For the first time since Labor Day weekend, the country will be without meaningful professional football games this weekend, the annual weekend off before the biggest football game of the year.
Of course, attendance is down, and so are ratings, driven by a combination of national anthem protests driving away the older, more conservative crowd; a younger, more progressive crowd tuning out because of concerns over serious injuries caused by players on the field, and casual, apolitical fans who may have tuned out because of the lack of star power in the league this season due to a rash of injuries to popular players.
So what’s a 72-year-old professional wrestling magnate to do? Why, revitalize an ill-fated, nearly two decades old failed football league, of course.
On Thursday, World Wrestling Entertainment CEO and Chairman Vince McMahon announced plans to revive the short-lived XFL, with a goal of having games played in 2020. You may recall the XFL’s only other season occurred in 2001, and it was a bit of an unmitigated disaster.
McMahon was riding high at the time, as professional wrestling had soared to new heights on the backs of stars like “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and some guy you might’ve heard of named Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. At that time, McMahon tried to incorporate what made the WWE so popular at the turn of the century into professional football: take-no-prisoners violence and overt sexuality.
While the initial offering did well in the ratings, likely out of sheer curiosity, interest dwindled as the season went on due to poor qualify of play and the low brow presentation.
What’s different this time around? Rather than turning up the raunch factor, McMahon now seems to be going in a completely opposite direction, investing $100 million of his own money into the reincarnation of the XFL and trying to capitalize on all of the things current and lapsed fans of the NFL complain about most.
In Thursday’s press conference announcing XFL 2.0, McMahon described wanting his new league to be “safer,” and also to choose players on “the quality of the human” as much as their on-field skills, stating players with a criminal history, including DUI, wouldn’t be allowed to play in the new XFL. (Which dashed hopes of former Texas A&M and Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel, whose brash personality would’ve been perfect for the 2001 version. Tim Tebow, on the other hand … .)
And while he said he didn’t want the league to get political, McMahon made pretty clear that standing for the national anthem will likely be part of the league’s rules.
Speeding up the pace of the game was also one of his goals for the XFL. Even for a die-hard NFL fan like myself, the commercial breaks, TV timeouts and lengthy instant replay reviews that often result in a more controversial ruling than what the officials on the field initially called, can make the game excruciatingly hard to watch. Instituting shorter quarters, a running clock, less time in between plays and fewer timeouts or replay reviews would certainly be appealing.
Will the XFL succeed this time around? The bigger question I have is whether it will even happen.
When the original version was announced in 2000, it was a joint venture between McMahon’s WWE and Dick Ebersol’s NBC. The latter gave the league some gravitas it won’t have this time around. It also gave the XFL a platform.
McMahon has no television deal, nor any sort of distribution deal for the league. That’s a huge issue. And it’s unlikely any of the four networks will want to strike a deal, lest they anger the NFL, which currently broadcasts games on CBS, NBC, Fox and ESPN (owned by Disney, which also owns ABC). Ratings might be down, but the NFL remains a cash cow for the networks.
But could the XFL find a partner in Amazon or Netflix to distribute its games via an Over The Top streaming service? McMahon has already found success in that model, with his own WWE Network touting a worldwide subscriber base of about 2 million. The NFL has dabbled in some streaming, but has yet to fully embrace it because of its deals with network television and DirecTV. Streaming services are dying to add live sports to their lineups and the startup football league might come at a reasonable enough price that it is worth the risk.
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With the right distribution deal, a few name-brand collegiate players who washed out of the NFL and enough modernizations in the games play and presentation — recall that the XFL introduced us to the skycam now used regularly in the NFL, and a few other innovative tweaks — and McMahon might actually have something here. Certainly, there is no better time to strike against the NFL than right now.