Why the XFL Failed

BusinessOfSport.Net’s YouTube Channel

You may remember BusinessOfSport’s recent post on the XFL, and if it can survive its second attempt at launching a professional American football league.

Ahead of the biggest games in the NFL’s calendar this week, in this post, we look into exactly why the competitor Xtreme Football League (XFL) failed in the first place.

To start with, incredibly enough, the XFL’s original website from 2001 is still viewable (see it here). It’s an incredible resource for those wanting to learn more about the league.

If ever an analogy summed something up, a blimp promoting the first XFL, in 2001, actually crashlanded into a restaurant in Oakland (see here). This incident really sums up the XFL: it was chaotic, quite unplanned and ultimately, it crashed and burned quicker than anyone thought possible.

The league was launched to a huge level of fanfare, with a focus on taking on the “No Fun League” as XFL owner Vince McMahon called the stronger, more credible NFL. He promised “smash mouth football” and ex-NFL hardman, Dick Butkus bellowed that the league would “kill the guy with the ball”. Its key differentiators from the NFL would be extremely violent play, mixed with a non-PG type of content (much like the then-WWF).

Yet, the XFL only lasted a measly season. Despite pulling in roughly 58 million viewers for its first game on NBC in 2001, the league quickly flatlined, with just 2 million tuning into the “Million Dollar Game”, the final game of its inaugural season.


The Rules Of The First XFL

  • Fair catches were banned
  • Defensive players could contact offensive players all the way down the field
  • There were no kickoffs, instead a “scramble” where the first player to get the ball would decide if they would attack or defend
  • Players could pick what they wanted their jersey to say. This led to Rod Smart’s “He Hate Me” name tag (see below)

Why Did the XFL Fail?

1. Just awful football

There’s no pussyfooting around it, the quality of football in the XFL was nothing short of atrocious. Despite a pool of roughly 1,600 players to pick from, an XFL Draft was held in 2000 where 475 players were picked, but it failed to find much if any quality players for the eight teams in the XFL. Just three of the 475 players from the league ever even played in a Super Bowl, with only one player winning the Lombardi Trophy, yet Tommy Maddox was only a backup too.

One of the XFL’s biggest problems, outside of the complete lack of talent, was that it removed penalties against defensive interference down the field. This led to games being extremely low scoring, boring as defenders, could, in effect, disrupt receivers anywhere on the field.

2. Little, to no player safety

With the XFL introducing the “scramble” as mentioned above, it was a microcosm of a league which had little, if any, protections in place for players. In fact, in the first “scramble” of the new league’s season, a player contesting it pulled his shoulder and missed the rest of the season.

Looking at some of the hits delivered now, especially in light of huge issues around concussions in the NFL, don’t make for pretty viewing. As mentioned, McMahon and Butkus became cheerleaders for some pretty reckless comments about hitting players and the league really tried to trade on extreme violence on the field to sell itself.

3. Relying on WWE stars to sell the league

In the first game, a sell out crowd and over 58 million people at home were introduced to the XFL, not with football, or chat about the game, but by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson cutting a pretty terrible promo about the new league. USA Today actually went into the vaults and looked at the opening game once more and wrote a pretty scathing piece (read it here).

Credit: YouTube

One of the XFL’s biggest failings was relying on WWE stars to popularise the league. It pointed to a league that was worried about its on-field product and looking for other ways to engage their audience. Even in the first game, it had “Stone Cold” Steve Austin opening a can o’ whoop ass (and he would say) on then NFL commissioner, Paul Tagliabue. He said:

“I heard the guy who runs the NFL, Paul Tagliabue, said that the XFL is a non-issue. A non-issue? Hell, I think that’s an insult to football fans everywhere, and an insult to the men knocking heads on the football field. You know Mr. Tagliabue… you might be careful. That ‘non-issue’ just might bite you on your ass. And that’s the bottom line, ’cause Stone Cold said so.”

Source: USA Today

4. Filling the air with poor taste content and also being quite tasteless

The XFL had some very questionable content to take away from the overall poorness of the play on offer. In fact, in one complete poor taste move, it actually filmed inside the cheerleaders’ locker room. In addition, at some games, there were hot tubs at both ends of the pitch filled with women in them, who were called the “bikini girls”.

Dick Ebersol, chairman of sports at NBC who greenlighted the XFL with McMahon said of the new league:

“A good fun time on a Saturday night, a chance for viewers to see a splendid football game with a good deal of tomfoolery around the edges.”

McMahon has actually said that the new XFL will not have any cheerleaders, which suggests he realises how damaging the classless way the first XFL was towards them.

Credit: ESPN’s “30 For 30”

5. A complete collapse of a TV audience and mounting losses

Despite all the issues raised above by the league, its final nail in the coffin came down to pure business. From a record 58 million tuning into the first game, merely 2 million watched the final game. In the span of just one season, McMahon lost $35 million, while his broadcasting partner, NBC, lost the same amount, leaving the fledgeling league $70 million in the red.

Given the negativity the XFL had accumulated in its first season, along with the financials, it really became a no brainer to shut the league down for good.

Vince McMahon said this when the XFL would not continue:

“While we believe that it is an extraordinary accomplishment to have created a new professional football league in what amounts to less than a year’s time, we feel that it is in the best interests of our shareholders and our partners to discontinue the XFL,” 

“We are all proud of the creative innovations that we introduced in the production of the game as well as in the rule changes that were implemented to increase the excitement and enjoyment of the game and provide a fan-friendly brand of football.”

XFL Press Release

With the XFL due to return in 2020, owner Vince McMahon has publicly stated he will try to avoid some of the avoid mistakes the XFL made the first time around. Specifically, he will not rely on WWE talent to sell the league and also has declared that the XFL, this time around, will be “family friendly.”

Read my previous blog post here on how the XFL might succeed, and some of the pitfalls it needs to avoid this time around to actually stay afloat.