The Return of XFL
Yesterday, WWE majority shareholder/CEO/Chairman Vince McMahon announced a long-rumoured return of his failed XFL football league for the first time since 2001.
The original XFL was a joint venture between the then World Wrestling Federation (WWF, now WWE) and NBC, but it flopped massively costing each partner around $35M and folding after one season; but rumours began circulating about an unlikely revival after McMahon sold off a chunk of his WWE stock – around $100M worth – to form Alpha Entertainment late last year.
At a press conference yesterday McMahon announced little about the upcoming XFL restart. 8 teams, league owned, playing a ten game regular season with 40 man rosters. Four teams will make end of season play-offs to crown the champions. The league will restart in 2020, probably in January or February meaning it will kick off more or less as the NFL season ends. He has hinted at fewer commercial breaks and wants a game to run around two hours not three as that is too long – a sentiment which must have Monday Night Raw viewers scratching their heads. A few other details have emerged – such as the league not being open to any player with a criminal record and no political statements are allowed – but I’m more interested in why the old XFL failed and how the new league can overcome these obstacles.
Having not been into football when the XFL was first around I’ve had to read about it to gain a better understand of its failures and there are no reasons why the new XFL can’t overcome the problems which did for its predecessor.
One such problem was a fundamental issue with its ownership. The original league was part owned by NBC and while having a major TV network as an owner must seem like a good thing, in reality it just meant that the other major sports broadcasters – such as ESPN and Fox – simply ignored the league, starving the XFL of attention. After all why would they promote a rival’s product?
With the new league being owned solely by Alpha Entertainment this isn’t an obstacle anymore – and the XFL can take advantage of a resource the original league, of its time. Simply couldn’t – online streaming. With the proliferation of content providers such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu and Yahoo! all wanting content the XFL is now in a much better position to get a good deal going forward possibly with multiple providers and it even has the option of launching it’s own streaming subscription service similar to the NFL’s Gamepass.
The other major criticism of the original XFL was the quality of play; and again McMahon has taken steps to mitigate this issue. The first time around the league was rushed into existence, meaning teams had little time to practice together before the first round of fixtures. The first few games felt vastly inferior to the quality of the NFL and audience ratings plummeted – not helped by the first televised game being a one-side blowout. But it’s my understanding that those who stuck with the league found the quality much improved by the end of the first – and so far last – season. By holding back on kick-off 2.0 until 2020 and with teams likely being formed sooner rather than later, McMahon is giving the teams the best chance of getting rosters together and practice sessions to begin well ahead of time. He also has time to get rules firmly in place, rather than revising them mid-season like last time out.
McMahon’s link to wrestling also proved a factor in the downfall of the XFL. Wrestlers heavily promoted the product, wrestling commentators announced XFL games and playing up to the “attitude era” style of WWE (then WWF) at the time the cheerleaders were especially scantily clad and the people associated with the league as a whole were encouraged to try and manufacture soap-opera style dramas to attract attention. Some bookmakers even refused to take bets on the matches, believing them to be rigged like a WWE bout.
This time McMahon has said that the league will remain separate from WWE (hence the creation of Alpha Entertainment) so expect any cross-promotion to be low-key. McMahon won’t be a public figurehead of the new venture. WWE has moved on since the Attitude era into a much more family friendly product too, so there is no reason to believe some of the “extras” will return to the new look XFL.
While there are obvious risks, McMahon still seems intent on creating a fun, lively, less rule-ridden alternative to the NFL and seems to have learned from his mistakes, at least in terms of how the league has been founded. Wheher it delivers entertaining and competitive football which the public take credibly remains to be seen.