In 2001, Vince McMahon, titan of the sports entertainment industry, had conquered his competition within the professional wrestling genre. From a family of promoters, McMahon’s father, Vince Sr. and grandfather, Jess McMahon promoted boxing and wrestling events for decades. The McMahon wrestling empire that later became World Wrestling Entertainment was founded by Vince Sr. in the 1950s under the Capital Sports banner. Despite stepping away from the National Wrestling Alliance to promote his own WWWF champion in 1963, he remained a member of the NWA board, as he was one of the most respected promoters of the era. After Vince Sr. stepped down due to a series of health problems, his son took over the north-eastern wrestling organization in the early 80’s.
Nearly two decades later, Vince had taken a regional business and created a global brand. Along the way, he went toe-to-toe with the federal government, and survived the spending frenzy of media mogul, Ted Turner. By the spring of 2001, Mr. McMahon had bought his competition, Turner’s World Championship Wrestling, for pennies on the dollar.
That same competition allowed a boom in business in the late 90s as both organizations competed for ratings on Monday nights. The surge in popularity and increase in exposure led to the WWF’s stock market debut in late 1999. Revenue, ratings, and profits reached record levels during the “Attitude Era.” However, the spring of 2001 wasn’t all victory for the sports entertainment chairman.
In May of that year, McMahon announced the closure of the XFL football league, a venture co-owned by NBC Sports. The alternative sports league began just six months earlier and cost an estimated $100 million during the duration of its only season. The hype for this McMahon sponsored organization was tremendous, receiving a major promotional push on his highly rated pro wrestling shows on a weekly basis. But, assembling an entire league in such a short span and the logistics of the distribution of the product made success an unrealistic possibility. When it was all set and done, the XFL was sub par football at sparely attended games and a series of pro wrestling inspired marketing tactics that made traditional journalists cringe because of some of the criticism toward the WWF’s edgier programming at the time. The XFL was a total flop, and millions of dollars were lost by both NBC and the WWF.
Still, there was always an intrigue about the renegade football project. It became so infamous for its failure after ratings started strong and fell off a cliff that it retained its place as a footnote in sports history. Last year, ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series featured “This was the XFL,” the first in-depth look into the project since it folded over a decade and a half ago. Dick Ebersol, a pioneer in sports television and longtime friend of Vince, was a key figure in the WWF/NBC project at the time.
Ebersol was instrumental in the production of the Saturday Night’s Main Event series that fueled the WWF’s boom in popularity during the “Rock N Wrestling” era of the 80s so he found previous success with sports entertainment prior to the XFL debacle. Ebersol’s son, Charlie directed the documentary film, and viewers were allowed to hear the details of the incredible toll it takes on a company to run two full-time projects, pro wrestling and pro football. Ultimately, the XFL provided an intriguing story, not necessarily intriguing football.
After the presentation aired, many enjoyed a nostalgic look at the ambitious gamble that Vince and NBC took at the start of a new millennium. Recently, Vince made headlines when he sold $100 million worth of WWE stock and announced the formation of Alpha Entertainment, a corporation set up specifically for projects outside of the WWE landscape. He also filed for several XFL trademarks, fueling speculation that he plans to relaunch the defunct football league. Granted, nothing was announced so any reports are just rumors at this point, but all things considered, it looks very possible that there could be an XFL return.
At first glance, you must ask, “why?” Why would Vince McMahon, a 72-year-old billionaire that already has a global company that he built from the regional scene, want to revive a failed football league? In fact, as ambitious as it was, there’s literally nothing that would suggest that the XFL wouldn’t be a complete failure again in 2018. However, if the XFL resurfaces, there are several questions that would revolve around the league, most importantly, what would be different in 2018?
The most basic and pivotal question for any business would be, is there a demand for the product? In this situation, is there a demand for an alternative football brand? Keep in mind, the formation of the McMahon/NBC partnership wasn’t because of the demand for more football in 2001, but rather NBC’s attempt to keep the sport on their network after CBS paid more money for the rights to broadcast AFC games in 1998, leaving NBC Sports without football at that point.
If anything, it might be more difficult to get an upstart league off the ground in 2018 than it was in 2001 because of the amount of games distributed to a wider audience than in years previously. NBC has football again, and nearly every major sports network broadcasts games at some point during the season. Along with that, the expansion of the cable industry during the past decade allows for the availability to sports packages that can give viewers access to games in several different markets. There are already NFL games shown at least three days a week at various points during the season, and if there’s a demand for more football than that, specifically in locations that don’t host a pro team, college football is very popular in those markets.
Aside from the key of demand for a product, what revenue can be generated from XFL programming? Similar to sports entertainment, the XFL would have to set up in locations that could draw live attendance and then there must be a wider demand for the league outside of those geographical areas to establish a rights fee and advertisement revenue for television. As mentioned, nearly every major network runs NFL or college programming, something that no major media outlet would sacrifice for an alternative spring league. More importantly, what network or cable channel is going to pay Alpha Entertainment for the rights to broadcast XFL games in 2018? Furthermore, what ad revenue could realistically be generated if Alpha landed games on a secondary network?
The logistics of the entire scenario don’t seem realistic from any perspective. Even with the $100 million that Vince made from the stock sell, that doesn’t get anywhere close to an amount that could fund the league again. The costs of stadiums, salaries, and production would prevent him from offering contracts that would be competitive to anything in the NFL. Sure, the league might run in the spring, but what NFL prospect is going to risk injury and money from an NFL team to play in the XFL?
The bottom line is, the XFL would need quality players to present a product that fans would want to watch. The locations are another major obstacle, mostly because the previously mentioned college football covers most secondary markets. The original XFL was a two-division league that had eight teams and didn’t draw well in most cities because those locations had established franchises. The landscape of football has changed since Los Angeles Xtreme won the only championship game. The LA market has two NFL teams, and Las Vegas is scheduled to host The Raiders in a few years. So, what locations could host Alpha Entertainment games and draw a crowd?
As I said, even a spring league would indirectly compete with the NFL, because any successful league needs quality plays, and just as important, stars that draw ratings. Perhaps the only attempt at competition to the National Football League that had any chance of success was the United States Football league in the 80s. The USFL was able to sign top college prospects to the league, which gave them credibility among sports fans.
Names like Hershel Walker, Steve Young, and the legendary Jim Kelly were among those that played in the alternative league prior to their NFL careers. That said, even with legitimate players signed, the USFL folded after three seasons and lost over $160 million during its existence. While the USFL was probably the most well-known attempt at football competition, there were several spinoffs that went under the radar. The United Football League ran four seasons from 2009-2012 with just five teams and lost millions of dollars before it closed.
For some reason, Vince seems to always aspire to set up another venture outside of the world of professional wrestling. Don’t get me wrong, Vince is the most successful wrestling promoter in the history of the business and one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the entire entertainment genre. It’s very possible he could set up another business outlet to become very profitable, but is that realistic when he runs a global company already? The infamous failures like the World Bodybuilding Federation and the XFL itself were done at the same time that Vince ran the daily business of the global WWE brand. It’s doubtful that someone as dedicated to his business as Vince would step away entirely to run an alternative football league.
The bottom line is, the NFL is and always will be the premiere football league, and every attempt to compete with it in the past several decades failed. One way or another a relaunched XFL would be indirectly in competition with the NFL because signing quality players leads to a quality product. The failure of the NBC project proved that secondary football doesn’t draw numbers. Undoubtedly, the return of the XFL would still have some of the pro wrestling stigma that the original league endured, but more specifically, a return of the XFL or any other McMahon football league would have the stain of the failure of the original XFL. Quite simply, the letters of the XFL were branded a failure and there’s no logical reason there would be different results for a return of the league.
What do you think? Comment below with your thoughts, opinions, feedback and anything else that was raised.
Until next week
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