Well, it’s over. After playing five weeks of games in the first season since 2001, the XFL has ceased operations.
Maybe the league is cursed, maybe it was just bad luck, but the league that was meant to shake up pro football, to “give football back to families,” is going out with a whimper.
When founder Vince McMahon announced the league was reopening in January 2018, he promised to listen to football fans, make the game easier to understand and keep politics off the field.
The league also boasted a more informative and engaging broadcast format, with immediate sideline interviews, live mics on coaches’ headsets, and a direct connection to the booth official and the referees. The league seemed to be positioning itself as thoroughly suited to home engagement, with social media playing a big part too.
The league that McMahon and his team put together was surprisingly successful in its first five weeks. Players, coaches, and staff were finding the league to be a genuine steppingstone to success, and it wasn’t a bad step along the way at that.
Many players came from the now-defunct Alliance of American Football league, which in 2019 shut operations down with two games left in the season. Along with recruits from high school and college programs across the country, as well as a healthy number of players cut from the NFL, the XFL collected mid-range talent that promised to net some fan favorites and some incredible careers.
Houston Roughnecks quarterback P.J. Walker, who led the team through a 5-0 half-season before the shutdown, was the pointman for the XFL’s marketing strategy going into the 2020 season. On March 23, the Carolina Panthers agreed to sign Walker for a two-year deal, proving that the XFL could put someone in the limelight.
The COVID-19 pandemic couldn’t have come at a worse time for the XFL. Five weeks into a comeback season after almost 20 years, there was nothing stable about the league. McMahon was its sole funder , pledging $500 million of the fortune he built during his tenure with the WWE. He was planning on losing $375 million over the next five years before the league would finally be profitable.
With the extended shutdown over COVID-19, the XFL immediately lost out on over half of its expected games, including postseason and the championship, for this season. The league didn’t attempt any fan-less games, like other leagues are considering. While it was developed to be more engaging for viewers at home, the league was not nearly popular enough to garner enough funding from TV ad sales only. The XLF wasn’t getting much more per ad spot on their broadcasts than gymnastics or golf, which get between $10 and $20 thousand per 30-second spot.
This first season was crucial, to prove that a league that had lasted only one season in 2001, and made so many mistakes in that season, could capture an audience and really revolutionize football.
Now, all employees of the league are laid off, and no plans exist for a 2021 season. Players were paid their base salary for games scheduled but not played, and any bonuses from games played. The breaking up of the company has not been completely smooth, with former commissioner Oliver Luck suing McMahon for wrongful termination in federal court last week. Luck’s employment contract stipulated an undetermined length of time where he could not be fired except in the event he began to completely disregard his duties.
During its short run, the league started the careers of at least four footballers, propelling them to the NFL. It proved that, in a normal world, an alternative source of football entertainment, focused on moving into the future and revolutionizing the game, could find fans and support.