American football is about to get a little more…erm, X, as Vince McMahon has officially relaunched the XFL to compete with the historic National Football League.
The original XFL ran in the 2001 football off-season, and was a joint venture between the then-WWF (World Wrestling Federation) and television network NBC. Pitched as a more exciting alternative to the NFL, McMahon and NBC’s Dick Ebersol looked to capitalise on the mainstream popularity of the WWF. Leaning on the popularity on the wrestling, and its stars, may well have contributed to its downfall, as the majority of announcers calling the games were wrestling announcers (including then Governor of Minnesota Jesse Ventura) and appearances by wrestling superstars ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin, the Undertaker, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and more took focus, at times, from the game on the field.
The league started with an inauspicious start, as the blimp hired to promote the league crashed before it could fly over the AFC play-off game it was intended to fly over. Indeed, the first on-the-pitch action ended in tragedy: to further differentiate the league from its older rival, and to emphasise the promise hard-hitting action, XFL games began with a one-on-one scramble for the ball. A player separated his shoulder in the first scramble of the XFL, missing its one and only season.
Unable to draft top players from the collegiate system, or coax stars from the NFL, the XFL relied on undrafted college players to fill its ranks, which lead the quality of play to be notably lesser than the NFL. Controversially, the league did not pay players during the training camp, and paid them comparatively lesser than the NFL would. As the season went on, and the ratings fell, the XFL relied more on ‘Attitude Era WWF’ style tactics, even promoting that they would bring cameras into the cheerleaders locker room. After only one season the league folded, and netted WWF & NBC reported losses of approximately $69m each. While the original league was a ratings and financial loser, it did have some successes: a lot of its production innovations, like the skycam & coach mics, were later adopted by the NFL & subsequent other sports. League MVP Tommy Maddox, as well as Los Angeles Xtreme teammates Bobby Singh and Ron Carpenter, later went on to win Superbowl championships, proving that the XFL had at least some major league talent amongst its teams.
But why has the XFL returned now? Well, watching last year’s 30 for 30 on the XFL, it’s clear that the league’s failure has always been a chip on McMahon’s shoulder. The stability of WWE’s stock, of which McMahon sold a sizeable chunk to fund XFL parent company Alpha Entertainment, probably allowed McMahon to feel more comfortable in taking a chance on a revived league. Listening to the relaunch press conference, however, it’s clear that the motivation may be more political than anything. McMahon stated that players would be discouraged from making “political gestures” during games, which one would assume is a reference to players taking a knee during the National Anthem in NFL games over the past few seasons. He also said that players with a criminal history would be barred from playing, saying that they would be “”evaluating a player based on many things, including the quality of human being they are.” Both of these sentiments, particularly the former, are things echoed by US President Donald Trump and his followers, and McMahon’s links to Trump (noted longtime friendship, Trump’s involvement in various Wrestlemanias and Linda McMahon’s presence on Trump’s Cabinet, to name a few) are well known.
Little else about the XFL is known. McMahon announced there would be several rule changes, but did not detail what they were, and that the televised programs would be noticeably shorter than in the NFL. He did note that, despite the name, the league would not depend on the ‘crude’ tactics of its 2001 predecessor:
“There’s only so many things that have ‘FL’ on the end of them and those are already taken. But we aren’t going to have much of what the original XFL had, including the cheerleaders, who aren’t really part of the game anymore. The audience wants entertainment with football, and that’s what we are going to give them.”
Teams will be league-owned, as they were in the original league, but cities will not be announced until 2019 at the earliest. The XFL is due to launch in 2020, with a television/distribution deal also yet to be announced.