In just over a year, there will be a new American football league, the XFL. Yet the XFL is not so new.
2001, the bombastic owner of the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), Vince McMahon launched the X-Treme Football League (XFL) to much fanfare (something BusinessOfSport.Net will go into in a future post).
Despite the XFL having broadcaster NBC backing it up for its inaugural season, both McMahon and NBC ended up losing $70 million in the venture. Things got so bad for the fledgeling league that it had to donate nearly a third of its advertising spots for free to existing advertisers because the TV ratings fell so short of guaranteed audience figures given by the league.
- The XFL will launch in February 2020, to avoid clashing with the NFL season.
- There will be 8 teams, including: Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, St. Louis, Seattle, Tampa Bay, and Washington, D.C.
- It will consist of a 10 week season, followed by playoffs and a championship game
The major question is, will it crash and burn like last time? Possibly, but a number of important factors have changed since 2001’s version of the league, that are both good and bad for the new-look XFL.
“A chance to do it with no partners, strictly funded by me, which would allow me to look in the mirror and say, ‘You were the one who screwed this up,’ or ‘You made this thing a success.'”Vince McMahon, 2018, Source: ESPN
Let’s start with the good.
- Deeper Pockets: McMahon expects to spend at least $500 million in the first three years of the XFL, with the first year costing at least $100 million. For the first version of the XFL, the simple fact is that he was heavily dependent on his broadcast partners (it was split 50% / 50% between McMahon and NBC). This time around, McMahon has much, much deeper pockets and his quote above illustrates, he will run things his way this time, especially as he is worth an estimated $3.2 billion. In 2001, he was worth a fraction of that.
- Broadcasting Landscape: No longer do sports solely have to survive on the whim of a big TV network, like NBC. In fact, the XFL has launched without announcing one single broadcasting partner, which would have been unthinkable in 2001. In fact, McMahon has turned the WWE into a digital media powerhouse with over 850 million social media followers, which produces over 600 hours of content for YouTube a week, helping to make it the number one sports channel on the platform. McMahon can tap into this expertise and utilise it very well for his new league.
- Personnel: While the quality of the games will largely decide the success of the league, the XFL has already signed up some major heavy-hitters to, at the very least, provide years’ worth of experience and expertise in how to run a league (something the original XFL was sorely missing). Oliver Luck (father of NFL quarterback Andrew), has joined as CEO and Commissioner of the XFL, leaving the NCAA where he was executive vice president for regulatory affairs.
- American football has changed: Again, McMahon pivoted heavily in 2008, making all WWE content PG-rated, which was in stark contrast to the “Attitude Era” where the WWF was quite liberal with its violence, swearing and other things. He’s making a similar bet on the XFL this time around too. Where the original league followed the WWF’s lead, he’s promised that the football will be “family-friendly” and politics free. Player safety is also a very hot topic and the XFL has committed to a health, wellness, and safety programme.
- Personnel (Part 2): The league will live or die by the quality of the game. The original XFL had, frankly, woeful quality, with very few breakout stars. The XFL, if it is to succeed, needs quality. However, if the XFL can make itself a de facto feeder league to the NFL, fans could tune in to see the next big thing, before they become the next big thing. Given the absence of a feeder league, since the demise of NFL Europe, this could be a good strategy to follow, but it is yet to be seen if the XFL will follow this route.
- Other Leagues: The XFL also won’t be the only new league in town, with the Alliance of American Football League (AAF) due to kick off in February 2019. The league will have eight teams and has already partnered up with American TV network CBS. In addition, Starter, the apparel brand which handled NFL jerseys in the 1980s has signed on as the official kit designers. In an interesting quirk, Charlie Ebersol, who directed ESPN’s excellent “30 for 30” on the XFL is actually running the AAF, and his father actually set up the original XFL with McMahon in 2001.
- “Less Stall More Ball”: Let’s be honest, the NFL product is great. The ratings (which have climbed once more) are evidence of this. How the XFL will differentiate itself will be critical. Shortened games are a plus (the XFL has committed to 2-hour games), yet this won’t be enough to really pull fans in. The digital experience will be critical, as will innovative ways to bring game data to fans. Again, given the WWE’s expertise in this area, we could see the league present some really innovative approaches to the game experience.
- WWE Pulling Power: The original XFL relied heavily on WWF stars to promote the league, including an appearance by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to boost the visibility of the league. This was at a time when the WWF reached record levels of ratings, usually about 6-7 million people for each edition of Monday Night RAW. Yet the WWE, as it is now called, is in the doldrums with a much smaller (albeit loyal) fanbase, with RAW recording its worst ratings ever in the summer of 2018, with just 2.3 million people tuning into the show. Yet McMahon has already committed to the fact that the league will also feature no crossover talent from the WWE.
What Will Happen?
The XFL faces a daunting challenge. The NFL is in an extremely strong position currently, yet, if the reformed league can differentiate itself enough, provide enough quality football, it might have a chance. Also, I think the league, regardless of its first-year performance, will last a number of years, given that McMahon is solely in charge this time around.
Get your popcorn ready.