragons first game. Fans were asked to post photos of themselves with team towels to their social media and/or a landing page posterGIANT created for the Sea Dragons in partnership with local Seattle communications company Rocket Dog. Finally posterGIANT created giant Sea Dragon banners which were displayed in high traffic areas during both the morning and evening commutes.
Thanks in no small part to the help of posterGIANT, the Sea Dragons enjoyed what is widely considered the most successful team launch in the league, topping the league both in terms of ticket sales and attendance, as well as merchandise sales. The team also generated significant enthusiasm in the community, boasting the largest social media footprint of any XFL team, and earned the endorsement of notable Seattle sports personalities, including Seattle Seahawk’s tight end Will Dissly, who shared photos of himself with his Sea Dragons towel.
The strength of the team’s launch guaranteed that the newly renamed Sea Dragons would return for the 2023 season after two years during which the league suspended operations in the wake of the COVID pandemic. In a statement announcing the league’s return, Sea Dragons coach Jim Haslett referenced the enthusiasm generated in 2020, saying; “A storm is coming, and we’re bringing the excitement (from 2020) back. The Sea Dragons are ready to play hard and smart for our fans in one of America’s great football cities.” His comments demonstrate the lasting impact an effective and engagement marketing campaign can have, no matter how challenging the business landscape.