Why The XFL Could Succeed…But Probably Won’t

Much like the Edsel, New Coke and My Mother The Car, the XFL was not, shall we say, an unalloyed success when it debuted in 2001. A co-production of NBC and the WWE, the XFL promised to deliver a harder-hitting, tougher, hipper brand of football than the No Fun League. (In fact, “XFL” stands for “eXtra Fun League”. I’m not making that up. I just wish I was.) Despite the backing of NBC, despite the WWE being red-hot at the time, despite some innovations in the game, the XFL lasted for a single uninspiring, poorly-rated season before the plug was mercifully pulled. It stands as the most spectacular of Vince McMahon’s many non-WWE failures. At best, it’s gained a Showgirls-like “so bad it was good” sort of reconsideration.

However, unlike the colossal failures mentioned at the top of the column, the XFL is not entirely dead. Vince McMahon decided it’s high time to resurrect the league. (Again, I’m not making this up. I just wish I was.) The announcement of the new version of the league was a tad light on specifics. We do know that the league will begin in 2020. It will consist of 8 teams, all owned by the league (consistent with the original version of the XFL.) A speedier game is promised, with a max time of two hours per game. The venture will be run by McMahon’s Alpha Entertainment, a company separate of the WWE (although reportedly funded by McMahon cashing in some of his shares in WWE.) Players will receive a base salary, but will be given bonuses for victories. National Anthem protests will not be allowed. Anyone with a criminal record need not apply. Beyond that, which cities will host XFL teams, what time of the year the games will be played and who the league’s broadcasting partner will be have not been solidified.

Will the XFL succeed any better this time out? Well, let’s give it a look-see.

WHY THE XFL COULD SUCCEED

INNOVATION

For all it’s shortcomings, one thing the original XFL did not lack was a willingness to try new ideas. The Opening Scramble (in which a player from each team sprinted to try and gain possession of the ball) replaced the coin toss. There were no extra point kicks (instead, teams ran a two-point conversion-like play for a single point.) Overtimes were done similar to college and high school overtime. One player on offense was allowed to run toward the line prior to the snap. And several restrictions were made for punting (essentially discouraging the practice.) League coverage also made extensive use of the “sky cam” to get more interesting perspectives on the game; something the NFL would adopt shortly after.

Certainly, there’s room for innovation with the new league. Promising a two hour game is going to require some major tweaking to the rules of play. In terms of coverage, McMahon and company have never shied away from trying new things. The WWE was the first to introduce an over-the-top streaming service that combined live broadcasts with an on-demand library (the WWE Network). The WWE has used social media to engage with its fans in a way that none of the major sports leagues have done. If the XFL displays this kind of willingness to stay ahead of the curve, it has an excellent chance of creating it’s own distinct product.

CHANGING PERCEPTION

Among the reasons the XFL failed (if you talk to Vince McMahon, he’ll probably tell you THE reason it failed) was a lack of mainstream media coverage. Yes, the games were aired on NBC. But as far as ESPN, Sports Illustrated and most major media outlets were concerned, the league didn’t exist. Because of its connections to pro wrestling, it was treated the same way as wrestling, using the same paradox. Wrestling can draw tens of thousands of fans to stadiums, have thousands of websites devoted to it and be the highest rated show on basic cable….and still be treated by like an underground, fringe business by the media. Something whispered about, but never spoken of.

Seventeen years, in which WWE has been, for all intents and purposes, the only wrestling company worth talking about, has changed some of that bias. The websites for both ESPN and Sports Illustrated have pages devoted to the WWE. Wrestlers from the company routinely appear on Sports Center (usually in the lead-up to Wrestlemania.) ESPN recently aired (and heavily hyped) a 30-for-30 documentary on the career of Ric Flair. And there’s talk that Fox might begin airing or heavily invest in or outright buy the WWE. The name Vince McMahon is no longer synonymous with “carnival barker” or “charlatan”. All of that bodes very well for a new XFL.

THE WINTER OF THE NFL’S DISCONTENT

The original XFL was not the only attempt at creating a competitor for the NFL. It was simply the most recent. (Yes, I know there was a UFL more recently, but did you?) However, there’s a difference the current situation and the World Football League in the 70’s, the United States Football League in the 80’s and the first incarnation of the XFL. For the first time in memory, the NFL seems a bit vulnerable.

When NFL TV ratings were sluggish at the beginning of the 2016 season, most experts and league officials dismissed it, saying a contentious Presidential election was pulling viewers away from the NFL. (I honestly don’t know what one has to do with the other, but let’s go with that explanation.) However, the ratings decline continued into this season. Suddenly,  the NFL doesn’t have a statistical aberration on its hands. It has a full-blown problem.

There’s no lack of discontent with the league. The current “leadership” has bungled disciplinary matters, allowed its owners to hold municipalities hostage for newer, shinier stadiums, attempted to sweep the growing concussion problem under the rug and done very little to foster an atmosphere of trust between owners and players, let alone between the league and its fans. And that’s BEFORE we start talking about the National Anthem controversy. The NFL commissioner has never been held in high regard by the public, but Roger Goodell has taken things to a new low. His every action seems to scream that the NFL could care less about listening to its fans. (Ironic, given that most of Goodell’s worst bungles were due to his concern with public relations.)

So there’s an unique opportunity here for the XFL. Where other leagues were going for a slice of the NFL’s not-inconsiderable pie, this version of the XFL may be going after an increasingly-disaffected fan base. It will, if nothing else, answer a question: are football fans fed up with football or just fed up with the NFL?

WHY IT ALMOST CERTAINLY WON’T

MONEY, MONEY, MONEY

As mentioned above, Vince McMahon sold off about $100 million in WWE shares to fund Alpha Entertainment, the parent company of the XFL. Obviously, $100 million sounds like a lot of money to you, me and everyone else who didn’t benefit from the latest round of tax reform. But the NFL is a 14 BILLION dollar a year business. Going after them with $100 million sounds incredibly paltry. Hell, the NFL spends more than a $100 million on catering (and I’m not certain I’m exaggerating that for comedic effect.)

The interesting part is that McMahon is on the other side of the ring (sorry about the pun) in his fight with the NFL. In the wrestling industry, the WWE is an untouchable juggernaut. To give you an idea of things, when WWE comes to the Twin Cities, their shows are at either Target Center or the XCel Energy Center. Each building holds about 20,000 people. When the WWE’s closest “competition”, Ring of Honor, comes to town, they play the Eisenhower Community Center in Hopkins, a place that holds, charitably, about 500 people. Companies like Ring of Honor and Impact Wrestling can be as innovative with their product as they want, but their growth potential is limited. Sooner or later, most of their talent is going to go to WWE, because that’s where the money and the prestige is found. So it will be interesting to see what happens when Vince is the one being outspent.

NO SUBSTANCE

If you were to ask Vince McMahon, he’d tell you he’s not a wrestling promoter, he’s a television producer. Those who have followed the WWE product over the years will tell you that’s both a good and a bad thing. “Good” in the sense that the production values for WWE programming are network quality. There’s never been anything close to it in the history of pro wrestling. But “bad” in the sense that those production values seem to come at the cost of decent storytelling. Yes, there have some incredibly captivating storylines over the years. But more frequently, the brilliant production values and outstanding video packages cover up the lack of a decent story rather than augment what’s already there. Put simply, it’s all sizzle and no steak.

The original XFL fell right into this category. For all the innovations, both in coverage and game play, the actual product on the field was crap. A lack of talent certainly didn’t help (more on that in a minute), but McMahon didn’t seem to have thought out his actual product. At the press conference announcing the original league’s formation, McMahon swaggered about, saying the XFL wasn’t going to partake in any of those “sissy rules” that had made the NFL so soft. It was only after the season started that he realized those “sissy rules” were in place to encourage scoring. Weirdly enough, football fans find long-bomb pass plays more enjoyable than watching wide receivers get mugged on deep routes. Because McMahon apparently hadn’t thought past a marketing angle he could use at the opening presser, he spent the season scrambling to tweak the rules and encourage scoring. Much like WWE programming, the actual product was treated as an afterthought.

One article I read following the new XFL’s announcement said that Vince McMahon was very good at selling you things. I would argue the opposite. Between the World Bodybuilding Federation, WWE Studios and the original XFL, the ONLY thing Vince McMahon seems good at selling is professional wrestling (the one thing, it seems, he doesn’t WANT to be good at selling.) Even with two years to prepare, are we supposed to believe the new XFL will be any different?

WHEN WILL THE GAMES BE

With the announcement being light on specifics, there was no word as to what time of year the new XFL was going to hold its season. The original league, much like the USFL and the World League of American Football (later NFL Europe), had its games in the winter and spring, during the NFL off-season. No matter when the games are held, though, the XFL is in no-man’s land.

Three failed attempts would tell you that there’s simply no market for spring football. The game may be insanely popular, but every sport needs an off-season. Fans seem to enjoy spending winter and spring debating free agent moves and the draft rather than actively following a league. However, running games in the fall, opposite the NFL is recipe for disaster . A new league would struggle to get noticed while going up against not only the NFL, but college and high school seasons as well. Any lane to mainstream coverage would be closed down. Also, the XFL would have to house teams exclusively in cities that didn’t have NFL teams, as the NFL clubs would not be willing to share their stadiums with a league that’s trying to become a competitor. Speaking of which…

WHERE ARE THE TEAMS GOING TO PLAY

Most every erstwhile NFL competitor has followed the same strategy: you HAVE to put franchises in New York, Chicago and LA and from there, you aim at markets that don’t currently have an NFL team.  This was easier at one time than it is now. When the American Football League, the only successful competitor the NFL ever faced, was founded in 1960, 5 of its original 8 franchises played in cities that did not have an NFL team. This was not particularly difficult, as the NFL had only 13 teams. By the time the WFL was founded in 1974, the NFL had 26 teams. The number grew to 28 teams by the time the USFL was founded in 1983. When the original XFL started play in 2001, the league had 31 teams and was due to add another in 2002 (bringing it up to the current total of 32 teams.) The long and the short of it (well, too late for the short of it) is that there aren’t that many markets left where the new XFL can put a franchise.

The spread of the NFL’s tentacles has made finding homes for competing leagues difficult to come by. Cities that don’t have NFL franchises tend to fall into one of two categories. There are cities like Portland, Orlando and Memphis that don’t directly host NFL teams, but have had franchises nearby for so long that fans there are accustomed to rooting for those teams. Otherwise, there are cities like St. Louis, San Diego and (by the time the new XFL opens) Oakland that have recently lost NFL franchises. I can tell you from experience that these markets aren’t as easy to capture as one might think. When the Minnesota North Stars moved to Dallas in 1993, a minor league franchise called the Minnesota Moose came in, hoping to replace the Stars in the hearts of Minnesota hockey fans. It was like having your wife leave you and then getting hit on by Darla, the dive bar waitress with the multiple tattoos, the gap teeth and the stretch marks. You don’t exactly feel like you’re making a lateral move (pardon any pun that might be there.)

Bottom line: the NFL hasn’t left a lot of growth room for potential competitors. (If you’re tempted to feel sorry for Vince McMahon, please know that this is largely how he drove the old wrestling territories out of business and made the WWE a juggernaut.)

WHO’S GOING TO PLAY THERE

This might be the thorniest issue the new league faces. The popularity of a new league is not predicated on its game play, its coverage or its simple existence. It needs star power. Or even just a decent collection of competent players And the XFL isn’t necessarily in a position to acquire either of those.

Here again we SEEM to find a spot where the NFL might be vulnerable. Botching the league’s disciplinary process has made Commissioner Roger Goodell about as popular among the players as jock itch. Getting away from Goodell and his “I just THINK you’re guilty” approach and going to a league owned by a guy who (if rumor and eyesight is to believed) actively covers up his performers many steroid abuses would, on the surface of it, seem rather attractive. But there’s A LOT more there to keep the NFL in the driver’s seat.

Let’s start with money. (We could also end here, but I’m going to ask you to indulge me in a few other things as well.) As mentioned above, $100 million seems like a lot of money to average folks like us. But when trying to start a big time football league, you realize it doesn’t get you far. Want to make a big splash and sign, say, Cam Newton? Great. Cam averages $20 million a season. Meaning you have to go significantly higher than that PER YEAR just to turn his head. You see how fast $100 million would disappear?

Of course, you could found the league on the principle that you’ll develop your own stars. Your game would have to be EXTREMELY entertaining. Otherwise I’m just watching a bunch of unfamiliar helmets and jerseys, stuffed with meat sacks I’m even LESS familiar with, run around a field and play a game that roughly resembles football. That’s how the original XFL was founded and where did it get them? As Bob Costas described the league’s play: “It has to be at least a decade since I first mused out loud, ‘Why doesn’t somebody combine mediocre high school football with a tawdry strip club?’ Finally, somebody takes my idea and runs with it.”

And even if the XFL found the money to draw some NFL stars, would anyone really go? Yes, there’s the matter of Goodell and his disciplinary process. But there’s also the matter of McMahon and his decrees about standing for the national anthem and not hiring players with a criminal record. It’s the same slight-of-hand racism practiced by McMahon’s buddy, Donald Trump. Not exactly appealing to a league in which 70% of the players are black.

And on top of THAT, NFL teams can afford well-paid training staffs and top notch facilities. The franchises, if not the commissioner, can give players the feeling they’re being taken care of. How, exactly, is the XFL going to compete with that? Very few players would risk their health on a pig-and-a-poke league like the XFL if they didn’t have to.

The players the XFL will likely draw are players cut from NFL rosters. Even there, McMahon’s poisoned the water hole a bit by saying he does not see the XFL as a developmental league for the NFL. Too bad. It’s the one niche that could help the XFL succeed.

PUBLIC RELATIONS

As I’ve written at length, Donald Trump cannot countenance being questioned by anyone other than sycophants on his payroll. Vince McMahon is that, taken to the nth degree. Damn near EVERY appearance McMahon makes outside of his tightly-controlled environment in the WWE’s offices turns into a complete fiasco. His appearance on Bob Costas’ On The Record was widely-regarded as the final nail in the XFL’s coffin. He was defiant, belligerant and downright hostile, so much so that Costas was worried about his own safety. You can check it out here, but I’ll warn you, it makes for uncomfortable viewing.

There’s no reason to believe that Vince McMahon, now nearing his mid-70’s, will be any more amenable to having his business questioned. Far from being the “brilliant salesman” he’s cracked up to be, McMahon’s various media blunders simply underscore the idea that he’s a pro wrestling huckster; a giant gas bag never to be taken seriously. Say what you will about Roger Goodell (and I frequently do), when it comes to PR, Goodell looks like “Slick Willie” Clinton compared to Vince McMahon. And I doubt there will be a time when McMahon is NOT the face of the XFL. He simply won’t allow it.

Yes, you can hope that McMahon has learned his lesson from the first go-round with the XFL and will adjust accordingly. But there’s one thing that keeps telling me that McMahon didn’t learn anything from the original XFL.

If he had, he wouldn’t be starting the league again.

JOE DAVIS is the main character in a series of mystery novels by Randall J. Funk. Mr. Davis and Mr. Funk are delighted by the shocking similarities in their opinions and writing styles.

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