Late last year, speculation mounted that WWE owner Vince McMahon was considering another run at an alternative pro football league to the NFL, much as he did early this century with the innovative, if short-lived, XFL. One wrestling observer pointed at Jan. 25 as the day McMahon could unveil his latest endeavor, and sure enough, that’s what happened Thursday afternoon.
“The new XFL will kick off in 2020, and quite frankly, we’re going to give the game of football back to fans,” McMahon, 72, announced during a news conference.
McMahon said his new venture will offer a shorter, faster-paced, family-friendly and fan-centric game.
“Don’t get me wrong: It’s still football, but it’s professional football reimagined,” he said.
The planned 2020 launch will happen in January of that year, with eight to-be-determined teams, 40-man rosters and a 10-game regular season before two playoff semifinals and a championship game. Unlike the original XFL, which ceased operations after one season in 2001, McMahon said there will be no crossover between the single-entity league and WWE.
McMahon said he has wanted to relaunch the XFL for years and intends to offer a “better football game than what everyone is accustomed to.”
“I have no idea whether or not President Trump will support this,” McMahon said in response to a question about whether Trump will promote the league. “As far as our league is concerned, it will have nothing to do with politics, absolutely nothing, and nothing to do with social issues, either. We’re there to play football. We want really good football, and I think that’s what fans want as well.”
In an interview with ESPN, McMahon said players will be required to stand for the national anthem and any player with “any sort of criminal record” would be prohibited from joining the league. (Sorry, Johnny Manziel?)
“In the XFL, the quality of the human being is going to be as important as the quality of the player,” McMahon said.
McMahon suggested that launching in two years gives the league “plenty of time to get it right.”
The original league was rushed into existence as a joint venture between the WWE and NBC, which spent much of the run-up period marketing the league instead of concentrating on the nuts and bolts required for a pro-sports start-up, resulting in some decidedly terrible football once the games began.
“The biggest mistake they made with the XFL was that they only gave the players 30 days to train together as a team. You had guys who were working at Bed Bath & Beyond, and 30 days later they’re in the XFL,” Charlie Ebersol, son of former NBC sports honcho Dick Ebersol and the director of an ESPN “30 for 30” documentary on the XFL, told Fast Company last year. “They spent six to eight months marketing the league, and 30 days training the players. If they’d done four and four … they sold this thing like it was the iPhone, and they rolled it out like it was whatever piece of crap Motorola put out.”
An estimated 14 million people watched the XFL opener in 2001, but NBC soon began cutting off Saturday night broadcasts at 11 p.m. Eastern time — whether the game was over or not — after a double-overtime game bled into the time slot occupied by “Saturday Night Live,” angering powerful producer Lorne Michaels. Ratings tanked despite changes meant to speed up the games and McMahon’s tawdry attempts to dramatize the league’s alleged locker-room story lines, and a March 31 game between the Chicago Enforcers and New York/New Jersey Hitmen got creamed by the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four on CBS, drawing just a 1.5 rating, at the time the lowest rating for a prime-time, first-run weekend sports broadcast in U.S. history. No matter how many sports-television innovations the league spawned — the SkyCam, in-game interviews and the like — the XFL was not going to survive that sort of viewer apathy, and it died after one season.
This new XFL will be reborn in an interesting time for football. The NFL’s TV ratings have faltered over the past few seasons for a variety of reasons, from cord-cutting to attacks from Trump, the league’s wobbly stance on head injuries and domestic violence, seemingly endless instant-replay challenges, officiating that is seen as inconsistent, at best, and, this past season, player protests during the national anthem. The XFL could attempt to woo those football fans who have turned away from the NFL.
“Vince sees blood in the water,” a source told TMZ.
This post has been updated.
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