As if 2017 was not crazy enough, 2018 has fired its opening salvo as the return of the XFL, a controversial football league originally founded by Vince McMahon in 1999, was officially announced on Thursday.
CBS Sports first reported the nature of the announcement earlier in the day and that the league is not planning to start up again until 2020. McMahon, who rushed the original XFL into existence without so much as a full slate of offseason practices to prepare for the league’s inaugural year, said he learned his lesson from one of the XFL’s biggest initial mistakes.
“The new XFL is an exciting opportunity to reimagine America’s favorite sport,” said McMahon in a statement. “As we move towards kickoff, we look forward to listening and implementing innovative ideas from players, coaches, medical experts, technology executives, the media and most importantly football fans.”
There had been unsubstantiated talk about the XFL making a return late in 2017, but Brad Shepard first reported in mid-December that McMahon, WWE’s chairman, was planning to make such an announcement on Jan. 25.
WWE clarified at that time of the initial reports that it was not going back into the football business but McMahon will rather be doing so on his own. McMahon, who will continue in his role as chairman and CEO of WWE, has created Alpha Entertainment separate from WWE and recently sold 3.34 million shares of WWE stock (about $100 million worth) in order to help fund the company. Alpha Entertainment also acquired five XFL trademarks that WWE abandoned between 2002 and 2005.
McMahon confirmed Thursday that he would solely fund the venture with the aforementioned $100 million. Furthermore, the new XFL will not have any attachment to WWE financially or otherwise, unlike the previous incarnation of the league which featured WWE superstars promoting the product and even WWE announcers calling the action.
The company released this mission statement following the announcement.
This is the future. This is not the past. This is the future. And the future moves fast. This is quicker, simpler. Rules, reformed. This is your game safer. This is football reborn. This is gaming and fantasy, this is padded roulette. Make a trade, make a team, make a move, make a bet. This is fans above all. This is maximum action. Less stall more ball. Fewer infractions. This begins in 2020. The future is near. More access. More everyone. More everything here. This is our moment, our story to tell. This is history begun. This is the XFL.
Though details were scarce, McMahon confirmed the XFL would be a single-entity structure consisting of eight league-owned teams in cities that have not yet been determined. He does not plan to play a front-and-center role with the league as a figurehead or otherwise. Current plans account for a 10-game regular season beginning in late January or early February followed by a postseason consisting of two semifinal games and a championship game. Active rosters will consist of approximately 40 players with winning incentivized.
Furthermore, he wants games to be sped up and played perhaps in as quick as two hours. “Sitting and watching a three, three-and-a-half hour game is laborious sometimes,” McMahon said, a statement that surely made WWE fans that have to sit through a three-hour Monday Night Raw each week smile.
McMahon also made it clear he does not want any political affiliation or social controversy to surround the league, which he said will have rules put in place that everyone must abide by. He wants fan input and integration to be a major part of developing the league over the next two years, from rules and team locations to everything in between.
The original incarnation of the XFL was a joint venture between WWE (then-WWF) and NBC with McMahon and former NBC executive Dick Ebersol spearheading the project. ESPN produced a fantastic “30 for 30” documentary on the successes and failures of the XFL that is a must-watch for any sports fan, but the long and short of it is that the league attempted to do too much — too extreme — too fast. NBC got uncomfortable, and once it pulled its support, McMahon’s baby was dead in the water. (Ironically enough, the end of the doc features McMahon and Ebersol musing about whether the XFL would work today and lessons learned from the venture.)
I’ve long maintained that the XFL has actually received too much grief from those looking back on its failures years later. It had some ratings successes, the football improved drastically as the season went on (it was rushed into existence and teams did not get an opportunity to truly practice ahead of the season), and some of the game’s innovations (sky cam) still used to this day were adopted by the NFL and other networks. The XFL failed in large part due to a confluence of misfortunes including technical difficulties, miscast announcers, changing the rules during the season, and McMahon’s decision to go to the extreme by bringing adult themes into the game — such as overtly sexualizing the cheerleaders.
The XFL of old would have been tough for any network to stomach in 2018 and beyond, which is why McMahon and Alpha Entertainment will take the new league in a family-friendly direction. Aside from the concept surrounding the cheerleaders, the old XFL placed a heavy emphasis on old-school, no-holds-barred football. Considering CTE concerns and increasing attention to other health risks players face, that’s an obvious issue to centering a league around such an extreme brand of football. Back in the day, the XFL even trashed the opening coin toss for the “opening scramble,” which featured players running and diving for a football at midfield. One player famously separated his shoulder on the first scramble of the season and missed the rest of the year.
McMahon promises toned-down version of the XFL more akin to the NFL and college football but with enough unique elements that will set it apart from the pack.
It will be instrumental for McMahon to find a broadcast partner from the get go, and it will be interesting to see if he went straight for a popular streaming service considering the success he’s had with the WWE Network.