With Super Bowl LIV finishing the National Football League’s 100th season on Feb. 2, many in the sporting world are wondering if football fans will pivot quickly and embrace the XFL — or take a pass.
“I think, overall, curiosity will get the best of most of us, at least initially,” said Josh Shuart, director, sport management, at the Jack Welch College of Business & Technology at Sacred Heart University. “They’re taking a completely different approach than they did before, which was very gimmicky. This time they’re being more methodical.”
This is XFL 2.0, following the 2001 version that was the brainchild of Vince McMahon as a 50/50 joint venture between the Stamford-based World Wrestling Federation (now WWE) and NBC. NBC earned an impressive 9.5 rating — 86% higher than its Saturday night average at that point of the 2000-01 TV season — for the premier game, a tilt between the New York/New Jersey Hitmen and the Las Vegas Outlaws.
But that yardage was almost immediately lost.
Ratings for NBC’s Saturday night games dropped to 4.6 on Week 2 and continued to erode from there, ending with a 2.1 rating for the XFL championship game on April 21. NBC punted on airing a second season, despite having a two-year contract. It and the WWF reportedly each lost $35 million of their total $100 million investment.
The gimmicks mentioned by Shuart were blamed for much of the wreckage, especially as the ratings continued to plummet. Balancing seasoned sportscasters like Matt Vasgersian and Fred Roggin in the booth were pro wrestling personalities Jerry Lawler, Jim Ross and Jesse Ventura. Suggestive camera shots of more-scantily-clad-than-usual cheerleaders were heavily criticized (including by Vasgersian, who was demoted by McMahon himself). And WWF/WWE-style shenanigans — a supposed NBC cameraman was allegedly knocked unconscious, leading to a dream sequence featuring cheerleaders in S&M outfits and a shirtless Rodney Dangerfield — were not what most pro football viewers had in mind.
Nor was the quality of play, due to a short pre-season training period and the fact that the XFL’s eight rosters were largely composed of players who had been cut from NFL squads, were undrafted free agents or were looking to jump from the Canadian Football League. Garish uniforms with each player able to handpick what was written on the back — “He Hate Me” quickly becoming the most infamous — didn’t help.
Then there were the different rules, meant to up the action and viewer excitement. The beginning of each game was marked by the “opening scramble,” wherein one player from each team would rush to midfield to gain possession of the ball. A player for the Orlando Rage was injured during that team’s first game and was lost for the season.
But most indications are that McMahon, who retained the name and owns it under his new Alpha Entertainment banner, is in it to win it this time. Other than the league’s name and the fact that the season — starting Feb. 9 with a matchup between the Seattle Dragons and the DC Defenders — will last for 10 games, there will be little familiar to those who watched the ’01 season.
McMahon has said he is prepared to invest as much as $500 million — five times what he invested in its first incarnation — over the new XFL’s first three years. Last March he sold $272 million worth of WWE stock, most of it to fund the football league.
Also promised is that the gimmicks, over-the-top storylines and even the cheerleaders will be absent. McMahon and various XFL executives did not respond to requests for comment.
“I think they learned a lot from their first try,” said Michael Shaub, clinical professor and Deloitte Professional Program Director in the Mays Business School at Texas A&M University. “They are not just running on gimmicks. I don’t think it will be driven by a pro wrestling personality or trying to be ‘off the edge’ as it was the first time. My guess, consistent with the league’s message, is that you will be familiar with the game you are watching, not trying to learn crazy rules.”
Those rules include kickoffs from the 25-yard-line, rather than the NFL’s 35, to encourage more returns; allowing teams to throw a second forward pass, as long as the ball has not crossed the line of scrimmage, instead of the NFL’s allowing just one; a 25-second, rather than 40-second, play clock; and, perhaps most strikingly, a menu of after-touchdown plays that can result in one, two or three points.
Once again, most of the players will be unfamiliar to at least casual fans. Former NFL players Connor Cook, Joe Callahan, Christine Michael and David Cobb might be the biggest names to take the field. On Jan. 19, one-time Cincinnati Bengals star Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson canceled an XFL tryout scheduled for the next day, while hopes that NFL washout Johnny Manziel, a.k.a. Johnny Football, might put on a uniform have so far gone unanswered.
Manziel’s last pro game was with the Memphis Express of the Alliance of American Football (AAF), another would-be NFL alternative that lasted for a single season before filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy on April 17, 2019.
“It’s really hard to have an alternative professional football league,” said Jeff Pearlman, a one-time Sports Illustrated writer-turned-author whose latest book, 2018’s “Football for a Buck,” retold the story of yet another failed league, the USFL, which hobbled through three seasons in the mid-1980s.
“I still think the XFL has little to no chance, but it’s certainly helped by the AAF folding.” Pearlman said.
Pearlman said he was impressed by the fact that the new XFL hired Oliver Luck as its CEO and commissioner. In addition to being a retired NFL quarterback, Luck was director of intercollegiate athletes at West Virginia University and an executive with the NCAA, in charge of its regulatory functions.
“He’s a really smart guy who knows his shit,” Pearlman said. “He’s got a lot of football savvy. He’s a pretty big feather in their cap.”
Pearlman also had praise for some of the new league’s coaching staffs, which include Bob Stoops (Dallas Renegades), June Jones (Houston Roughnecks), Jim Zorn (Seattle Dragons) and Kevin Gilbride (New York Guardians) as those squads’ head coach/general managers. Another name from the past, the colorful ex-Houston Oilers and ex-Atlanta Falcons head coach Jerry Glanville, is defensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Vipers.
Such hires “are an important way to forge legitimacy,” Pearlman said. “They indicate that this might not be the buffoonery that it all could have been.”
While Shuart agreed that the original XFL was “abysmal, a shticky thing that didn’t work,” he, too, expressed confidence that McMahon was making all the right moves this time.
“I’m very optimistic,” he said, adding with a chuckle, “I’m a wrestling fan, so I think McMahon is a genius.”
The XFL had its media partners lined up well in advance of its Feb. 8 kickoff.
Disney-owned ABC and ESPN (18 regular season and one playoff game) and Fox and its FS1 and FS2 outlets (20 regular season and one playoff game) will split broadcast duties. In the regular season, four games are scheduled each week, typically with two back-to-back games on both Saturdays and Sundays. The XFL schedule also features two prime-time Thursday night games in the final weeks of the regular season. The XFL championship game will be played April 26 on ESPN.
“America’s love of football is something we’re obviously very familiar with,” said ESPN Senior Vice President, programming and acquisitions, Scott Guglielmino. “The team (the XFL) has assembled piqued our interest, especially as they chose to work with Oliver Luck — we’ve known Oliver for a long, long time.”
Guglielmino said the network believes the new approach is based on “authentic football,” and that what McMahon and company are offering should fit in well with its other programming.
“We approach the NFL and college football as a year-round proposition,” he said, “and this fits nicely into the calendar. All the ingredients are in place and we’re excited to see it develop.”
Guglielmino said the network has no specific ratings number in mind, but underscored that its presence on the various television networks should help raise its profile considerably.
He noted that those calling the games for ESPN and ABC will include Steve Levy, Greg McElroy, Tom Hart and Joey Galloway.
Another important component of football — betting — is part of the mix.
“From a betting perspective, we have pretty good hopes for the XFL and are very interested to see the level of action it generates,” said Patrick Eichner, spokesman for online betting site PointsBet USA. “Turnover won’t be anywhere close to the four major U.S. sports, but still should be decent given the American appetite for football.”
Eichner said the company saw “some betting interest” in the AAF when it began play after last year’s Super Bowl, but said that it “certainly tapered over time.
“But if the XFL can manage to maintain that initial wave, it’ll be an encouraging sign,” he added. “The league has taken steps to benefit from the rapid growth of legalized sports betting in the U.S., which we, of course, think is a smart move.”
Eichner noted that some of the new rules, such as the point-after-touchdown scenarios, “will present traders with a challenge, as the traditional key numbers of 3 and 7 in NFL betting will hold substantially less significance. Not only will operators need to get a feel for all the teams and coaches, but a close monitoring of team tendencies and success rates after touchdowns will be required in order to set appropriate lines and totals.
“In other words,” he said, “the line-making process figures to evolve fairly rapidly and aggressively in a short period of time.”
Shuart at Sacred Heart predicted at least one season for the new XFL, but said a lack of breakout players could spell doom. He was, however, encouraged that the league chose to place its eight teams in markets that already have — or, in the case of St. Louis, recently had — NFL squads. “They’re all decent media markets,” he said. “If they’d gone to, for example, Des Moines, they’d have to find or build a place to play.”
Pearlman wasn’t so sure.
“It’s always better to have a smaller stadium filled than see 70,000 empty seats,” which was usually the case with the USFL, he said.
Either way, he added, “The odds for something like this to survive more than five years are very, very low. The NFL is year-round now, between the draft, the actual season and the NFL Network. There’s no such thing as an ‘off-season’ now. People are into the NFL year-round.”
“If the quality of play is terrible, the XFL will be vulnerable,” said Shaub at Texas A&M. “But it has been almost two decades since they rolled out the ragged rosters of yesteryear, which needed gimmick names to be interesting. All the players playing now have had personal coaches growing up and have expected to be in the NFL for years.
“Here at Texas A&M, I would guess that at least 75%, and perhaps all, of the 22 starters on the football team expect to be in the NFL,” he continued. “That has not always been true. I think there are plenty of really good Power Five-quality athletes to populate the league, if the league has staying power.”
Power Five refers to the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten Conference, Big 12 Conference, Pac-12 Conference and Southeastern Conference in college football.
Asked for a prediction, Shaub replied: “I think it’s a three-year window to determine its sustainability.”