WWE chief Vince McMahon confirmed today that he is reviving the XFL, a professional football league that infamously flamed out after one season in its first incarnation, a joint venture with NBC in 2001.
The league will begin play in 2020, and the wrestling impresario insisted during a news conference that the two-year run-up will enable the reborn XFL to “get it right.”
Plans call for eight teams with 40-player rosters in cities to be determined, with four teams making the playoffs. The season will begin in late January or early February and run for 10 weeks. No broadcast or streaming deals are in place as yet. McMahon said the league organizers were aware of interest, though he declined to specify any of the interested parties.
McMahon said the NFL’s recent troubles, from kneeling anthem protests to TV ratings woes, did not factor into his decision to revive the league. “I’ve always wanted to bring it back,” he said.
Asked several times whether the league will have rules banning kneeling during the anthem, McMahon stopped just shy of saying it would be an actual rule in the book. But he painted a picture that seemed distinctly at odds with the recent spectacle that has played out at NFL stadiums and did leave the door open for a potential ban on protests. (However convenient the idea of a ban might be as a marketing strategy, the viability of such a rule for a fledgling league trying to attract players would seem to make it a virtual impossibility.)
“We’ll do whatever we have to do to make sure that all players know the rules as well as everyone else,” he said. “The national anthem is a time-honored tradition. Whatever our rules are will be what players abide by. There are plenty of ways in which players, coaches, members of the media can express themselves in terms of their political views on social issues. But again, we’re here to play football. That’s everyone’s job.”
It isn’t clear yet whether President Donald Trump, who harshly criticized NFL players last fall, would jump aboard the XFL, McMahon said. “It will have nothing to do with politics, and nothing to do with social issues either. We’re there to play football. We want really good football, and that’s what fans want as well. When they tune in, I don’t think they want to be dealing with social issues and things of that nature.”
With tens of millions of pro football fans increasingly tuning out of the sport, which has endured two seasons of significant TV ratings declines, McMahon emphasized the league’s approach would be a “fan-centric” one.
“Most importantly, we’ll be listening to fans,” McMahon said. “We’ll be listening to their answers to the question, ‘What would you do if you could re-imagine football?’ Would you, for instance, eliminate halftime? Would you have fewer commercial breaks? Would the game of football be faster? Would the rules be simpler?”
Before McMahon’s news conference, a short sizzle reel played, with a theme song and on-screen graphics emphasizing some themes that were not in the mix during the XFL’s ill-fated first run, including “safety” and “fantasy.”
While the earlier incarnation featured hard-hitting action that intentionally played up the brutality of the game, safety will be a centerpiece of the new effort. Asked about safety measures given growing evidence that football causes brain trauma, he declined to offer specifics but said that “re-imagining football” would involve “listening to medical experts.”
There are plenty of blanks to fill in during the next two years. McMahon offered no guidance on potential team locations or venues, specific rules of game play or even whether the reboot extends to signature details like having nicknames on the backs of jerseys, as with Rod “He Hate Me” Smart.
The relaunch had been widely rumored since McMahon sold about $100 million in WWE stock late last year to help fund the venture. He confirmed at the news conference that the league will operate outside of the WWE because the level of investment is “too rich” for the wrestling company to offer.
McMahon’s first attempt to disrupt the NFL ended in a meltdown when the league folded after one disastrous season in 2001. Announced with typical fanfare in February 2000, the joint venture with NBC became a cash-burning fiasco seared into the minds of enough media watchers that an installment of ESPN’s documentary franchise 30 for 30 commemorated it in 2017. (This Was the XFL was directed by Charlie Ebersol, son of former NBC chief Dick Ebersol, who teamed with McMahon on the first XFL go-round.)
While the kickoff game attracted 14 million total viewers to NBC in 2001, ratings plunged as viewer curiosity was satisfied. Red ink quickly flowed, and reports have pegged the total loss at $70 million.
In the years since, McMahon has guided the WWE through life as a public company (after its 1999 IPO) and the launch of a subscription OTT service, which was ahead of its time. No WWE talent or announcers will cross over for the XFL effort, he emphasized during the news conference.
The company’s stock has surged 56% during the past six months and is trading at a 52-week high, closing today at $34.12.
McMahon was asked if organizers of the reboot had considered another name besides the XFL, given its baggage. “We did,” he said. “We think it’s a cool name.”