The famous quote, "There’s a sucker born every minute," is attributed to legendary showman P.T. Barnum, a man WWE chairman and CEO Vince McMahon has often been compared to.
With today’s announcement that McMahon is bringing back the XFL in 2020, it’s become clear that in this instance, McMahon is the sucker if he believes the new XFL has any better chance of succeeding long term than the old one. To steal a line from McMahon's WWE theme song, "there's no chance in hell."
The original XFL, a professional football league that began play in 2001 during the NFL offseason and was a joint venture between McMahon’s WWE (then known as WWF) and NBC, lasted just one season and quickly became a punch line -- the league has even been the butt of jokes on WWE’s own television shows during the years.
WWE and NBC reportedly each lost $35 million. Even McMahon himself later described the XFL as a "colossal failure."
McMahon’s latest football folly proves that his enormous ego has gotten the better of his business sense. Hailed as a visionary and a brilliant businessman in the pro wrestling world for transforming a regional wrestling promotion into the global phenomenon that WWE is today, McMahon apparently has never gotten over the fact that the XFL remains an embarrassing stain on his resume. He needs to get the last laugh because he's "Vincent Kennedy McMahon, damn it!"
By resuscitating the XFL, he fails to realize the joke’s on him.
McMahon, who is funding the new XFL himself, opened today’s news conference on the XFL relaunch by saying all the things disgruntled NFL fans -- who undoubtedly are his target audience -- would want to hear.
“We’ll give the game of football back to the fans,” he said. “We will listen to players, coaches, medical experts, technology experts, members of the media and anyone else who understands and loves the game of football. But most importantly, we’re going to listen to the fans.”
Unlike the old XFL, which featured scantily clad cheerleaders, trash-talking announcers and players encouraged to place nicknames on the back of their jerseys instead of their last names (who will ever forget Rod “He Hate Me” Smart?), the new XFL will play things straighter and there will be no crossover between the XFL and WWE, according to McMahon.
McMahon said the XFL -- which will kick off in January or February 2020 -- “will be fan-centric, with all the things you like to see and less of the things you don’t like.” He vowed there will be a “lot of innovations” and “we will present a shorter, faster-paced, family-friendly and easier to understand game.”
When asked by a reporter during the news conference why now was the right time to bring back the XFL, McMahon said: “There are seven months of no football on the gridiron and there are 70 million football fans. Why not now? Now is a perfect opportunity. … We always wanted to relaunch and had this plan for some time.”
Although McMahon was careful not to say this specifically, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why McMahon truly believes pro football fans might be more accepting of a new league today than they were in 2001. The player protests during the national anthem this season soured a lot of fans on the NFL, and McMahon no doubt saw the empty seats at NFL games and thought the people who once occupied those seats will be champing at the bit to stick it to the NFL by spending their hard-earned money on his “fan-centric” league.
If anything, though, the empty seats at NFL games and the league’s declining TV ratings prove that a significant number of fans actually can do without pro football. That should be reason enough not to even consider starting a new league. If those once-passionate fans can give up the NFL so easily, it stands to reason they’re not going to care about an inferior league.
Addressing the topic of the NFL’s national anthem controversy, McMahon said that “it’s a time-honored tradition to stand for the national anthem before sporting events” and intimated that it will be mandatory for XFL players to do so. The new XFL logo, by the way, is red, white and blue. Subtle.
“Our league will have nothing to do with politics and nothing to do with social issues either,” McMahon said. “We’re there to play football. The fans want good football. That’s what we’ll deliver.”
But can they really? With a league composed of players who aren’t good enough to play in the NFL? Players standing for the national anthem is nice and all, but then the game starts. No amount of patriotism, rule changes or “innovations” can turn players such as Tommy Maddox (a journeyman backup quarterback in the NFL who was the XFL MVP) into Tom Brady.
McMahon said there is “a wealth of talented players we can draw from” to fill the 40-man rosters of the eight XFL teams (he said no specific cities for teams have been decided on at this point), but he added that “the quality of the human being is going to be as important as the quality of the player.” He said there will be no players with “criminality” in the XFL, and if a player “gets a DUI, they won’t be playing in the XFL.”
In regard to the hot button issue of concussions, which has contributed to the NFL’s image problem, McMahon said that “we’ll make this as safe an environment as possible,” but he offered no specifics other than to say that the XFL will bring in medical experts. Having a faster-paced game, though, seems to be at odds with a safe environment. It was also noted that the new XFL will have “fewer infractions.”
The fact that some critics are predicting that the head trauma issue will ultimately lead to the sport’s downfall is yet another reason why a new football league doesn’t seem like a good investment.
McMahon has often said that as an entrepreneur he’s never let a fear of failure keep him from dreaming big. To that point, what he has accomplished in pro wrestling is nothing short of phenomenal. He took a huge gamble by betting on himself and challenging the status quo in the industry in the 1980s, and he went on to systematically put every other promoter out of business and become a billionaire.
However, based on McMahon’s failed ventures outside of his core business -- which include the short-lived World Bodybuilding Federation and a now-defunct WWE-themed restaurant in Times Square in addition to the XFL -- there’s another famous quote that is fitting: “Discretion is the better part of valor.”
As for the new XFL’s potential paying customers, they should remember the immortal words of former President George W. Bush:
"Fool me once, shame on -- shame on you. Fool me -- you can't get fooled again."