Nineteen years after the XFL first failed at challenging the National Football League’s monopoly on professional football in 2001, the spring league backed by hundreds of millions of dollars from WWE founder Vince McMahon finally looked like its second attempt would make history.
Fans were packing into stadiums across the country, millions were watching national broadcasts, and the product on the field was actually, finally competitive. And then, when the coronavirus pandemic blindsided sports and life as we know it, the league ground to a halt, canceled its remaining games, and filed for bankruptcy.
They say the third time’s the charm.
Planning for a 2022 relaunch, the league is back with new owners Dany Garcia, her business partner Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and RedBird Capital Partners, who combined to purchase the league out of bankruptcy for just over $15 million earlier this year.
With the purchase, Garcia, who is also Johnson’s ex-wife, has already made history by becoming the first female equal owner of a major sports league in the U.S. But now, as she explained at the Yahoo Finance All Markets Summit, she also becomes the first owner to have to rebuild a sports league wiped out by a pandemic.
“When you look at the XFL, you have to look at, who are we in the next two to three years? And who are we in the next three to five years? And recognize that that's going to be a process and journey,” Garcia said.
— XFL (@xfl2022) October 1, 2020
As any XFL fan would know, that process has never before come to fruition. In 2001, the league barely lasted a season before sloppy play and dramatics more in tune with the WWE led to collapsing television ratings. The 2020 iteration was distinct for its more concerted effort and attention to on-field play to challenge that of the NFL. Former NFL Europe President Oliver Luck delivered on that promise and television ratings impressed right up until the last game of the doomed 2020 season.
Distancing this iteration of the XFL from The Rock’s WWE past, Garcia said the league will not relapse to its old ways in 2022.
“Are we going to be the 2001 [XFL]? No. In fact, the XFL, the X stands for ex right now, not extreme,” she joked, adding that the improved and shortened gameplay will remain. “We're actually going through a download now with players and our coaches to see what actually did work, and what didn't work, and if there were things that were a little bit rough.”
There are still some large question marks off the field, however, when it comes to the financial viability of a league that billionaire McMahon had said he was prepared to personally bankroll before the pandemic changed that equation. McMahon even waived fees for the league’s broadcast partners in FOX, ABC, and ESPN to maximize notoriety. The XFL’s bankruptcy filings revealed the league only generated $14 million in revenue through less than four weeks of gameplay and posted a loss of $44 million during that same period.
But having impressed networks and the sports media industry with games that outdrew NHL games and even NBA games in its latest season, Garcia is confident the XFL can draw large broadcast dollars in re-worked contracts.
“Going forward, having media rights deals where there are no fees, that's not the option that we're looking at,” she said.
Between that, sponsorships, and stadium revenues shared by the league’s wholly-owned eight teams, it’s not hard to see how the momentum is there. But that very momentum raises another question that has doomed countless other football leagues that have dared to challenge the NFL — can the league keep growing if it’s inevitably going to lose its stars to the NFL?
Some critics say the other 2020 springtime NFL challenger, the Alliance of American Football (which also folded in 2020, but prior to the pandemic) was harmed by presenting itself as an NFL development league. The XFL was less committed to that, even preventing players from signing with NFL teams mid-season. That contract lock was lifted when the league folded, allowing a handful of the top XFL players to sign with NFL teams. That could pose an issue in its own right for a sport powered by stars, but it’s not a major problem, according to Garcia.
“I see ourselves as a cohort of the NFL,” she said. “Can we still get the quality of play that we need, even if we may have a player for just a few years? Our premise is yes, we absolutely can.”
In a way, that has always been the constant with the players in the XFL. Those that may have been overlooked coming out of college, or cut from an NFL practice roster.
“When you look at the athletes that are coming to the XFL in the next year and a half, they all have something to prove. Every play matters,” she said. “It's a little bit different than when you have a $250 million contract or a $30 million per year contract … but there's a heart and a soul to the play you see, because there is opportunity and possibility.”
Opportunity and possibility not just for the XFL’s players, but opportunity for its new owners and fans.
They say the third time’s the charm.