Television ratings for the NFL have fallen 17 percent over the past two seasons. The league is embroiled in a continuing crisis over concussions, and youth participation rates are falling.
All of this suggests a difficult future for the sport, yet the NFL’s most notorious competitor, Vince McMahon’s XFL, has a comeback in the works.
McMahon, chairman and chief executive of World Wrestling Entertainment, announced Thursday that he would take a second crack at professional football, with play scheduled to start in early 2020.
McMahon first tried to reimagine pro football 17 years ago. The old XFL was a joint venture between the World Wrestling Federation (WWE’s former name) and NBC, which had lost rights to broadcast NFL games.
Violence was amped up: An opening scramble replaced the coin toss and fair catches were banned. So was the sex appeal, with cheerleaders who were even more scantily clad than the ones in the NFL, and advertising that included innuendo about them.
“Where is my smash-mouth, wide-open football?” McMahon asked rhetorically at the news conference announcing plans for the original XFL. “This will not be a league for pantywaists and sissies.”
After the league drew huge television ratings its first week, disorganization plagued the operation, and fans became disenchanted by the confusing, sloppy brand of football played by inferior players. The league collapsed after just one season, with NBC and the WWF losing tens of millions of dollars. Four years later NBC paid $3 billion to get back into the NFL.
Now McMahon says he wants to reimagine the game. “Not reinvent,” he said in an interview last week. “It’s football. But you want to reimagine it.”
Other than the name, this version will have little in common with the old XFL, he said.
There will be no cheerleaders, McMahon said. Players with criminal records will not be welcome. Political statements, such as kneeling during the national anthem, will be prohibited.
President Donald Trump, who has denounced NFL players’ protesting racial injustice by refusing to stand during the anthem, has long been involved with the McMahons and WWE. Linda McMahon, Vince’s wife, was appointed by Trump to run the Small Business Administration.
Trump has hosted wrestling events at his properties and has been involved in the showmanship, once shaving McMahon’s head in the middle of a ring. Trump also helped found an alternative professional league in the 1980s, owning the New Jersey Generals of the short-lived U.S. Football League.
But McMahon said that he had not consulted with Trump about the XFL, and that the ban on politics during games would extend to the president’s positions.
“Democrat, Republican, Independent, I don’t care, and no one should,” said McMahon. “We come to the field not to state what I am pro or against, that’s not why we’re there. We are there to play football.”
This XFL also won’t be affiliated with wrestling, at least not officially. McMahon has formed Alpha Entertainment to run the league with completely separate management. He recently sold off about $100 million in WWE stock to fund it.
“I am very committed to this, and it’s going to take more than $100 million to do this league,” he said.
McMahon did not further estimate what amount of capital — including media rights fees, ticket sales and sponsorships — would be required to start the league. He said that he was not actively seeking other investors and that the league was already fully funded.
As for other details of the league, only the outline is visible. Eight teams — all owned by McMahon’s company — will compete in a 10-game regular season, likely on Sunday afternoons, he said. Four teams will make the playoffs, setting up semifinals and a championship game.
Active rosters will consist of 40 players, McMahon said, promising to pay them enough to play full time and to offer bonuses for wins. McMahon suggested that games would be much shorter and the rules simpler.
But he could not say where the teams would play, or specifically what media outlets might show the games.
McMahon’s plan has a decent shot at succeeding, said David Carter, a professor who runs the University of Southern California’s Sports Business Institute.
“The landscape for sports and entertainment has changed dramatically, I think you could argue, in McMahon’s favor,” Carter said, as digital media companies now compete to stream sports and young people become turned off by the length of games. “I think part of the failure of the XFL the first time around is it didn’t live up to unreasonably lofty expectations, and they lost the expectations game.”
The original XFL was announced just a year before its debut, and McMahon said he deliberately allowed two years between Thursday’s announcement and the league’s restart in 2020, because he believes the league will need more time to secure deals for stadiums and media rights.
He also said that he would consult with football experts to design rules that might make the game safer, a promise that duplicates an effort by the NFL.
The old XFL needed to be popular enough to justify broadcasts on NBC, but the advent of companies that stream sports digitally means the XFL might find a deal more suited to its size.
There are “so many more opportunities that were never there before,” said McMahon.
McMahon said he would not run the league day to day or be its public face. He was not supposed to be the public face of the old XFL, either. But on opening night, at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas, he was screaming to the crowd and television audience: “This. Is. The. XFL!”
“Forget what we did with the XFL,” McMahon said, laughing. “That was a long time ago.”