What if I told you the NFL wasn’t the most violent football league? Would you believe that, even while the NFL was beginning to worry about player safety, there was a football league that glorified the most violent and dangerous parts of the sport? Or that blatantly objectifying women, glorifying injury and capitalizing on the most primal aspects of football was accepted on national television just 15 years ago? And what if I told you that same institution is trying to come back and market itself as a “family-friendly” option for football fans? This is not a joke: the Xtreme Football League (XFL) is returning to television screens in 2020.
World Wrestling Federation and XFL founder Vince McMahon promised a gimmick-free football league with the XFL’s return. This is a far cry from the XFL of 2001, a 50-50 joint venture featuring NBC and McMahon’s WWF, or frankly anything on which McMahon has ever put his stamp of approval.
The WWF is infamous for being a rigged, fake form of wrestling that looks to emphasize personalities and antics over any actual integrity that might exist in wrestling as a sport. McMahon attempted to make a mockery of football in the same way with the birth of the XFL league in 2001.
With the NFL quickly gaining notoriety as the “No-Fun League,” for all its penalties, fines and rules, Vince McMahon saw an opportunity. The XFL league — or, as McMahon once called it, the “Extra-Fun League” — would feature very few of the regulations on the sport that lead some casual fans of football to abandon their NFL fandom. It would also bring every imbecilic, primitive detail that made the WWF inexplicably popular at the time and applied it to football.
The first iteration of the XFL featured cheerleaders in nothing more than lingerie and football players that were more actors than athletes. The games themselves were more reality TV, focused on glorifying huge hits and players with larger-than-life personalities, than actual sports.
McMahon even allowed the players to have nicknames on the back of their jerseys. While most refused, one player, Rod Smart, decided to go with “He Hate Me” on the back of his jersey. Images of that name on the back of his jersey remain really the only lasting memory of the old XFL.
MacMahon’s plan was simple: take the game of football, subtract many of the regulations of the NFL, add in McMahon’s WWF-style presentation and create a successful league capable of competing with the NFL for market share and players. When over 14 million people watched the first week of games on NBC, it seemed as though McMahon’s plan might be a success. Soon enough, however, the XFL league devolved into a failure of epic proportions which cost NBC and McMahon’s WWF over $100 million combined.
The highest-paid players made only around $5000 per week, which is pathetic for a “professional” athlete. Additionally, the League offered no health insurance for its players, which was utterly ridiculous considering the nature of the sport.
To make things even worse, the XFL rule changes, which McMahon hoped would provide more cheap thrills for the casual fan, proved to be dangerous and ineffective. For example, the XFL league did away with extra point attempts and the coin toss.
Teams were required to attempt a two-point conversion after every touchdown and possession of the ball at the beginning of the game was decided by two opposing players scrambling for a loose ball about 15 yards away. Almost prophetically, one of the players suffered a separated shoulder the very first time this happened.
By the second week of the XFL’s first season, the audience shrunk from more than 14 million to just above 4 million. At the season’s end, barely over 1 million people still bothered to watch their games.
What in the world went so horribly wrong in McMahon’s first XFL league experiment? First of all, he failed to consider that very few WWF fans wanted WWF football. More importantly, very few football fans wanted WWF football.
This left McMahon and NBC with an audience that was small to begin with and that was now rapidly shrinking. As a result, the XFL struggled to maintain any kind of TV audience and attendance at the games was sporadic at best. The League’s habit of insulting the NFL at every opportunity only served to alienate much of their target market, making their audience even smaller.
Also, whatever McMahon boasted about the “Xtra-Fun League,” the quality of games was mediocre at best. This was mainly because the quality of players was mediocre on a good day; the best players were in the NFL. With its lack of true talent — not to mention, its association with fake wrestling and its hiring of strippers as cheerleaders — the XFL rapidly and deservedly gained a reputation as a sleazy product.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the XFL season opened right on the end of the NFL season. Essentially, McMahon hoped that directly after football fans watched the highest-quality football of the season, they would turn their attention to a gimmick-fueled mockery of the sport they loved. Naturally, very few football fans bought the XFL’s pitch.
You’d think with the catastrophic failure of the original XFL league, McMahon wouldn’t want to try his hand at professional football again. But that’s exactly what he’s doing almost two decades later. What’s more, the new XFL project seems even less calculated than the old one.
McMahon plans to have no TV contract for this iteration of the XFL. In addition, McMahon does not want people with a criminal record in his league but still somehow plans to field eight teams with 40 players each. That’s 320 players who have no criminal record, enough talent that the quality of the games won’t be like watching the Cleveland Browns practice squad times eight and, of course, no NFL contracts.
Finally, McMahon wants it to be “quicker, simpler…safer” football with “fewer infractions” and hopes to pack stadiums full of thousands of people. His largest selling point right now? He will absolutely, under no circumstances, allow players to kneel for the national anthem.