There are only three guarantees in life: death, taxes, and the XFL will refuse to die. Once again, the twice-failed league was resuscitated and resurrected this year to bring its unique brand of football to our screens. At its core, the league offers overlooked, unsigned, and ignored players the chance to showcase their talents and continue living out their professional football dreams. But, in reality, the league is an exciting concept that seems almost destined to fail despite its best efforts.
But as the XFL approaches its championship game between the Arlington Renegades and the dominant DC Defenders, why – in a football-crazed culture – is an off-season league yet to find its sweet spot?
The NFL’s off-season is not an off-season.
When the confetti falls on Super Bowl Sunday, the NFL season is over, and fans are left asking: “So now what?”. There are no games, no opposing fans to talk trash with, no lost sleep over who the starting tight-end in a fan’s fantasy team should be, and no cries of anguish as a last-minute field goal goes wide. So how are die-hard NFL fans supposed to feed their need for football? Well, to the relief of those fans, the modern NFL does not really have an off-season. The NFL knows that football does not require actual football to excite and entice its rabid fans. But how can the off-season possibly be more exciting than the actual season? One word: drama.
As the live football content grinds to a halt, the free agency and draft content are brought to the forefront. Daily updates on player contracts, player transactions and collegiate prospects become a necessity for NFL fans who believe the on-field product next season will be directly affected by all of this. The hope of what could be in the following season results in die-hard fans consuming content for content’s sake – live football becomes unnecessary.
The NFL Draft is not only bigger than any game the XFL or USFL can offer and even more significant than many basketball or baseball games throughout their regular seasons. Secondly, the first day of the NFL free agency period received more attention than any game of the XFL or USFL, highlighting the stiff competition that Spring football faces. In fact, these start-up leagues assume that there is an ‘unmet demand for pro football in Spring’. In reality, fans are so profoundly affiliated and attached to their NFL teams that the off-season satiates their need for football as is.
Spring football is a doomed dream.
Before the National Football League (NFL) became the behemoth it was today, it was not the only game in town. It took a merger between the NFL and AFL for the former to monopolise the sport in the United States. Despite that, various football leagues have tried – and failed – to provide a valid alternative. Alongside the XFL and the reborn USFL, the AAF and AFL have also attempted to plant their flag in the Spring football ground.
Each of these leagues has tried to operate during the NFL’s off-season under the premise that they would provide live professional football whilst the NFL did not. However, as aforementioned, the notion of an “off-season” in the NFL is more idealistic than reality.
Those who argue that Spring football can succeed believe that a Spring football league would be sustainable and prosperous if the NFL used the league as a developmental league – a chance for practice squad players and under-utilised roster players to get game time and experience. This approach would need to be similar to the NBA G League, in which NBA teams have “minor league” teams that develop younger and less pro-ready players or like the loan system used in the other version of football. This approach sees players under contract at one team spend part of – or a whole – season at other clubs to support their development. Unfortunately, the NFL has seemed reluctant to collaborate with any Spring football leagues.
It would be a fair argument to say that Spring football remains a “dream” because of this lack of NFL cooperation. For example, Minor League Baseball (MiLB) is generally successful because it’s a product of Major League Baseball (MLB) rather than a competitor or unaffiliated product. However, the NFL has attempted to form a developmental league in the past. Let’s rewind to NFL Europe.
Originally founded as the World League of American Football in 1989, NFL Europe functioned as a minor league and a global expansion opportunity for the National Football League. Initially formed as a transatlantic league with teams from North America and Europe, 1995 saw the league transform into NFL Europe, consisting of six teams from England, Scotland, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands.
Early signs were positive – particularly in London, where the London Monarchs averaged attendances of 45,000 fans during the WLAF days – however, the league struggled to raise any semblance of profit throughout its existence. Upon its closure in 2007, the league reported losses of approximately $30 million each season, resulting in the NFL choosing to host games abroad in the future as opposed to a developmental league – raising questions about whether NFL Europe was focused on player development or global marketing of the NFL. That said, the league did have some success stories.
Famously, two-time NFL MVP Kurt Warner got his chance to impress with the Amsterdam Admirals, whilst the Admirals’ kicker Adam Vinatieri and Scottish Claymores’ special teams’ livewire Dante Hall were included in the 2000s NFL All-Decade Team. The league also allowed the NFL to experiment with rules changes and evolutions – much like the XFL.
Widely considered by the NFL to be a “bust”, NFL Europe does have a legacy in the hearts of some higher-ups in the National Football League. In fact, before the 2017 Super Bowl, league Commissioner Roger Goodell was quoted as saying the NFL are “actively considering” creating a new developmental league – though this has failed to materialise since.
Evidently, only time will tell when it comes to an official NFL developmental league. However, the XFL remains adamant that it can provide Spring football that fans supposedly desire.
The XFL’s sports entertainment origins and an almighty failure
The XFL was initially founded as a joint venture between World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and NBC. It was spearheaded by the ever-charismatic WWE chairman, Vince McMahon, and NBC’s Dick Ebersol. Advertised under the promise of harder hits and tougher football, the launch aimed to create a league with a unique brand of football that would be more exciting and entertaining than the NFL – the “no fun league”. Ultimately, the ‘entertainment’ facet overtook the ‘football’ facet, and the league became a farcical gimmick that resembled wrestling more than live sports. This could have – and probably should have – been expected given that Vince McMahon strode out to centre-field during the XFL opening game to launch the new league in the hyperbolic WWE style, and each week saw further professional wrestlers making cameos to the detriment of the sporting spectacle.
Alongside this pomp and splendour, the upstart league was rife with innovations to make it more ‘exciting. These innovations included a shorter play clock, no fair catches on punts, and a “scramble” for the opening kick-off. However, the latter two resulted in severe injuries instead of increased excitement, and the general quality of play on the field failed to provide genuine football entertainment.
Given Vince McMahon’s background, it was no surprise at the time to see a pronounced showbiz and entertainment element to the league. Still, the scantily clad cheerleaders and nickname-adorned jerseys seemed a step too far for many fans. Some fans were even worried that the matches might be scripted and pre-determined like those in the WWE.
Referred to as “a gladiatorial wedgie upon an allegedly effete NFL” and “the wacky, tacky, controversial, ultimately catastrophic failure of an NFL alternative”, the original XFL had numerous detractors. However, the initial fan excitement before the league kick-off should be addressed. Yes, there were too many flaws to ignore when the league started. But the hype was real.
The hype seemed to be where all the league’s energy went. But, unfortunately, McMahon built it up so much and left so little time for players to train that by the time the games aired, the on-field quality was drastically lacking. Throw in that the players struggled to hang on to the uniquely designed XFL balls, and the football part was anticlimactic. The XFL’s opening night did have some of the best ratings for its Saturday night timeslot, but within weeks, ratings plummeted with an absurd amount of downward momentum. With $70 million lost, the league had one sole season. But Vince McMahon does not like to fail.
A feel-good resurrection halted by a global pandemic
Almost in complete contrast to the original iteration, the XFL 2.0 in 2020 did everything right. Whilst the league failed even to complete a sole season on this occasion, there was plenty worth celebrating. Frankly, this is what many expected – but the circumstances were cruel. With its detractors still in tow, Vince McMahon resurrected the XFL, and it was ACTUALLY good. Scratch that. It was great.
With on-field play that resembled high-level college football, exciting rules and innovations, and adequate time to prepare – the football part of the XFL was finally the priority. Coupled with an ‘all-access’ philosophy, the XFL 2.0 took viewers into the locker rooms, highlighted the play calls, and gave players microphones. Seemingly learning from its past mistakes, the XFL was now a fresh alternative for fans.
And then came the hiccup that no one could have envisioned; a global pandemic. As the world started to shut down, coronavirus entered the Seattle Dragons locker room. Like the majority of sports leagues across the globe, the XFL ultimately had to suspend its operations. However, the XFL did not have a rainy-day fund, long-term infrastructure or billion-dollar TV contracts to cope with this. The league had an abundance of goodwill, but it was not enough.
After two years of strategising and preparing to resurrect the XFL, the league was struck down by no fault of its own. The best chance for an alternative football league since NFL Europe, the XFL 2.0, had finally changed public perceptions of the brand. Rather than focusing on ensuring the league was not for “pantywaists and sissies” like it had the first time, the returning XFL capitalised on fans’ thirst for access, fun and innovation. But, like a boxer that won’t stay down in the 12th round, the XFL brand struggled to its feet.
A superstar-helmed return that no one is watching
Following the rude and destructive interruption of a global pandemic, the XFL was resurrected once again by a superstar with professional wrestling origins. Except this time, the term ‘superstar’ may be an understatement. With the backing of Dwayne’ The Rock’ Johnson, the XFL fancied one more go.
Surprisingly, the NFL even got on board this time. In February 2022, a partnership was announced between the behemoth and the start-up. The XFL would be charged with producing American football in the spring, and the NFL could use the league to trial potential rule changes and innovations.
More than two decades after the XFL’s first incarnation imploded, 2023 saw its return. Dwayne Johnson is no stranger to reboots, but this was his most questionable yet. However, the Hollywood megastar had already sought to make changes from the first two attempts.
By limiting costs by basing each team at a hub in Arlington, Johnson had seemed more fiscally frugal than his former boss – Vince McMahon – before the season started. However, once the league began, the 2020 goodwill seemed to have lessened, and the viewing figures confirmed that.
The first game of the 2023 season between Vegas and Arlington had 1.54 million viewers. In comparison, the first game in February 2020 had 3.3 million viewers. That’s a 54% drop. On average, week one averaged 1.29 million viewers per game.
By week two, the league averaged 647,000 viewers per game – a 50% drop from week one – and by the final week of the regular season, the viewing figures had dropped again to an average of 562,250 per game. However, the streaming figures of ESPN+ are not currently accounted for correctly in these figures. This is pertinent given that 2023 is the first year that streaming has exceeded linear TV viewing.
The XFL is ACTUALLY good.
The viewing figures suggest that the XFL 3.0 fails to live up to its 2020 predecessor on the field. However, the quality of play continues to impress. In week one, three of the four games finished with winning margins of four points or less. Week two saw another two-point winning margin, whilst week three had all four games separated by a single score. As the regular season wrapped up, 27 of the 40 games finished within a single score. Evidently, the football was competitive. The now Disney-owned league has done what many Spring football leagues failed to do – provide compelling live football.
You have a strong recipe for success by combining the on-field performances with the same all-access philosophy towards players and coaches as the XFL 2.0. But the new iteration of the league has not stopped there. In terms of rules, there’s now an option to run a fourth-and-15 onsides play from a team’s own 25-yard line in lieu of the traditional onside-kick attempt, whilst coaches can challenge any play or penalty once per game. Adding to this, the viewers get unfiltered access to the XFL’s Head of Officiating, Dean Blandino, as he helps review calls and break down why specific calls are made. The league really is all access.
On the field, there are numerous players of name value. The likes of AJ McCarron, Josh Gordon, and Vic Beasley are well known to NFL fans, whilst the likes of Ben DiNucci, Jahcour Pearson and Abram Smith have thrived when given the XFL opportunity. With NFL minicamps about to start, 19 XFL players have received invites. The aforementioned quarterback DiNucci is accompanied by fellow signal caller Jack Coan, defensive ends Freedom Akinmoladun and Austin Faoliu, defensive tackles Kevin Atkins and CJ Brewer, linebacker Trent Harris and defensive backs Luq Barcoo and Lukas Denis. Offensive invitees include offensive linemen Alex Mollette, Chidi Okeke, Jack Snyder and Barry Wesley, running back Jacques Patrick, tight ends Cam Sutton and Jordan Thomas, as well as wideouts Hakeem Butler, Charleston Rambo and Darrius Shepherd. With the XFL Championship game on May 13, it would not be surprising to see further call-ups in the coming weeks.
Will the XFL 3.0 survive, let alone thrive?
Once the curtain falls on the 2023 version of the XFL, the question will remain the same: can Spring football survive? Well, a second season has been guaranteed by co-founder Dany Garcia, and that is a significant step in the right direction.