The NFLs would-be rival kicks off this weekend 19 years after its first incarnation imploded. It has money behind it, but will it pull in fans?
A reboot of one of Americas most notorious and short-lived competitions kicks off this weekend as the billionaire wrestling mogul, Vince McMahon, bets once more that America can fall for a professional football league not named the NFL.
The eight-team XFL debuts on Saturday when the DC Defenders host the Seattle Dragons. The name is the same and the logo is similar but this iteration of the XFL promises to be very different from McMahons previous attempt.
That imploded after a single season in 2001 when TV viewers turned off the clownish antics surrounding the on-field action, amid a barrage of negative publicity. The New York Post claimed that rowdy fans turned a New York/New Jersey Hitmen game into a family-unfriendly carnival of sex, booze and sleaze.
The old XFL was a reminder that anything conceived as sports entertainment risks being neither, with McMahons wrestling connections more liability than asset. This time there will be no jokes about cameras in cheerleaders locker-rooms and Jesse The Body Ventura will not be the lead TV analyst.
It was a lot of fun, it was like a football game with a rock concert going on around it, but it wasnt presented on television as real football, says Tom Luginbill, who was a coach for the Los Angeles Xtreme champions of the original XFL and is now part of ESPNs XFL broadcast team.
Luginbill believes the quality of play was underrated but the XFL tried too hard to set itself apart from the NFL. Maybe there was never truly a belief that it could stand on its own two legs on football alone, he said. Now, though, the mantra is authenticity. Football and football only, Luginbill said. Theres no gimmicks.
Rule tweaks should make for faster, higher-scoring contests than in the NFL, while this time the planning was meticulous, according to Kurt Hunzeker, president of one of the new teams, the St Louis BattleHawks. Theyve spent so much time listening to fans, testing, retesting focus groups, really fine-tuning elements of a sport that people clearly love, he says.
The basic logic goes like this: football is by far Americas most popular sport, the NFL is the worlds richest league and the Super Bowl typically attracts about 100 million viewers. Yet the season is short and after that finale, fans are forced to go cold turkey until the autumn. Talent, meanwhile, is wasted: with only 32 NFL franchises but more than 250 high-level college teams, there is a deep pool of young players desperate for any opportunity, as well as older NFL discards looking for a route back.
Thats the theory. But others have tried and failed, such as the United States Football League of the mid-80s, which imploded after pursuing an over-aggressive business strategy advocated by one of the team owners, Donald J Trump.
Most recently, the Alliance of American Football started promisingly last year and seduced Eminem allowing the players to actually fight would be key to leagues success like hockey he opined before hitting financial trouble and being brusquely shuttered after eight weeks by a saviour turned executioner.
There are two core ways for owners to make money: real-estate deals that increase franchise values and broadcast revenue. But start-up leagues tend to rent existing venues, and though the XFL will be live on ABC, Fox and Fox Sports as well as ESPN, no media company will shell out substantial rights payments until a sport can prove it attracts viewers. And the sport has particular costs: the sheer number of players each XFL team has 52-man rosters and its inherent injury risk, which means high medical expenses.
With XFL players earning on average $55,000, that amounts to nearly $3m per season per team in player salaries alone, before other expenses. A 10-week regular season means each team plays only five home games, and with season tickets as low as $100, attendances will not cover all costs.
The Alliance was doomed after racking up tens of millions of dollars in losses in only a few weeks, but McMahon is rich enough to ride out a similar scenario for a few seasons. Last year the 74-year-old chairman and CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment sold $272m-worth of shares, presumably to fund his new venture.
David Carter, an associate professor at the USC Marshall School of Business and a sports business consultant, thinks the XFLs capacity to spend more than it makes could be vital. Over the long haul, labour stability via collective bargaining agreements and valuable media contracts are the keys, and they go together. But in the near term, while those are among the primary considerations, so too is the ability to deficit spend while refining both the on-field product and the leagues marketing, he says.
Technology and the gradual liberalisation of sports betting laws after a 2018 US Supreme Court decision also offer intriguing possibilities. Not for nothing were Silicon Valley big hitters and a Las Vegas giant partnering with the AAF, which was developing an innovative mobile app.
McMahon has largely kept out of the spotlight so far, letting credible football figures such as XFL commissioner and CEO, Oliver Luck – father of Andrew, the retired Indianapolis Colts quarterback – do the talking. (The XFL did not respond to interview requests.) Teams are based in the Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, Dallas, Houston, Washington, St Louis and Tampa markets. This represents one of the XFLs biggest gambles: that cities with NFL teams have an appetite for more football.
The exception is St Louis, where Rams and Arsenal owner Stan Kroenke outraged Missourians by moving the franchise to LA in 2016. The BattleHawks will play in the Rams former home and sold more than 6,000 season tickets by early January, The Athletic reported.
I do think it can be a local hit. The fact that we dont have an NFL team here benefits the BattleHawks, says Randy Karraker, a sports radio presenter. There are a lot of people in St Louis that will not watch the NFL at all because of what Stan Kroenke and the league did to them in ripping the team from St Louis.
Paul Voss, co-host of the BattleFan podcast, agrees that the Rams acrimonious exit is driving some of the early buzz. We have something to prove, that were a good sports town, we support our teams, he says. Its nice to have a hometown team to root for again.
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