This is the XFL
By George Clessuras '22
Every NFL Sunday, millions of Americans across all generations congregate around their living room televisions to enjoy the unique tradition that we call football. For many avid, passionate fans, football is synonymous with religion, and Sunday afternoon at one o’clock is regarded as sacred time. Football has become ingrained and firmly rooted in American culture, yet year after year we find ourselves spending six long months after the Superbowl anxiously waiting for the new season to finally kick off. A handful of enterprising investors have poured millions of dollars into establishing new leagues to extend this American tradition into the spring, and every year or so another ambitious businessman seems convinced that a new association could challenge the dominance of the behemoth of American professional sports that is the National Football League. The results of these experiments have been dismal. From the United States Football League (USFL) in the mid eighties, to the defunct XFL in 2001, to most recently the American Football Alliance’s (AAF) premature and abrupt ending of a brief eight-week season, no alternative football league has managed to develop a sustainable fanbase, generate adequate revenue, or even come close to contending with the NFL. The long list of failures has given reason for sports fans to wonder if it is even possible for any alternative football association to grasp a stronghold among the most popular American sports leagues and achieve long-term success.
The recent revival of the XFL has caused some sports fans to roll their eyes and prematurely write it off as another expensive, failed start-up, yet the ratings from the first couple of weeks of the season seem to be encouraging indicators for Vince McMahon (the founder of the league as well as CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment) and his business partners. An average audience of 3.318 million viewers across four games tuned in to watch the inaugural week of the new XFL. Although viewership took an expected drop in week two, the league still managed to achieve respectable numbers with each game attracting an average television audience of 2.057 million.
Can this young, fledgling league sustain this relative success? In order to assess its ability to maintain decent ratings and ultimately its potential for growth, we must first explore what distinguishes McMahon’s new XFL from its doomed, alternative-league predecessors. For starters, the XFL has a key ingredient that is vital to the survival of any start-up football league looking to achieve stability and longevity: money. At seventy-four years old, McMahon made perhaps the riskiest gamble of his career by committing a hefty $500 million investment into XFL 2.0 and selling roughly $270 million worth of stock in the WWE to support this bold endeavor. The rapid demise of last spring’s AAF was, in large part, due to a failure of investors to exercise financial patience. The upfront costs for such a league are massive, and investors have to be willing to kiss hundreds of millions of dollars goodbye over a number of years before ever seeing any return. Considering McMahon’s strategy to allow XFL games to initially be televised for free by FOX and ESPN/ABC, the league has partnered with two major media companies that give the XFL a national platform at the expense of losing preliminary revenue. Nonetheless, McMahon’s investment ensures that XFL 2.0 will be supported by a financially stable foundation for the foreseeable future, the key question that is yet to be answered is, how much patience is he willing to have? Prior to the XFL’s kickoff, Oliver Luck, the commissioner appointed by McMahon, referenced the financial fortitude required for this tremendous gamble, saying in part, “I’m not sure he has unlimited patience. Nobody does. He probably realizes you can’t snap your fingers overnight and have a brand. But I certainly think we need to have a sense of urgency....”
Luck is another reason why many are optimistic about the future of the league. As a former NFL quarterback, general manager and president of the MLS cup–winning Houston Dynamo in 2006 and 2007, Director of Intercollegiate Athletics at West Virginia University, Executive with the NCAA, and father of recent NFL superstar Andrew Luck, Luck certainly has a diverse resumé and a keen understanding of both the financial and strategic aspects of sports operations. The eight head coaches hired by Luck all have impressive resumes of their own and have held coaching positions at the NFL or collegiate level. Former Redskins head coach Jim Zorn was hired as the head coach and general manager of the Seattle Dragons, who fell to the DC Defenders, coached by longtime NFL assistant and former Michigan quarterback coach Pep Hamilton, in week 1. Bob Stoops, the head coach of the Dallas Renegades, is often credited for building Oklahoma into the college football powerhouse it is today and the New York Renegade’s Kevin Gilbride won two super bowl rings as offensive coordinator of the New York Giants.
Despite appointing a competent commissioner and landing multiple experienced, big-name coaches, many have qualms about the on-field product and doubt that the personnel on the gridiron, specifically at the quarterback position, is proficient enough to attract viewers on a weekly basis. Some of these reservations stem from the substandard quarterback play during the eight weeks of AAF football last spring. DC’s home team, the Defenders, have been proven immune to these woes under center in the first two weeks of the season. Cardale Jones, the third string quarterback who led Ohio State to a National Championship in 2014, is leading the XFL with 511 passing yards, guided his team to a 2-0 start, and has looked sharp throughout. The same can not be said for the majority of the other starting quarterbacks. The Seattle Dragons, the New York Guardians, and the Tampa Bay vipers all have recorded a dismal 48% completion percentage. When asked what the offense needed to change after a scoreless first half, Guardian’s quarterback Matt McGloin replied, “we need to change the whole entire gameplan,” and later on the sidelines declared the match, “the worst game I’ve ever been a part of.” McGloin was benched in the fourth quarter after throwing for only 44 yards as well as two interceptions in a 27-0, shutout loss to the Defenders. It has been made clear in just two weeks that a large gap separates the league’s top quarterbacks, such as Jones and Houston’s P.J. Walker, from the rest of the eight-team league.
McGloin’s televised temper-tantrum highlights another feature the XFL has introduced in an effort to create an immersive and engaging viewing experience. With instant sideline interviews after an interception or a missed kick, the XFL has overstepped the caution tape of player privacy and entered the zone that the NFL deems off-limits. The player’s high level of adrenaline makes for some enthusiastic responses sometimes even unsuitable for live television. While many have found the interviews entertaining, others argue that the XFL has gone over-the-top with the extensive mic’d up access granted to viewers, claiming it is invasive and a distraction. Certainly in the case of McGloin, it has already had damaging effects on team chemistry.
While the XFL has certainly made some positive changes, McMahon is tasked with convincing football fans that he has learned from its failures in 2001 and has streamlined his product into a one that is focused purely on good football. The 2001 XFL was criticized for attempting to mesh football and the WWE. The resulting product could be described as “gimmicky,” and fans expecting big-time plays and hard hits were disappointed by the poor quality of football on display. Instead of sewing nicknames such as “He Hate Me” on the back of jerseys, Luck claims the XFL is returning with a renewed commitment to developing the league “the right way with 100% focus on football.” If McMahon and Luck can maintain this focus, continue to be patient with the league’s financial growth, and make swift adjustments to their viewership experience whenever need be, the XFL should have a fighting shot at asserting itself as a viable option for those suffering from post-Super Bowl withdrawal. Whether the XFL will be able to succeed where no other springtime football league has remains to be seen, but for now, Roll Defenders.