Roseanne is making a comeback. So is Murphy Brown. Why not the XFL too!
Everything old is new again, but maybe the last thing we would have ever expected to see was the return of the XFL. The original league was the brainchild of WWE chairman Vince McMahon and promised a mix of the NFL and the Attitude Era. The XFL did bring some innovation to the game of pro football that is still with us today, but ultimately the poor brought the league down after the hype faded away. Ratings fell from a stunning 10.3 for the league’s debut all the way down to the lowest numbers seen for primetime network sports at a 2.1 by the end of the season.
Former NBC Sports exec Dick Ebersol, who partnered with McMahon on the league, even admitted that the league was just “terrible football.” NBC dropped it from their television schedule after the first season and that was the beginning of the end as the XFL folded up shop shortly thereafter.
Now almost 20 years later, Vince McMahon has shocked the world yet again by announcing the XFL’s return. But it’s going to be a very different league than it was before.
WWE is in a different place. So is professional football. Back in 2001, concussions were hardly a concern as the XFL promoted a more hard-hitting product at the same time when pro wrestlers were hitting each other in the head repeatedly with steel chairs.
XFL 2020 promises to be vastly different than XFL 2001. McMahon is now saying that the league will not have any cheerleaders, nor will it sign anyone with a criminal record. (Sorry Johnny Manziel.) He also hinted that it could be mandated for players to stand for the national anthem while also saying that the league would stay out of politics. With his wife in President Trump’s cabinet, perhaps McMahon is trying to appeal to the conservative-minded “stick to sports” crowd.
It’s interesting that McMahon has tried to enter back into the professional football world with another league called the “XFL” because it carries both positive and negative brand recognition. Maybe time adds a bit of nostalgic value to everything, but the question now becomes who wants to partner with McMahon on the new and improved XFL.
McMahon has taken a risk here by announcing plans for the league without broadcast plans in place. He now has two full years to get a deal done so now the attention turns to where XFL rights could land.
As far as traditional television goes, it’s going to be extremely difficult to see any of the major broadcast networks leap at the chance to air a product that is best known for its terrible football and equally bad ratings. It’s highly unlikely for ESPN to be interested. Likewise for CBS. NBCSN could use the programming, but having already been down this road before, that might be a tough sell for the peacock.
If there’s one network that might take a leap of faith, it could be Fox. There’s already reports out there that the company could be interested in WWE television rights or even purchasing the company outright. It’s already been reported that Monday Night Raw could land on Fox broadcast with Smackdown on FS2 and other WWE programming on FS1 and FS2.
For WWE, that kind of weekly network exposure would be huge. For Fox, the deal would make sense because Smackdown would immediately become their highest rated weekly program and it would bring valuable programming tonnage to FS1 and FS2. It might even help get FS2 in HD everywhere and add distribution for that channel.
Now imagine a deal where McMahon ties up WWE rights with XFL rights. Sure, they’re two different companies with the XFL operating from McMahon’s spin-off Alpha Entertainment, but the bundle would make a lot of sense for McMahon.
What if it’s not traditional terrestrial television though? McMahon has already proven to be a visionary in digital streaming with the creation of the WWE Network. And we all know streaming platforms like Amazon, Twitter, and Google have slowly been getting more and more involved with live rights.
If the television networks are hesitant, McMahon could strike a deal with Facebook where they become the exclusive home of the XFL. WWE has even partnered with Facebook for an exclusive Mixed Match Challenge series that airs on the social media platform. And Facebook saw a ton of viewers for the Ball brothers playing in Lithuania. The XFL carries a similar interest and novelty factor and there wouldn’t quite be the same pressure to draw ratings there.
If all else fails, McMahon always has a fallback option – his own WWE Network. With millions of subscribers and live wrestling shows already, why not add some XFL football as well? It could even add a new base of subscribers to the network, which WWE is always looking for. Who wouldn’t want to watch a football game picture in picture while also enjoying Ric Flair winning the 1992 Royal Rumble?