Last week, in a video stream embedded on the website for his new company, Alpha Entertainment, WWE CEO Vince McMahon announced that he will be reprising his alternative football league to the NFL, the XFL, with a targeted start date in 2020. The rumor mill had been bubbling for some time about this possibility, and now it's here. Or more appropriately, it WILL be here, at some point.
If you recall the XFL back in 2001, then you remember that it started with a ton of hype (and ratings) and fizzled quickly into a financial and aesthetic disaster for both McMahon and NBC executive Dick Ebersol, who was the steward of NBC's 50 percent fiscal backing of the league. An ESPN "30 for 30" from last year chronicled the league's existence, and it was a thesis study in what happens when Murphy's Law meets hubris.
It was also a product that was inextricably interwoven with WWE, with WWE announcers calling games, WWE superstars showing up at XFL games and cutting promos, and McMahon out in front as the face of the league. From the sounds of things, and the rollout video last week, this time around will be very different.
Hell, just compare these two videos, and you can kind of see the message being sent this time around by a much calmer, buttoned down McMahon. Here is 2001...
Here was last week....
I encourage you to watch the 2018 video in its entirety, or at least the opening monologue from McMahon. The words "reimagine football" are used at least a dozen times, and the message is clear — McMahon wants a product that is shaped and molded by feedback from the fan experience. The league will start in eight to-be-determined cities with franchises that are all owned by the league itself. (Suggestion — Vince, play the games in soccer stadiums, about the size of BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston. 20,000 sold out seats is better than 40,000 in an 80,000 seat cavern.)
Having watched the press conference call in its entirety and having listened to McMahon's vision for the new XFL, it's clear he's learned a few things from the failure of the league in 2001. Here are the big ones:
6. Don't rush to market
In 2001, McMahon hurriedly scrambled to get the league up and running as soon as possible, with not nearly enough planning and evaluation of certain initiatives within the league. He literally announced the formation of the league and months later they were playing football. That will not be the case this time, as the league is taking a full two years to plan, choose cities, and build methodically.
5. There will be no WWE crossover
In 2001, Vince had the Rock cutting promos before games, and within one week, he had demoted Matt Vasgergian (a classically trained, conventional sport play by play guy) to his B-announce team and replaced him with Hall of Fame wrestling announcer Jim Ross. Jesse Ventura was part of the broadcast team, as well. This time around, McMahon has said there will be no WWE stars showing up on XFL programming and no WWE announcers calling games.
4. Family friendly sells better than salaciousness
In 2001, McMahon's WWE was in the middle of a huge boom period which was ignited, in part, by a very adult slant to their storylines and television programming. His XFL product reflected that same strategy, with numerous near-upskirt shots of cheerleaders, and with attempts at storylines involving cheerleaders and players along with an odd focus on behind the scenes, locker room stuff with the cheerleaders. In 2018, the WWE is priding itself on a more PG-13 product, and it sounds like XFL will be a family-friendly product with NO cheerleaders at all this time around.
3. Safety is more marketable than bone crunching hits
In 2001, when we were about as ignorant as could be as a society when it came to concussions and head trauma, McMahon was marketing the XFL as a league where there would be bone crunching hits. McMahon went so far as to promise there would be no "panty waists" in the XFL. Now, in 2018, the word "safer" is part of the XFL's mission statement.
2. Beat the NFL by attacking everything they're not
To further the previous point, much of McMahon's anti-NFL strategy in 2001 centered around name calling and selling the XFL as a more macho brand of football than the NFL. Certainly, the current day strategy is going right at the NFL, but it's doing it by addressing all of the things that have disenfranchised the NFL's fan base and/or embracing things the NFL has eschewed. There will be no social statements in the XFL. They will stand for the anthem. They will embrace gambling. The games will be shorter. Nobody with a criminal record will be allowed to play in the XFL. It's like Vince McMahon took every big news item about NFL struggles and chose to market the opposite.
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1. Let football people run things
In 2001, Vince McMahon was the face of the league, and out in front speaking on any league-related issue. McMahon made it clear last week that he will have football people running the league, and he plans to be very much in the background. I'll be anxious to see if this one holds up.
If you're wondering about Houston's thirst for an XFL team, I posted this all on Twitter last week....
Houstonians, if the XFL had a Houston team that played from, say, late February through early May at BBVA Compass Stadium, how often would you go?— Sean Pendergast (@SeanTPendergast) January 26, 2018
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.