The XFL was the brainchild of WWE mogul Vince McMahon and had scantily clad cheerleaders, bad action and nicknames like ‘Teabagger’ on shirts before ratings collapsed… but it has now been revived as a $500m-funded league – so can it compete with the NFL?
- The original XFL ran for just one campaign – in 2001 – before being shut down
- But it has now been revived to compete with the NFL by Vince McMahon
- There was a positive reception to the first games of the league over the weekend
- The question now is whether it can be sustainable and challenge the NFL
There will be few sports leagues worldwide where players wear shirts with the names ‘Deathblow’, ‘Hurricane’, and ‘Teabagger’ on the back, but then the XFL always was an outlier.
The old incarnation of the XFL lasted just one season — back in 2001 — and it has now been revived to offer an alternative to the NFL. Last weekend saw the first action of the 2020 campaign.
It was and is again the brainchild of Vince McMahon, the visionary behind the WWE. His hands were all over the original. In a WWE-style move, the original league replaced coin tosses with scrambles, overly focused on cheerleaders and — yes — let players put whatever nickname they wanted on the back of their shirts.
The original XFL ran for a single season – in 2001 – before being cancelled due to ratings issues
It was the brainchild of WWE mogul Vince McMahon, who decided to take on the NFL
There was controversy over a number of issues, including the focus on the cheerleaders
The league has now been revived and the first action from the 2020 XFL was last weekend
‘Teabagger’ did, however, get flagged up and banned before the first game was broadcast. ‘He Hate Me’, which was the phrase on the back of Rod Smart’s shirt, saw him become the standout star.
To take it back to the start, the XFL was founded when McMahon was at the peak of his powers. With stars like The Rock, Stone Cold and The Undertaker, the then-WWF was a global phenomenon. When he announced he was moving into American Football in 2000, it seemed like a realistic endeavour.
After a brilliant press conference in which he said the worst thing he could now be considered was ‘legit’, NBC snapped up the rights to the league. They also bought half of it. They would have just 12 months to construct a functioning infrastructure.
They pulled together talent from wherever they could. The NFL is famed for the rate at which players are cut after years of building up to a career in professional football. McMahon turned to them to populate teams with names like the Las Vegas Outlaws and Orlando Rage.
Players were allowed to have nicknames on the back of their jerseys, like ‘Deathblow’ above
The standout star was Rod Smart, who wore the No 30 shirt for Outlaws with ‘He Hate Me’ on
The original XFL featured the hoopla more commonly associated with a WWE event
Speaking to ESPN for their 30 for 30 documentary, McMahon admitted: ‘From a football standpoint, the timing was really tight. Some of these guys were working at Bed, Bath, and Beyond before they came onto the field.’
The infrastructure was put in place rapidly, but when it came to on-field action teams had just 30 days to work with the players before the first game. Given how heavily-coached American Football is, it was almost impossible to prepare them correctly.
Instead, it would be the off-pitch differences that marketed the XFL. In technology terms, they introduced the skycam, which is now standard practice in sports broadcasting across the globe. There was also a ‘Bubba Cam’, which involved cameramen being padded up and sent onto the pitch amid the action.
This was also a period in which the WWE overly-sexualised women and the same was done with the cheerleaders in the XFL. There as even a WWE-style sketch in which fans were promised a trip into the cheerleaders’ locker room but instead involved a cameraman being knocked out and a dream sequence in which Rodney Dangerfield made a cameo appearance.
In terms of the rules of the game, there would also be ‘no fair catch’ – a change to how kickoffs were handled in order to make play quicker. It was all well-marketed. The XFL sold itself on high-octane football.
And when McMahon stepped out onto the field for the first game between the outlaws and the New York/New Jersey Hitmen and screamed into a mic, ‘This is the XFL’, the marketing seemed to all come together.
But the truth was that the on-pitch quality never quite matched up to the hype.
Legendary NBC commentator Bob Costas commented: ‘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.’
McMahon walked out onto the pitch before the first game and declared: ‘This is the XFL’
Initial ratings were good. They managed to more than double what had been promised to advertisers, around 14million people, which gave them some credit. While they dropped dramatically the next week, they still hit NBC’s targets.
But declining ratings would eventually be killer. The season’s later games would be watched by less people than any programme on a major American television network since records began — at least at that stage.
The initial XFL folded after just one season. It had not been given the legitimate coverage to catch on and because it was eventually co-owned by NBC, the likes of ESPN and Fox Sports did not give it recognition.
It was named the third worst TV show of all time a year later in TV Guide’s countdown. The only really positive legacy the league had was quarterback Tommy Maddox, who won the XFL championship before winning the Super Bowl with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Chicago Enforcers against the New York/New Jersey Hitmen at Soldier Field in Chicago
Pac Bell Park during the game between LA Xreme and San Francisco Demons in February 2001
So why has it been brought back? To a degree, the XFL is there to exploit a space that has been created by the relationship between the NFL and a segment of its traditional audience.
There was fury in some areas of society when Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem in protest at how black Americans were treated by the police and even more anger when huge sections of the NFL followed suit.
It led to suggestions that Donald Trump supporters in particular would tune out. Ratings have been in decline for the NFL, although it is not clear whether there is a direct connection to the protests. McMahon saw an opportunity, which is no surprise given his wife is part of the Trump administration.
The 74-year-old admitted as much in an interview shortly after announcing the revival. ‘It’s a time-honored tradition to stand for the national anthem,’ he said. ‘People don’t want social and political issues coming into play when they are trying to be entertained.’
McMahon has brought the league back amid a slump in ratings for the competing NFL
The first action from the new season of the revived XFL took place over last weekend
THE AAF – A FAILED NFL COMPETITOR
Charlie Ebersol, whose father Dick Ebersol co-founded the XFL, created the Alliance of American Football after directing ESPN 30 for 30’s documentary ‘This Was The XFL’.
Ebersol initially wanted to relaunch the XFL himself and was willing to pay $50m for the trademark, but McMahon declined.
It was announced back in March 2018 and the first game was played on February 9, 2019.
Only eight weeks of the ten-week regular season was played before the league collapsed. Players were evicted from the hotels they were staying in and required to pay their own way home.
Former Arena Football League commissioner Jerry Kurz bought the remaining assets at auction, despite a bid from the revived XFL.
There is a ban on protesting written into player contracts. On the ratings front, McMahon added: ‘What has happened there (at the NFL) is their business, and I’m not going to knock those guys, but I am going to learn from their mistakes as anyone would if they were tasked with re-imagining a new football league.’
Similarly, where there has been an issue with players with criminal convictions playing in the NFL — creating a bit of a moral minefield when it comes to watching the sport — the XFL has disqualified anyone with a felony.
There is none of the hoopla that used to surround the old league. McMahon himself suggested they only retained the same name because: ‘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.’
Initial reviews have been positive. Sports Illustrated called it ‘on-the-rails, appropriately-quirky spring football’.
They have a three-year deal with ABC/ESPN and Fox Sports. McMahon, who lost $35million on the original XFL, is willing to fund this new project to the tune of up to $500m.
There has been a positive response to the opening weekend of the new XFL campaign
DC Defenders fans support their team during the game against Seattle Dragons on Saturday
There are deep pockets behind this league and if they can get the sporting section of it right, there’s a chance it could be a success.
It will take a lot to compete. The NFL is a huge organisation — it will earn $39.6billion for TV rights up to 2022 after signing deals in 2014. There are 32 teams there compared to the XFL’s eight. The average NFL game last season, meanwhile, attracted 66,151 fans while the XFL’s opening weekend saw an average of 17,454.
Ratings are still far apart — NFL regular season games average out at 16.7m viewers compared to the XFL’s opening weekend average of 2.9m.
But it would take a lot to completely write-off McMahon and the XFL now, especially after a decent start.
Sports Illustrated called return of the XFL ‘on-the-rails, appropriately-quirky spring football’
Back in the 1980s, McMahon took over the then-World Wide Wrestling Federation from his father, Vince Sr. It was a regionalised industry, with each promoter having his own territory.
Within a decade, he had taken over the lot, smashing to pieces every competitor he had and turning a New York-based company into a global phenomenon.
Flash forward to the 1990s and early 2000s and McMahon destroyed two other pretenders to the throne, one backed by media magnate Ted Turner.
Sure, the initial XFL might have been a failure. But history has shown that McMahon tends to come out on top, no matter the battle. He is a relentless figure, one who cannot be stopped.
There will be those at the NFL who will know they now have something to fear — even if no one is walking around with a shirt that says ‘Teabagger’ these days.
TIMELINE OF THE ORIGINAL XFL
February 3, 2000: The league is announced by commissioner Tyler Schuek, with a single-entity model — the league would own every team.
February 3, 2001: After a year of planning, the first game takes place between the New York/New Jersey Hitmen and the Las Vegas Outlaws in Las Vegas. The Outlaws won it 19-0. The action is watched by 14m people (or a 9.5 rating).
February 11, 2001: Ratings drop to a 4.6 in the second week of action.
March 31, 2001: The game between Chicago and New York/New Jersey receives a 1.5 rating, the lowest ever for a major network primetime weekend sports broadcast in the US (at the time).
April 21, 2001: The XFL Championship game — dubbed ‘The Million Dollar Game’ — sees the Los Angeles Xtreme beat the San Francisco 38-6.
May 2001: NBC announce they will no longer broadcast a second season of the XFL.
May 10, 2001: Vince McMahon announces the XFL will close.
July 2002: TV Guide names the XFL as the third worst TV show of all time.
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