After months of whispers and rumors, WWE head Vince McMahon announced Thursday he is making his return to professional football with a revived, rebooted version of the XFL, his infamously failed league that came and went after one disastrous season in 2001.
Given the generally awful track record for would-be NFL competitors and the fact the XFL was such a monumental fiasco — including ludicrously dangerous opening scrambles in place of kickoffs and a notorious instance in which viewers were repeatedly promised a trip inside the cheerleaders’ locker room — it’s easy to look at McMahon’s new endeavor and assume it’s doomed from the start.
But… nah. The XFL is going to be great, and anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is just a hater. We’re all in on this.
Admittedly, a lot of this has to do with how bad and bloated the NFL has become as a product. Despite the NFL’s recent efforts to speed up its games, broadcasts routinely clock in at longer than three hours. The NFL rulebook is a Kafkaesque absurdity, with the seemingly basic question of “what is a catch” regularly prompting debates worthy of a Supreme Court hearing. The game generally has too many penalties, even though such strict officiating has seemingly done little to improve player safety.
Thursday’s XFL announcement was purposefully vague. There were repeated assurances that the league would take the two years before its 2020 launch to look deeply at all conceivable issues and figure out the best course, along with a whole lot of less than artful dodging of how the XFL might handle players protesting during the national anthem.
But the general outline McMahon provided spoke directly to all the other issues the NFL struggles with: a shorter game, fewer penalties, clearer rules, an increased emphasis on player safety. Sure, some of this is hard to reconcile — McMahon’s repeated suggestion of eliminating halftime to get the games under two hours seems incompatible with a legitimate focus on player health, for a start.
The point though is that this is all such a fundamental shift from what defined the original incarnation of the XFL. The “X” stood for “Xtreme,” and it was very much a product of the simultaneously adult and juvenile antics of the then-WWF’s Attitude Era, the time when McMahon’s promotion was most unapologetically fueled by sex and violence. The old XFL was a conscious spinoff of the WWF in both business and spiritual terms, whereas McMahon made clear the new league is wholly separate from the WWE.
Instead of bringing the WWE’s larger-than-life storytelling to football, this XFL is McMahon’s conscious effort to reconnect with the fans. Maybe he can execute on that promise, or maybe he can’t — regular viewers of the modern iterations of WWE’s often bloated and messy weekly shows Monday Night Raw and SmackDown Live have plenty of reasons to be skeptical — but McMahon articulated the right reason to pursue an upstart league.
Writing earlier this season, SB Nation’s Spencer Hall laid out a more fundamental case for why the NFL has become so disconnected from its fans. Basically, the money from the NFL’s TV deals is so big and so dependable that there’s no reason for the game’s billionaire owners to worry about the fan’s actual experience of watching the game or rooting for a team.
An NFL owner no longer needs that to continue to boost the value of the franchise using anything that happens on the field. Value comes from getting a new stadium someone else paid for, moving the franchise to a more valuable piece of real estate and doubling the value of the franchise overnight. Value comes from leveraging and re-leveraging your existing assets, not by creating anything new. If you see an NFL franchise as just another asset to be maximized and squeezed for every dime, being good at football — i.e. producing a good product — doesn’t matter.
The NFL is still easily America’s biggest sports league, recent ratings slump and conservative-stoked controversy around anthem protests notwithstanding. But when the status quo is awful for everyone but the billionaires who own the sport, the opportunity to provide a compelling alternative is there for someone with deep pockets — say, $100 million of his own money to get the league started — and the willingness to do absolutely anything to give the fans what they want.
On that note, here’s the 72-year-old Vince McMahon getting head-butted and bleeding for real to sell a pay-per-view.
And here’s Vince taking one more Stone Cold Stunner just this past week on Monday Night Raw’s 25th anniversary show — all after working the crowd up into a frothing rage like the expert showman he is.
This wouldn’t be the first time McMahon has taken on an established sports entertainment giant and defeated his seemingly insurmountable competition — the story of professional wrestling in the 1980s is that of McMahon systematically dismantling the regional wrestling territories that had shared power for decades. He poached rival promotions’ biggest stars and used the innovative pay-per-view model with his new WrestleMania event to turn what was once a Northeast-exclusive territory into the international juggernaut that is the modern WWE.
The odds are considerably longer and the opposition considerably more entrenched in repeating that trick with the NFL. But McMahon is already a step ahead of last time by using his own money to fund the operation, freeing himself of the WWE links that tainted the original XFL and the NBC backing that ultimately forced the league into a primetime slot long before it was ready. The path to success is narrow, especially for anyone familiar with McMahon’s other failed spinoff efforts like the World Bodybuilding Federation, but Thursday’s first step was in the right direction.
Besides, the XFL doesn’t have to supplant the NFL, or even merge teams like the old American Football League, for it to be a success. McMahon’s flair for innovation with the original, disastrous XFL still giving us modern NFL mainstays like players being miked up, aerial skycam shots, and even something as basic as sideline interviews with coaches.
If a better planned, better realized new XFL can have a proportionately bigger influence on the NFL and get football’s corpulent incumbent to change for the better, then it will have more than served its purpose.
Ad astra, XFL. This is history begun.
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