On an absolutely horrible night where Los Angeles saw nonstop rain and, in higher elevations, snow for the first time in decades, I resolved to hunker in place and watch sports. For a variety of reasons, not the least of which being curiosity, I actually landed upon an XFL game being aired on, of all places, FX. (I guess you can’t spell XFL without FX?)
As someone who had embraced upstart leagues going back to the days of the ABA, I was supportive enough of the XFL when WWE impresario Vince McMahon and NBC Sports’ Dick Ebersol announced the original incarnation of the league, which began in March 2001. NBC had lost its rights to AFC games to CBS several years earlier, which it itself was an overreaction by then-chairman Les Moonves to his network losing the rights to NFC games to FOX, not to mention many of its more successful mid-sized affiliates in markets that carried their games. McMahon and WWE were quite successful for USA, owning Monday night ratings for 37 weeks a year and more than competitive with Monday Night Football for the other 15. As Saturday nights became otherwise impossible to attract audiences to with entertainment programming, and with the promise of the kind of showmanship that distinguished WWE from its competition, the XFL 1.0 promised to be something different. As Farouk Yusuf of Sportskeeda.com recalled:
The league…introduced different innovations to create fun and excitement in games. This included a shorter play clock, no fair catches on punts, and a “scramble” for the opening kickoff. However, the XFL failed to achieve its objectives and folded after just a season. The XFL was highly publicized with aggressive marketing campaigns during its launch. The goal and promise of the XFL were to create a league with more action and excitement. However, the games were often marred by poor execution and sloppy play. The league had to rely heavily on gimmicks such as pyrotechnics, cheerleaders, and over-the-top commentary to make up for the lackluster performances.
The XFL from the outset was seen as a sideshow and was often referred to as the “wrestling league” due to McMahon’s involvement. The league, moreover, also focused on violence and aggression, as exemplified by its “no fair catch” rule.
Its use of ridiculous player nicknames also drew criticism in certain quarters. There were also off-field incidents involving the players, which weren’t good for the image of the league.
I was in attendance at a wet and cold Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the game that clearly set the tone for the failure of XFL 1.0. The Los Angeles Xtreme and New York/New Jersey Hitmen played a tedious, brawl-filled game that the Xtreme tied with a late touchdown and two-point conversion and sent into overtime. The game ultimately delayed the start of an original Saturday Night Live, ironically a show Ebersol once produced. NBC honcho Don Ohlmeyer, once a producer of Monday Night Football himself, but ever loyal to his bottom line, channeled Lorne Michaels’ rage in having to air a live show on tape delay–an occasional World Series or NFL playoff game was OK, but heaven forbid what he saw as a minor league football game would ever do that to him again. Kickoff times for later games were moved up and, as ratings for games later in the season eroded, commercial time was cut, And, as Yusuf’s article concluded, the downward spiral was ultimately fatal:
The league reportedly suffered a loss of $70 million in its first season alone. Attempts to secure additional funding for the XFL’s second season were futile. This was the last straw that broke the camel’s back. The XFL eventually folded in May 2001 after the completion of its first season.
It took two decades for McMahon to make another run at things, this time with a name brand partner in Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. In February 2020, a year after yet another attempt at a spring league, the Alliance of American Football, failed to catch on, XFL 2.0 debuted, once again using New York/New Jersey and Los Angeles as key markets. Early returns, while nowhere near the levels what the 2001 league began, were encouraging. But after five weeks, COVID-19 shut down the league, and the parent company behind the resurrection went bankrupt. Johnson and two new business partners, Dany Garcia and Redbird Capital’s Gerry Cardinale, took control of the assets during the summer of 2020.
The XFL was unable to get a league going last year, at the same time FOX and NBC were able to resurrect another legacy spring league, the USFL, using the brand names and logos of the ill-fated 80s league than ultimately imploded when Donald Trump tried to make it a fall league. In spite of those past failures, last year’s USFL ratings were adequate, enough for this year’s third stab at an XFL to get the ESPN family of networks as a full partner, having been left out when FOX chose not to include the company it had just sold its entertainment assets to as a partner in USFL 2.0.
So far, the reaction to XFL 3.0 has been tepid, to say the least. As Joe Rivera of The Sporting News reported last week, by any barometer, it’s underwhelming.
While the league’s initial return in 2020 was met with much intrigue, viewers may wait to see how the latest version develops. According to Sports Media Watch, the first four windows of this year’s Week 1 games saw a 50 percent decline in viewership from the same window three years ago, not exactly a positive sign.
What makes matters a bit worse is that the total viewers for this year’s XFL games didn’t match the debuts of the AAF in 2019 or the USFL’s return last year.
The league’s first game of the 2023 slate, the Vipers vs. Renegades, drew 1.54 million viewers on average, which is down from the 3.3 million viewers who caught the league’s re-debut game, Sea Dragons vs. Defenders on Feb. 8, 2020.
Another somewhat troubling sign is that the league hasn’t drawn a similar viewership to other leagues in recent years. The USFL’s 2022 debut, which came on April 16 last year featuring a matchup between the Birmingham Stallions and the New Jersey Generals, drew 3.07 average viewers, per SMW.
And after seeing last night’s attempt to stage a game on FX, it’s easy to understand why the reaction has been relatively meh. The game, staged in Las Vegas, was supposed to be a showcase. After all, Las Vegas and its Washington-based opponent, are two of the five cities which have NFL franchises and supposed year-round football appetite, and will be the home of next February’s Super Bowl. Except that game and the Raiders play in the climate-controlled and state of the art Allegiant Stadium on the Strip, and last night’s Vegas Vipers-DC Defenders clash was played in a driving rainstorm at an outdoor stadium in the Vegas suburbs abandoned by its minor league baseball team a couple of seasons ago. Fewer people were visibly in attendance, plastic ponchos drenched from what the rain-splattered cameras could discern, at this game than were in attendance at the NHL Golden Knights’ game taking place at the same time at the T-Mobile Arena on the Strip.
The game itself was abysmal. After an early fumble recovery that gave the Vipers an early lead, its offense didn’t generate a single point. DC scored twice in the fourth quarter to pull away, adding a two-point conversion to cement an 18-6 win over Vegas. I only know this because I read about it this morning; the game itself had put me to sleep long before DC began its comeback.
I suppose that in this day and age, even the 1.14 million viewers that FX drew for the previous Saturday night”s game can be considered a success, especially for a network whose acclaimed dramas and popular movies draw less than half that number on a typical night of prime time. But a game this dull, in an atmosphere that dreary, is hardly a ringing endorsement for anyone to return. Competition in later weeks will be fiercer–March Madness isn’t far away, nor is a four-week overlap with USFL 2.0. One only wonders how much appetite there will be for two professional spring football leagues when NBA and NHL playoffs, not to mention regular season baseball and soccer, will be also on, and when weather is finally warmer in a world that finally, finally seems to be encouraging people to leave their homes once and for all.
Johnson is a showman, a tireless and enthusiastic vision, and he has yet another installment of his FAST AND FURIOUS movie franchise on the way. YOUNG ROCK somehow got a renewal for a second season, and given that its Friday night stablemate LOPEZ VS. LOPEZ has secured its own renewal, I can’t say with certainty that NBCU wouldn’t give it a chance at a third. There’s an awfully low bar for sitcom renewals these days.
But saving this literally drowning, clearly minor league effort may be beyond even his talents. To be sure, at least the XFL is playing its games in the actual cities that its teams represent, if not the kind of venues its NFL counterparts do. The Houston franchise is playing in the MLS Dynamo’s stadium. The Dallas-based Arlington team is playing in the Texas Rangers’ abandoned baseball stadium that sits in the shadow of the Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium, as well as the Rangers’ new baseball-friendly park. New York and Los Angeles aren’t even being attempted to be homes for teams this time.
That’s somehow still more of an effort to curry local facvor that the USFL is exhibiting. Last year, ostensibly for COVID-related reasons but as much for cost control, it played its games, using the names and cities if eight legacy franchises, exclusively in two stadiums in Birmingham, Alabama. For this go-around, there will be four “hubs”, but somehow the Philadelphia Stars will play its “home” games in Detroit, and the New Jersey Generals will play in Canton, Ohio.
Yep, that’s major league all the way.
So you can watch further if you want. Some people love football that much. I consider myself to be someone close to that level. But it’s gonna take an awful lot to get me to come back to the XFL again.
Need a consultant, Rock?