Vince McMahon, WWE chairman, announced on Jan. 25th his plan to relaunch his beloved football league, the XFL, after its colossal bust in 2001. Taking a more pacified approach than he had for his ideas the first time around, McMahon promised in the announcement press conference that fans would see a noticeably faster game and the rest of the league’s rules would be decided upon after hearing from the public. Although listening to the fans is a strong idea, sometimes they cannot tell the whole story as to why there has rarely been an alternative to the NFL with sustained success. It might help to examine leagues of today and yesterday that have attempted to gain or even steal the eyeballs of NFL fans and discover what the new XFL can learn from them in its quest for success.
The USFL (1983-1985)
David Dixon, a New Orleans businessman, founded the United States Football League. Dixon had big ideas, later known as the “Dixon Plan,” for his upstart league. It did not take long for the league to make a splash in the world of football, as the New Jersey Generals signed 1982 Heisman winner Herschel Walker out of his junior year of college. Signing underclassmen was banned in the NFL at the time, but the USFL knew that to make headlines, it had to buck the system. Not only did the USFL change the landscape of the football world through using big-pocketed owners to sign future household names such as Walker, Jim Kelly, Steve Young and Reggie White, but also it innovated on the field once the original 12 teams kicked off in 1983. After scoring a touchdown, USFL teams were allowed to go for something called the two-point conversion instead of the traditional extra point kick. If one of the referees’ calls was in question, they were allowed to make sure they got it right by watching an instant replay. On the business side, a $1.8 million salary cap was introduced with room to grow in future years. The NFL later adopted all of these ideas after the folding of the USFL. As for why it died, the league simply got too big and too ambitious too fast. In short, there were the usual bankruptcies, relocations, and owner changes that any young sports league experiences, but despite these factors, the league was still somewhat successful, drawing great cable ratings and respectable crowds. The death knell came when New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump and others decided to move the league to a fall schedule in 1986, going head-to-head with the NFL. After the USFL sued the NFL for monopolizing in the fall, the court ruled in favor of the USFL but did not like its intentions, awarding the young league just three dollars in damages and not punishing the NFL. The USFL never saw the field again because of the crushing legal blow. Despite lasting just three seasons, the USFL showed some flashes of brilliance as it went after underclassmen NCAA football players, established a salary cap for parity and made various rules on the field much different from the norm, but it ultimately showed no one should mess with the NFL in the fall.
The XFL (2001)
Vince McMahon can learn many lessons from his first go around in professional football: his 2001 league. The then-WWF and McMahon founded the XFL in 2000 as a joint venture along with NBC and Dick Ebersol, and it was an eight-team league that promised to be the exact opposite of its “no fun league” counterpart. The original incarnation of the XFL was over the top, with encouraged nasty hits, all-out access to teams and coaches and scantily-clad cheerleaders all packed into each football game. With much credit owed to its marketing team, the XFL debuted on NBC in February 2001 and brought in an astounding 9.5 television rating (for reference, that’s well over three times the amount of a present-day NBA on TNT game). The success was short-lived, though, as the next week, viewership split in half and kept nose-diving the rest of the season. At the end of the schedule, McMahon was crossing over his WWF storylines and superstars to boost viewership, but none of it worked. The XFL closed its doors after the season and lost a combined $70 million between NBC and WWF. Similar to its alternative predecessor, the USFL, the XFL became known for certain unique aspects in its game, some infamous and others inspirations to the NFL. For the game itself, to emphasize brutality, the original XFL allowed no fair catches, and teams were penalized for punting out of bounds, essentially making punt returners sitting ducks for defenders. There were no opening coin tosses. Instead, two opposing players fought for the football in a scramble for the right to choose possession, predictably injuring many players throughout the season. The on-field rules looked better on paper, but the way the XFL covered games revolutionized football. Although not the first to use it, the XFL made the sky cam, a camera that showed the game from more of a video game view rather than the usual broadcast view, mainstream. Also, viewers had more access to players and coaches, including showings of both teams’ pregame locker room talks and mid-game interviews with players and coaches. Halfway through the season, there was even a promised look into the cheerleaders’ locker room, but let’s avoid that debacle. Ultimately, the XFL failed for one main reason: lack of preparation. The league began play one year to the date after the inaugural announcement, which was not enough time to organize a professional league. The on-field play, fan bases and overall product suffered because of this. All considered, though, the XFL brought forth a new way to broadcast football games, an innovation that the NFL slowly picked up.
The AFL (1987-present)
Entrepreneur Jim Foster founded the Arena Football League in 1987 after he saw an indoor soccer game and decided to do that with football. The idea of an eight-man, 50-yard field, fast-paced, high-scoring football game took hold, and just 10 years later, the league had 14 teams. From 2003 to 2008, the league boomed after benefiting from a television contract with NBC and later ESPN. Unfortunately for the league, in 2007, Colorado Crush co-owner John Elway spearheaded a movement to make the AFL more like the NFL, changing the well-liked and unique ironman rule, under which players played both ways except for quarterbacks and kickers, to that of each player competing on one side of the ball. The move proved to be costly, and in 2009, due to huge debt and a player lockout, the AFL cancelled the season. Rising out of the ashes came its developmental league, the af2, and in 2010, the af2 and the AFL merged to form the new Arena Football League. The number of teams ballooned to 18 in 2011, but it has gone down every season since then. Today, a combined two owners own four teams. The league has become a shell of itself and is biding its time until its inevitable death. Although the Arena Football League is not a traditional outdoor football league, it’s showed again that a unique idea can be successful but, like its predecessors, can’t sustain itself due to straying away from what got it to the dance.
The CFL (1958-present)
The Canadian Football League came from the split of two rugby leagues, which incorporated play that was becoming more and more like American football, in the 1950s. It gave an opportunity to those north of the border to enjoy a sport that was becoming a mainstay in the United States. Despite its long-standing existence, the CFL tried to expand into the U.S. in 1993 and failed terribly. Seven franchises in the U.S. either played or were announced, with only the Baltimore Stallions reaching success. Once the NFL moved the Browns to Baltimore to form the Ravens in 1996, the only successful U.S. CFL franchise and the expansion experiment as a whole died. Since then, the league has flourished with its nine Canadian franchises. Because of its stability and decent exposure (games shown on ESPN networks in the U.S.), the CFL has provided outlets for unknown prospects to receive attention from the NFL and for NFL washouts such as Johnny Manziel and Trent Richardson to try to revive their careers. There are reasons why the CFL has been the only other alternative football league to not die: it knows and sticks to its identity and has a strong fan base.
What the new XFL can learn
Through the examples of these past and present leagues, the XFL can learn about what to do and what not to do. The USFL showed it’s important to challenge the norms of the NFL, but it might not be the smartest idea to challenge the NFL head to head. The original XFL demonstrated how all out access can work for a live sporting event but how an over-the-top style can scare fans away. The AFL has become a prime example of how uniqueness and faster games can intrigue the public, but a departure from your original roots can backfire. Lastly, the CFL has shown a strong fan base, strong ownership and opportunities for failed NFL talent can lead to success, but a journey outside usual boundaries and into new markets might not always work.
Vince McMahon said with his relaunch of the XFL, he will listen to the fans to make the new league the best it can be. Listening to the people can be beneficial, but studying the past and present of alternative football leagues can be even more helpful. History is doomed to repeat itself, and depending on McMahon’s decisions, he can either shed the stigma around the XFL name or lose millions of dollars like he did the first time around.