Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson gives a speech ahead of the XFL kickoff game on Feb. 18, 2023. Credit: Raymond Carlin III-USA TODAY Sports

New York Post reporter Andrew Marchand got pushback from Tom Brady a few weeks back. Now, he’s hearing about it from The Rock.

On the latest episode of The Marchand and Ourand Sports Media Podcast, Sports Business Journal reporter John Ourand put Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in his “Who’s Down” segment, saying that the XFL lost a ton of money in its first season back. He referenced Jabari Young’s recent piece in Forbes about how the XFL’s financial outlook doesn’t match Johnson’s unyielding hype.

“The XFL lost an estimated $60 million in 2023, according to industry sources, and cut some jobs,” wrote Young. “Next season, the league projects $100 million in revenue, said people familiar with its finances. About a quarter of its income comes from ESPN, which pays the league $20 million per season.

Ourand noted that while losing money was expected, the layoff of dozens of employees, including its biggest marketing executives, implies that the league did worse than expected in 2023.

Marchand then added that “the XFL is not getting any rights fee from ESPN” and that “they’re just on the air,” refuting what was reported in the Forbes piece, which said that the network “pays the league $20 million per season.”

That tidbit got tweeted out by journalist James Larsen and it somehow caught the attention of The Rock.

“Not true,” tweeted Johnson. “ESPN is a stakeholder in XFL. Long term partners. Big plans for ’24 season. Back to work.”

While he says that Marchand’s report isn’t true, Johnson’s next two pieces of information don’t exactly make it clear how. Being a stakeholder and “long-term partner” isn’t the same as “paying us $20 million/year.”

Terms of the deal between the XFL and ESPN were not included in the original announcement. In a July 2022 article in The Athletic, Daniel Kaplan and Bill Shea reported that there is a rights fee between the league and network, but the details sounded cloudy.

“The new XFL has the weight of ESPN behind it. When the league announced its eight home markets, ESPN sent out a push notification. The parties won’t comment on the economics of the deal, but a source said there is a rights fee.

“There is substantial income from day one,” the source texted of the ESPN contract, who then compared the league’s strategy to the 2020 startup version. “But every aspect of the overall plan is better, from the way they will leverage their new owners (which include Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) … to the way they see the game being played, to the TV deals, to the marketplaces they chose, to the way they’re housing players, to fan engagement plans.”

So…what’s the deal? It sounds like we can say that there is a financial arrangement between ESPN/Disney and the XFL, but people are going out of their way to be murky about what that means. If we can presume that the deal between the two entities isn’t a traditional rights fee, it seems possible it’s simply that ESPN is financially backing up the league while it deals with its initial losses. In the end, it may just be a case of splitting hairs.

Perhaps the XFL puts it all together in Year 2. The ratings weren’t great but then again they were never expected to be. The league’s championship game averaged 1.4 million viewers. The Rock remains motivated as ever to make it work. And it sounds like ESPN doesn’t mind having the football content during the spring.

But like all things, eventually, the money will have to make sense. And when it comes to spring pro football, it hardly ever does.

[The Marchand and Ourand Sports Media Podcast, Forbes, The Rock]

About Sean Keeley

Along with writing for Awful Announcing and The Comeback, Sean is the Editorial Strategy Director for Comeback Media. Previously, he created the Syracuse blog Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician and wrote 'How To Grow An Orange: The Right Way to Brainwash Your Child Into Rooting for Syracuse.' He has also written non-Syracuse-related things for SB Nation, Curbed, and other outlets. He currently lives in Seattle where he is complaining about bagels. Send tips/comments/complaints to sean@thecomeback.com.