By Jason Keidel
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Some folks know when to quit. Some know when to quit, but certain spiritual defects keep them from doing so. Some suffer from the hubris of the defeated.
Check boxes B and C for Vince McMahon, who’s decided to exhume the XFL, the failed football league that was some amalgam of the NFL and WWE, co-owned by NBC and his wrestling arm. It was flashy, rough and risque, with risque cheerleaders, players given a symbolic megaphone and even street handles scrawled across the back of their jerseys. Sobriquets like “He Hate Me,” worn by the running back Rod Smart, were among the more notable brands.
Despite the doomed history of his vanity project back in 2001, McMahon is giving us a new, buttoned-down version, to be launched early in 2020.
No cheerleaders. No lap dances. None of the flashy trappings that made it more novelty than nouveau. Oddly enough, the XFL’s opening week saw robust ratings — 54 million viewers, to be precise — but quickly spiraled into a freckling of fans, with NBC ducking out after one season. The maiden rating of 10 dove down to 1.7 halfway through, the lowest rating for a prime-time sports event in history. While McMahon offered us football parity, it soon morphed into a parody. On a 2001 “SportsCenter,” Dan Patrick called it “scripted, lowlife garbage.”
“Fans are First” is the new motto of the league, which will feature eight teams playing a 10-game schedule. If you’re wondering if McMahon has any partners, like NBC, he is funding this himself, selling $100 million of WWE stock to kick-start a new version of the old league.
If you’re old enough to recall the USFL, the 1980s version of the AFL, without the subsequent merger and ultimate success, there actually were some decent teams and good games, because there were good players, some of whom became NFL stars, from Hershel Walker to Hall of Famers Jim Kelly and Steve Young. But even a league as large and ambitious as the USFL couldn’t compete with the NFL. And the USFL was actually able to poach a few potential NFL players with bloated contracts, a luxury not open to the new XFL.
What’s McMahon thinking? Does he have the secret sauce this time? Can he do what every league since the AFL could not? Can he will the XFL to win? Or is this equal parts boredom and bombast, a rich, aging man trying to test his vitality one more time?
America loves its wrestling. America loves its football. But the shotgun marriage between the two bombed 17 years ago. What will be different this time? It will take more than a few, cosmetic changes to make the nation fall in love with a third football appendage. Remember, we don’t just follow pro ball, but also college ball, which new Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel called the best free farm system in American team sports. Do we have an appetite for football after the Super Bowl?
It seems we do, as the NFL draft and free agency fill the sports section and garner great ratings well after the season ends. Since the XFL’s first postmortem, we’ve seen the success of “Thursday Night Football” and the launch of NFL Network. Our unending appetite for some form of football seems here to stay, with nine of the top-10 watched programs in 2017 being football games.
The NFL does not have Major League Baseball’s antitrust exemption; it just feels like they do. Technically, there is no football monopoly. The NFL can tell advertisers they can’t say “Super Bowl” during a commercial without kicking them a few bucks. They even told Mike Francesa to change the name of his Sunday morning show on WFAN because he didn’t pay proper (monetary) homage to the league. But they can’t keep you, me or McMahon from starting a new football league.
Football works because the game itself is great, is perfectly contoured for television and has long been mythologized by former players and the epic, almost deifying effect of NFL Films. But the landscape has changed drastically since 2001. Football is now more safety conscious, with sideshows like ESPN’s “Jacked Up” now banished from the airwaves. Violent hits are more tolerated than celebrated. The tentacles of politics have wrapped around the sport, with social activism discussed almost as much as zone blitzes and the Tampa Two.
Quietly, the XFL did bequeath some of the cool technology we enjoy in the NFL, from the sky cam to miking the players. But the product — the play — speaks loudest. And it will take ability, more than audacity, to make XFL 2.0 any better than XFL 1.0. Suffice it to say, the NFL may not have a monopoly, but it still feels like one.
Please follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel