For all his success in the world of professional wrestling, whenever WWE CEO and owner Vince McMahon attempts to branch outwardly into other endeavors, it tends not to go quite the way he planned. Of all his outside efforts, none were as spectacular a failure as the XFL, a proposed alternative to the NFL that not unlike wrestling would be grittier, more violent, and take fans closer to the action than ever before. Unfortunately, not a single football fan alive wanted any of that, causing McMahon to lose some $35 million in a span of two or three months.
Despite the monumental loss McMahon suffered, it currently appears that it’s not the end for the XFL. In June of 2017, it was reported McMahon reapplied for the XFL trademark, along with several others: “United Football League,” “URFL,” “UFL,” and “For the Love of Football.” Shortly thereafter, McMahon sold boatloads of his own personal WWE stock, giving him a few million dollars to play with when using these new trademarks however he so pleases.
Given these two moves, insiders started speculating the XFL might be making a comeback, and we’ve got to say, that would be a disastrous idea for all parties. When the XFL failed, it wasn’t for lack of effort, or a shortage of money — there were deep-seeded problems that neither McMahon nor anyone else could possibly shake. Granted, it’s Vince’s money, and if he wants to blow it all making the same mistake twice, more power to him. However, for more rational minds looking for an explanation on why he shouldn’t, keep reading to remember 15 reasons the XFL was a massive failure everyone forgets about.
15. The NFL Never Needed An Alternative
In today’s world, where amateur politicans are getting furious at NFL players for acknowledging America isn’t perfect, there might actually be a target audience for an alternative football league. Back in 2001, though, there was absolutely no need whatsoever for two primetime pigskin enterprises. This is true in the same way Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, or the National Basketball Association doesn’t need competition. Unlike WWE, where the storylines are written and predetermined, these sporting institutions are legitimate athletic contests, where the best of the best battle it out on the field in thrilling and exciting games. They don’t need frills or flashy showmanship to win over audiences; they just need to promise fans will enjoy the players efforts at winning, something the NFL always has and always will easily be able to accomplish. The XFL almost entirely ignored this fact, thinking NFL football somehow needed to be “improved,” and that they could steal away their audience, which obviously didn’t happen.
14. People Assumed It Was Fake
Believe it or not, for all the showmanship involved in promoting the XFL, Vince McMahon’s football league was entirely legitimate. The players might have had silly names written on their backs, but the gameplay they offered was real. This came as a surprise to many viewers, who immediately assumed the fact McMahon was involved must have meant the entire thing would be scripted and predetermined, just like his WWE Universe. In fact, a large portion of the potential audience was so convinced this was the case, not even the fact Vegas bookmakers were taking bets on XFL games could convince them otherwise. It didn’t help that McMahon’s sports entertainment influence was all over the product, making even real moments appear a little scripted or cartoonish. Ultimately, no one wanted to watch a football game that might not be on the up and up, so even the suggestion that the XFL wasn’t made audiences tune out instantly.
13. The Gameplay Wasn’t Good
Just like with professional wrestling, not to mention every other sport based entertainment in the world, football is about a lot more than simply who wins and who loses. The average game is about 3 hours long, and it needs to keep audiences attention the whole way through. This doesn’t mean every single game needs to be neck and neck to the very end, finished with a dramatic last minute touchdown, but it does mean that both teams should put on a good show for the crowd by playing their hardest. Unfortunately, critics of the XFL felt this never quite happened with McMahon’s league, as the players just weren’t that good at the game. Quite frankly, this isn’t all that surprising, as all of the actual best football players in the world were already signed to the NFL, leaving only those who weren’t good enough for primetime left to fill McMahon’s roster.
12. There’s Little Overlap Between Football And Wrestling Fans
For whatever reason, fans of professional sports rarely relegate their love to any one individual athletic contest. NFL fans can very easily also enjoy baseball, basketball, hockey, the Olympics, and so on, without it ever affecting their love of football. However, it just so happens that fans of all these legitimate sports tend not to like pro wrestling all that much. Sure, the Venn diagram of NFL fans and WWE fans definitely has a little bit of overlap, but it’s hardly a perfect circle. Part of the reason may be that Monday Night Raw has always competed with Monday Night Football, and the vast majority of NFL fans would never once consider flipping the channel for scripted sports entertainment. This was a huge problem for Vince McMahon, considering the vast majority of advertising for his new league took place on WWE programming, where few football fans would ever see it.
11. Audiences Resented The Sports Entertainment Aspect
Okay, so wrestling fans and football fans don’t have much overlap—why was this necessarily a problem? Well, Vince McMahon apparently never got this message, and if he did, he ignored it entirely by sprinkling wrestling references whenever he could on XFL programming. The Rock made a random appearance to introduce the crowd, Jesse Ventura was hired as a top analyst (while still the active Governor of Minnesota), and Monday Night Raw announcers Jim Ross and Jerry “The King” Lawler were in the broadcast booth for many of the XFL’s games. This was bad enough in the sense football fans didn’t want to see wrestlers all over their product, and it was made worse by the fact none of these wrestling icons were particularly good at their new football related jobs. JR in particular seriously annoyed pigskin diehards with his excitable sports entertainment announcing style, which took audiences out of the game each time he opened his mouth. Lawler was arguably even worse, though, openly admitting he didn’t like or care about football during a live broadcast.
10. It Felt Second-Rate And Trashy
Even if the gameplay in the XFL was just as good as in the NFL, there was still a major issue in the way games were presented. Once McMahon and NBC realized the XFL was failing, virtually early promotional effort for the XFL focused not on the unique rules, the players desperate for fame and glory, or the fact there was an alternative to the NFL whether fans wanted it or not. No, the vast majority of advertising focused on one simple and entirely irrelevant aspect: that every now and again, viewers would get a direct glimpse at what was going on in the locker room. Not the players locker rooms, mind you, which was something the real NFL later offered, as well, but rather the locker rooms belonging to the XFL cheerleaders. Granted, the main purpose of cheerleaders is to look good and inspire the male players to try their best. However, repeatedly hinting to audiences they might see these ladies in their underwear, or whatever else they may have expected from this experience, just made the whole experience feel trashy as hell.
9. Vince Was Too Busy To Give It His Full Attention
Whenever a businessperson attempts a new endeavor entirely out of their realm, they need to give it their full, undivided attention if they expect it to be at all successful. In the case of the XFL, it was borderline impossible for Vince McMahon to do this, as his main project in WWE was at its peak during the exact same time he attempted launching his football franchise. The XFL’s first game was broadcast on February 3, 2001—barely two months prior to WrestleMania X7, one of the biggest shows in WWE history. Particularly noteworthy is the fact McMahon himself would be wrestling at that show, and thus he played an integral role in virtually every episode of Raw and SmackDown leading up to it. Even if McMahon wasn’t wrestling, his hands on approach meant every part of WrestleMania needed to be micromanaged, leaving very little time for him to focus on outside endeavors. This status never changed during the XFL’s entire run, as McMahon never gave it his full attention or energy.
8. NBC Gave Up On The Idea Almost Immediately
While almost all of the blame for the XFL’s failure is generally placed on Vince McMahon personally, the truth is, he wasn’t alone in this particular massive failure. Alongside Vince every step of the way was Dick Ebersol, then the president of NBC Sports, an organization that funded 50% of the alternative football league from the start. However, although Ebersol surely deserves some of the blame for the XFL existing and failing in general, he was at least able to recognizing things weren’t going that great way before McMahon ever did. Almost immediately, Ebersol made it clear to his NBC Sports staff that they didn’t have to report on the XFL if they didn’t want to, and surprise surprise, virtually none of the respected veterans did. Worse than that, NBC almost immediately announced the first season of play would be the only one they ever broadcast, despite owning half of the league and initially committing to two years of games. With half of the ownership admitting the league was a bomb, there was really no chance it could survive much longer.
7. There Was Absolutely No Pre-Planning
Throughout his entire life as a businessman, Vince McMahon has been the living embodiment of the phrase “shoot first and ask questions later” on a metaphorical level. The XFL was perhaps the greatest example of McMahon’s desire to dive headfirst into projects he knew almost nothing about, and this was clear from the very moment he announced the league would exist. On February 3, 2000, McMahon held a press conference in New York City announcing his intention to form a football league despite the fact he had yet to hire a single coach or player, had no TV time for his product, didn’t establish any potential teams, and had yet to book a single stadium for the games to take place in. Basically, the XFL didn’t exist yet, but that didn’t stop McMahon from claiming it did. Granted, this was a full year before the games actually started, but one single year is hardly enough time to create an entire sports franchise.
6. It Cost Way Too Much Money
Ever wonder about the startup costs for creating your very own football league? Taking the XFL’s example, the answer would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million, 50% of which came from WWE, the other 50% courtesy of NBC. In order for a company to recuperate these major costs in just two months of television programming, expectations don’t simply need to get met, they need to be significantly exceeded. In the end, the XFL only made some $30 million on that massive investment, meaning both Vince and NBC lost $35 million for their efforts. Had they somehow managed to keep expenses to a minimum, it’s almost conceivable that the XFL could have survived a little bit longer, and maybe even found a regular audience. With a price tag this high, though, there’s no wonder all involved parties would be forced to give up really darn fast, before they bled even more money.
5. Sports Media Instantly Mocked It For Existing
For many years, perhaps the most trusted name in sports broadcasting has been Bob Costas, the legendary announcer and analyst who has covered practically every athletic event on NBC since the early 1980s. Appearing on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Costas offered up some sarcastic thoughts on the XFL’s existence, derisively claiming, “It has to be at least a decade since I first mused out loud, ‘Why doesn’t somebody combine mediocre high school football with a tawdry strip club?’ Finally, somebody takes my idea and runs with it.” Not everyone was quite as pithy or clever about it, but by and large, the sporting community at large very much agreed with his assessment. Costas in particular actually played a major role in the XFL’s downfall when he invited Vince McMahon onto his HBO program, if only because Vince was in no uncertain terms an unprofessional jerk during his interview. This further allowed sports media to cast him aside as out of his depth and unsure about what he was doing, and it wasn’t long before the league failed because of it.
4. It Didn’t Look Safe
Given the knowledge audiences now have about the severe danger of concussions and the threat of CTE, most football fans can begrudgingly admit the sport they love isn’t all that safe in the first place. The threat of injury significantly increases when a man who openly claims his league will be tougher, grittier, and more action-packed than the “weak” players over in the NFL is promoting the action. If anything, it felt like McMahon was promising every single XFL player would end up in the hospital at least once through the course of play, and believe it or not, audiences in general didn’t really want this to happen. Sure, football and other sports may occasionally have a car wreck appeal when a player gets injured, but this is far from the only reason fans are tuning in. To the contrary, for every viewer that appreciates the carnage when a player gets hurt, there’s a much larger portion of the audience wincing and looking away, hoping something like that never happens again. Therefore, promoting the threat of injury as an actually good thing is outright insane, but that didn’t stop McMahon from doing so.
3. The X Didn’t Stand For Anything
William Shakespeare once asked “what’s in a name?” noting that a rose called anything else would still smell just as sweet. On this logic, chances are the XFL would fail no matter what Vince McMahon called it, yet that doesn’t change the fact he picked a really, really dumb name for his pet project. What’s wrong with “XFL,” you ask? How about the fact the X didn’t stand for anything—it was literally just the X Football League. Early fans naturally assumed it meant Xtreme, but as it turns out, there was already another Xtreme Football League out there, and Vince couldn’t well take their trademark away from them. In the long run, this may not have meant that much, considering if the league was actually any good, then the name wouldn’t have really mattered. However, since everything related to the XFL was a total bomb, the fact they couldn’t even come up with a real name retroactively served as the first warning sign that the idea would never work out.
2. Advertisers Quickly Lost Interest
Like it or not, the world we live in means that nothing can exist on television for the long term without making a decent amount of money. The way TV shows make their millions is almost entirely through advertising dollars, which means it’s a huge problem when advertisers aren’t willing to spend money on the product at hand. Initially, the XFL didn’t have this problem, as McMahon and NBC’s past successes offered a good amount of security that they’d recoup their investments. Unfortunately, as ratings quickly began to plummet, that no longer seemed to be the case. Car manufacturer Honda pulled out in the very first week, and many other major companies were openly considering following Honda’s lead. To fix this problem, XFL started offering free advertising to select sponsors—an entirely pointless gesture that would merely cost them an incredible amount of money in the long run.
1. No One Wanted To See It In The First Place
Ultimately, the problems related to the XFL all boil down to one simple fact: not a single football or wrestling fan on earth ever suggested they wanted to see it. Football fans were entirely happy with the NFL, and wrestling fans don’t really care about football, no matter how “X” it happened to be. It should go without saying that nothing can survive on network television without an audience, meaning the XFL was doomed from the very start as a program that would never have one. This was apparent pretty much from the beginning. Yes, the very first XFL game did a respectable rating, but this was entirely due to curiosity and the train wreck appeal that Vince McMahon might do something crazy. Ratings plummeted from there, with the second game earning only half the audience of the first, and that wasn’t even the bottom. One game in particular earned only a 1.5 rating, the lowest in history for a first-run primetime network sporting event. With that few people tuning in, there was no way the league would ever become a success. The only question today is if they’ll get even lower if/when Vince tries bringing it back.
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