OPINION | Tim Weisberg: XFL Relaunch Poised to Lay the Smack Down on NFL
This is the XFL...again.
WWE Chairman and CEO Vince McMahon announced Thursday that he is relaunching the XFL, the professional football league that originally lasted just one season back in 2001.
The league brought us many innovations still used in today's presentation of the NFL--the sky cam, the running sideline cam, broadcasts from the locker room, etc.--but the play itself was terrible. McMahon decried the NFL of the time as the "No Fun League," and opted to put togther an on-field product that was light on rules but heavy on injuries. By the end of the season, teams were down to third-string players in a league that was already comprised of players not talented enough to even make an NFL practice squad.
They had colorful nicknames on the backs of their jersey--who could forget Rod "He Hate Me" Smart?--but they didn't have much in the way of skills. It did have a few successful players, though. Tommy Maddox, the game-winning quarterback of the league's only championship game and its sole MVP, spent four years with the Pittsburgh Steelers after the XFL. Mike Furrey went on to lead the NFC in receptions with the Detroit Lions in 2006. Linebacker Paris Lenon played 12 seasons in the NFL for five different teams. Even Smart had a five-year stint in the NFL as a special teamer following the XFL.
In today's age, with NFL football having reached a bigger global impact than ever before, there will be more talent from which to draw. McMahon will own the entire league, which will consist of eight teams to start, with 40-man rosters. The teams will play a 10-game season beginning in January 2020, with the top four teams playing in a semi-final after the regular season, and of course, followed by a championship game.
That's pretty much the same format he used in the XFL's inaugural season in 2001, when the teams were the Birmingham Thunderbolts, Chicago Enforcers, New York/New Jersey Hitmen, Orlando Rage, Las Vegas Outlaws, Los Angeles Xtreme, Memphis Maniax and San Francisco Demons.
There's no word yet on what cities may host XFL teams, but one thing is for sure--as his annual Wrestlemania event has grown bigger and bigger each year, McMahon now has a great working relationship with a number of NFL stadiums, including MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, and AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. However, it remains to be seen if stadiums that are owned privately by NFL team owners would want to host a rival league.
Johnny Manziel already tweeted McMahon using the hashtag #XFL2020, but there's pretty much no shot of him joining the league, considering his past legal troubles. McMahon said any player with a criminal record will not be allowed into the league, and for those thinking that stance is in direct relation to the current state of the NFL, let me remind you that McMahon made the same edict when he announced the original XFL back in 2000. Back then, he said there would be no "felons" in the XFL, and it will be no different this time around. He also said players will not be given a form to take personal stances on social issues while on the playing field.
So while Colin Kaepernick might not make it onto an XFL roster, you'd have to believe Tim Tebow--whom McMahon mentioned by name in his press conference--would be a shoe-in.
McMahon is putting up $100 million of his own money (which, incidentally, is the same amount of personal WWE stock he recently sold) through his newly-founded Alpha Entertainment, LLC to fund the league, which is much different than the original launch of the XFL, which was a financial partnership between the WWE and NBC. McMahon said he hasn't begun talks with potential networks yet, and I'd be willing to bet that although a network deal would be his preferred option, Vince knows he can always relaunch the XFL through his streaming WWE Network--or, perhaps, even through a new XFL over-the-top service.
Even if we still don't know how good the football will be, just the announcement about the XFL's return has had a positive impact. Even though the XFL is being relaunched under McMahon's new company, shareholders of his original company are seeing dividends. WWE stock jumped nearly two percent to close at $34.13, a new all-time high.
And that, more than anything, is why Vince is bringing back the XFL. He's never given up his desire to own a successful alternative to the NFL, as we learned in fantastic ESPN "30 for 30" documentary on the XFL. He's also never statisfied his personal quest to be considered a "legitimate" entertainment mogul, which has seen him delve into film production, social media, the music business, bodybuilding and other ventures outside of pro wrestling over the years.
The XFL is a chance to become "bona fide," but also to become richer. Television advertising and network deals are far more lucrative than they were in 2001, when there wasn't nearly as much content to pull eyeballs in different directions. Something like professional football--provided it's at least decent football--will draw those eyeballs. Even if there is still some stink on the XFL from its initial go-round, McMahon has the capital to be able to ride it out and let it grow, and turn into a moneymaker. And, unlike the first time, he's giving himself two years' lead time to get everything right, instead of still figuring out the rules while the first game is in progress.
There's no doubt McMahon's decision to relaunch the XFL is tied into the positive reaction to the recent documentary, but it's also just as much in response to the current state of the NFL. Back in 2001, McMahon sought to start an alternative football league because he felt the NFL had become too sanitized and limited.
Now, he sees the NFL as something that has become divisive, with player protests during the national anthem and other controversies. McMahon, a close, personal friend of President Donald Trump, knows that if NFL ratings and revenue have decreased, it opens the door for him to come in and give football fans the game they want without all the distractions--well, unless they're distractions he's decided he wants in the broadcast, like racy camera angles of scantily-clad cheerleaders.
Although to be fair, that version of the XFL existed in a time when the WWE was still in its "Attitude Era," and these days, McMahon's wrestling company is more focused on family-friendly entertainment, the by-product of becoming a publicly traded company. Interestingly enough, fans of that era of the WWE, when the company was part of the pop culture conversation more than it ever was before or since, have decried its current state as "no fun," much like McMahon saw the NFL back then.
Of course, back in the days of the original XFL announcement, I was still writing a pro wrestling column for The Standard-Times, the late, great "Inside Wrestling." In that space, I predicted the XFL would be rousing success, and perhaps eclipse McMahon's legacy with the WWE.
Turns out that I, much like the XFL ratings, was way off.
The lasting legacy of the first XFL season may have been "He Hate Me," but this time, Vince would be happy just to have this version of the XFL be "He Watch Me."