Vince McMahon is one of the most successful businessmen in the world of sports, but there is one glaring misstep on his résumé that still haunts him almost two decades later.
McMahon, chairman and CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), is credited with building a billion-dollar company, but he was also the co-founder of one the biggest failures in the history of American sports. In 2001, as a joint venture between WWF (as the WWE was previously known) and NBC, McMahon and former chairman of NBC Sports Dick Ebersol formed the XFL. The XFL was a professional football league that promised to deliver a more violent, exciting and entertaining brand of professional football than the “No Fun League” (NFL). However, the XFL was shuttered after its inaugural season, with estimates that WWE and NBC were each rewarded with a $35 million loss for their efforts.
News broke in December that McMahon had sold 3.34 million shares of WWE for approximately $100 million to help fund his new entity, Alpha Entertainment LLC. One week before McMahon sold his shares, Alpha Entertainment filed for five U.S. trademarks related to the XFL, including “XFL” as a professional football league. These trademark applications were in addition to two applications for “XFL” filed by World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. in January and June 2017, and one application for “XFL” filed by WWE in September 2012 (for which a Statement of Use was filed with the United States Patent and Trademark Office on Jan. 24, 2018).
On Thursday, McMahon announced that his second attempt at the XFL would debut in January 2020. He is going to sink or swim on his own this time as he will be the sole funding source for the league, at least initially. McMahon stated, “I wanted to do this since the day we stopped the other one.” McMahon continued, “A chance to do it with no partners, strictly funded by me, which would allow me to look in the mirror and say, ‘You were the one who screwed this up,’ or, ‘You made this thing a success.’”
McMahon will have to overcome the numerous missteps that caused the initial XFL to fail. For those who may have blinked during the three months that the XFL was on the field in 2001, the league featured eight teams, located in Memphis, Chicago, Orlando, Los Angeles, Birmingham, San Francisco, New York/New Jersey and Las Vegas. The XFL enjoyed a successful debut by generating a 9.5 television rating; however, what followed were Hindenburg-esque ratings of 4.6, 3.1, 2.6, 2.4, 1.6 and 1.5 for Weeks 2-7. When a television sitcom, Just Shoot Me, beats football in American television ratings by a factor of 20, something is most certainly amiss.
The factors that contributed to the failure of the XFL were numerous, but the league saw the seeds of its own destruction sown when it attempted to pander to wrestling fans and football fans alike with gimmicky rules imposed upon the traditional game of football. Rather than appealing to both fan bases, their efforts alienated wrestling fans desiring more gladiatorial-style destruction and violence while also driving away football purists. Furthermore, the XFL’s attempts to change the game only worsened many of the length-of-game issues already seen in the NFL.
Additional reasons for the XFL becoming the Ex-FL were the poor quality of football being played, cameramen paying more attention to “cheerleaders” than the game, and how quickly the league was thrown together. First, while some players went on to play in the NFL, CFL and Arena Football League, the overwhelming majority of the league’s rosters (especially toward the end of the season, when the XFL’s meat grinder-style of play had decimated most teams) were second-tier talents. Second, with McMahon calling the shots and being a true believer of “sex sells,” cameras would frequently pan over to the “cheerleaders” during games — or into their locker room at halftime — creating a less-than-family-friendly experience. Third, the league was thrown together at a frenetic pace. When McMahon announced the formation of the XFL in February 2000, “the league had no teams, no stadiums, no general managers, no coaches, no infrastructure other than Vince McMahon himself,” according to Charlie Ebersol, son of the XFL co-founder. Further complicating matters, McMahon announced the XFL would play its first game a mere 12 months later. The XFL held tryouts for four consecutive weekends beginning Sept. 9, 2000, with training camps opening one month before the season kicked off. This truncated timetable led coaches to scramble to find players who could compete at a professional level, with players not fully grasping the rules and conditioning issues that likely contributed to player injuries.
The new version of the XFL will start with eight teams playing a 10-week schedule, feature 40-man rosters and have a two-hour game-time goal. Additionally, the league will not rely on gimmicks such as “cheerleaders” performing gentlemen’s-club-inspired routines and other antics that contributed to the original XFL’s demise after only one season.
Players will be precluded from playing in the new XFL if they have any sort of criminal history. Moreover, players will not be permitted to use the XFL as a platform to take a personal stance on political or social issues while on the field. Those hoping that the XFL would reach out to NFL outcasts such as Colin Kaepernick, Johnny Manziel, Ray Rice or Greg Hardy will apparently have their hopes dashed.
McMahon will take 2018 to set up a league infrastructure before forming teams in 2019, addressing one of the glaring missteps of the first XFL. And McMahon does not have any plans to be visible during the games or with the XFL’s content, and there will be no crossover with the XFL and WWE talent.
McMahon’s $100 million gamble that he can launch a long-running American alternative to the NFL — the most successful challenger might be the Arena Football League, which had a 22-year run, from 1987 to 2008 — will be interesting to watch. If he has any hopes that the rebirth of the XFL will be anything other than another bug flying toward the NFL’s windshield, McMahon will have to address a shopping list of missteps that caused its predecessor to fail. Only time will tell if McMahon will be adding “They Still Hate Me” to “He Hate Me” in XFL lore.