On January 25, 2018, WWE Chairman and CEO Vince McMahon held a press conference to announce the return of the XFL. For those unfamiliar, the XFL was a WWE (then WWF) affiliated football league that was set to bring the entertainment of McMahon’s signature brand to the football field, attempting to showcase strong personalities and wacky concepts. It folded after one season. McMahon has reportedly wanted to relaunch the league for years on end.
The XFL rumors have been swirling for a few months now, ever since it was announced that McMahon sold 3.34 million shares of stock and reportedly invested $100 Million dollars into a separate entity of the company: Alpha Entertainment, LLC. Now that these rumors have been confirmed people have begun to speculate on what the league will look like, but I’m relatively sure there was a lot of shock when the press conference started.
McMahon made it a point in his press conference that he wanted to make the game, faster, safer, simpler and easy to follow, citing that it can be a “burden to watch a three and a half hour game”. The entire relaunch and rebranding seems to be an effort to create a Spring Football league bent on experimentation but not the kind that the XFL was originally known for.
So what’s going to happen?
The initial Press Conference came to be a bit of a bore after the initial reveal and statement with the questions that were fielded from various sports reporters failing to get any sort of major response from McMahon, outside of an emphatic response regarding the National Anthem. The league will consist of 8 teams competing for 10 weeks with a four team playoff at the end and it will run from January through February or March (mistake in my opinion but I’ll get to that). Executives with a history in football and sports operations will be running the show with McMahon taking a behind the scenes approach, he was extremely emphatic about this being a separate entity from the WWE.
So what’s the goal? What’s the aim? Many believe that the XFL will be a “red-state” football or “MAGA” league, some believe it could offer a fresh opportunity for NFL has-beens or want to bes, especially with a spring approach.
It’s not a secret that the NFL has come under controversy in the last two years and depending on what side your on ratings have either decreased significantly or have actually improved. Those who claim it has decreased yell that they’re “tired of politics”, (when those are the same people who interject their own personal politics, they just object opposing viewpoints), some on the supportive side state that alternative viewing options, such as streaming and cord-cutting, haven’t been included in the ratings. There’s also the belief that the quality of the NFL’s product has diminished significantly in the last few years, leading to fewer eyes.
So what issues will the XFL face?
Whatever the case, the issues that the NFL faces aren’t just NFL problems, they’re football problems. For one the market has become oversatured, and the XFL will likely add to what has become a bit of football fatigue. It’s possible to avoid this fatigue by having a later start date, but the proposed January-March run time could prove disastrous ratings wise when considering what product they would be up against. Another major problem is that the NFL has a hard time promoting its superstars, particularly QBs and individual players of color (most league ads feature an ensemble of players rather than one in particular), something that the NBA does NOT shy away from. If you want proof, look no further than how the NFL botched Cam Newton’s MVP season by failing to promote him and his true image. There was a legitimate fear that Cam Newton’s “personality” would rub fans the wrong way, as evidenced by the Letter to the Editor in the Charlotte Observer after his continuous dabbing. The NFL is accepting of its black players, but not wholly accepting of their culture or their issues, only the ones palatable for their target audience. It’s the reason the NFL kept referring to Colin Kaepernick’s protests as “Anthem Protests” instead of a statement on racial injustice and inequality during the National Anthem. A notion a large number of their target audience believed to be true. With the XFL bringing in talent that isn’t quite NFL level, it will be a bit of a struggle to promote good talent unless they make it a point to seek out your Johnny Manziels and Tim Tebows who have star power, but just couldn’t cut it. The question then becomes how long does star power last when the talent becomes mediocre?
The XFL is trying to latch onto the same core audience as the NFL instead of expanding to demographics they don’t know how to promote, that’s both disappointing and scary for them for a number of reasons: social media may change forms, but it isn’t going away anytime soon. With instant access to players, social issues will continue to be at the forefront of their concerns, especially when you consider the socioeconomic backgrounds of a large number of the players or how close they are to friends and family of those backgrounds. There’s a disconnect between the audience and the “entertainment” and a large portion of the audience doesn’t care to see the humanity within the entertainment.
It’s not all bad though…
The last iteration of the XFL woke the NFL up forcing them to bring their product into the 21st century. Small things like the SkyCam were brought into the NFL’s broadcasts on a regular basis, sideline interviews became a normal thing, they made the extra point an additional play rather than kicking attempt (the NFL has always been uneasy about the….well…..easiness of an extra point) and NBC returned to broadcasting football. The XFL’s return has another opportunity to innovate and try new things, they’re not stuck in any kind of tradition or lore, they’re not rooted to anything but whatever works.
The best thing about this league is the WWE’s lack of involvement. They do not intend to let that brand mix with the XFL for fear of what happened last time, and if they want legitimate audiences, they need to keep that as FAR AWAY as possible. In my opinion they should focus on grabbing college players that couldn’t quite make it, preseason roster cuts and practice squad members. You can grab your talented cream of the crop who are trying to make it to the NFL and let those be your stars, find ways to promote those stars as often as possible while they’re in your league and hitch yourself onto the idea of being a farm system for the Fall without explicitly saying such.
Instead of a January to March slate, the league should consider April to June or May to July. The reason for this is that they wouldn’t compete against other sports that their primary demographic considers watching (March Madness) and depending on the nights they play, they could avoid the NBA postseason/finals altogether. There’s a hunger and desire for Spring Football and the XFL could create a market where other leagues, including the Arena Football League, have failed to do so. If they time it even better and include cities north of the border, they could hold a grasp for Canadian Fans who want a hold over until CFL starts in late June.
The sky is the limit for the new league, but if they stick to one core audience, it won’t get them the profits that they think it will.