There’s a long tradition of startup football leagues trying to snatch a piece of the football pie from the NFL.
So far, they’ve all failed. The World Football League, the American Football Association, the United Football League, the USFL – all of them fell flat in an effort to carve out an enduring niche in pro football.
This is also true of the XFL. When the league debuted in 2001, its pitch was pretty simple: the hits would be bigger, the game would be faster, the cheerleaders would wear fewer clothes.
This makes sense when you consider that the owner was pro wrestling magnate Vince McMahon. But the football-meets-WWF mashup only lasted one season before the league folded. Now, it’s back. Eight teams – including two in Texas – will kick off this weekend for the XFL’s second go-round.
Few were more surprised by the revival than Basil Mitchell. He was a star running back for TCU in the late 90s. He played two seasons for the Green Bay Packers, but he was cut after suffering a severe toe injury. The XFL seemed like a good way to show the NFL he could still play. He was signed by the Memphis Maniax, but he wasn’t quite healthy enough to play when the XFL’s season started.
“So I come home to Dallas, I’m rehabbing, and I watch this first game on TV,” he says. “And it’s a joke, in my opinion. It’s a circus.”
Players routinely delivered hits that would draw penalties in the NFL, and showboated afterward. Cheerleaders hung out in a hot tub on the sideline. The football itself was mediocre. Mitchell was so appalled that he called his coaches in Memphis and quit the team.
“I did not want to be associated with the product,” he says.
Mitchell never played pro football again. He’s 44 years old now. These days he sells commercial real estate in Dallas. He says he doesn’t have a lot of regrets, but quitting the XFL is one of them.
“I signed up for it,” he says. “I should’ve known what I was signing up for before I told them I would come. I didn’t do my due diligence, but I committed to them, and then I broke my commitment.”
Mitchell has learned from the mistake. But has the XFL learned from theirs?
‘People still love football’
The gimmicks and over-the-top vibe didn’t work back in 2001. Investors lost millions on the league’s single season. But XFL officials insist that the new league will be different.
“This is all for the love of football,” says Grady Raskin, president of the Dallas Renegades. “Everything that we’re doing is for the love of football. There will be no WWE portion of the game.”
The Renegades’ season starts on Sunday against the St. Louis BattleHawks. The other Texas team, the Houston Roughnecks, will play the Los Angeles Wildcats on Saturday. Raskin is optimistic that it’s the start of something that will last.
The XFL isn’t directly competing with the NFL – at least not on the calendar. The season starts this weekend – the first one after the Super Bowl – and ends on April 26. And the league has resources: owner Vince McMahon is reportedly willing to spend up to $500 million over the first three season, and all the games will be broadcast on national television.
“We see a hole, which is people still love football, even in February, March and April, and that’s what we’re planning on giving them,” Raskin says.
Can it work?
It sounds like a straightforward plan. But people like Kirk Wakefield have some concerns.
“Why would I be passionate about it or highly identify with it unless I’m their dad?” says Wakefield, a professor of marketing and the executive director of the Center for Sports Sponsorship and Sales at Baylor University.
Wakefield says commercial success in any pro sport depends on the link between teams and fans. The XFL can’t just conjure that out of thin air – it takes time. And even if you’re someone who just wants to watch football, you won’t be watching NFL-caliber play. If an XFL player was good enough to play in the NFL, he’d probably be doing that.
“So you’re already starting with kind of an inferior product, so again, good luck with that,” Wakefield says.
XFL officials are certainly aware of these arguments. But they’re trying to lure fans with a faster and more immersive experience. Games will last about 30 minutes less than NFL games, and broadcasts will feature on-the-field audio from mic’ed up players and coaches.
Wakefield says that the league will likely generate significant buzz once it kicks off. But success will depend on converting that passing interest into legitimate loyalty.
“If they last two years, I’ll be utterly amazed,” he says. “If they last that long I’ll say well done. Likelihood they last four years? I’m going to say extremely unlikely. Now if it does, hallelujah, good job, I’m glad I was wrong.”
Texas will have plenty to say about that. The state is home to a quarter of the league’s teams. And, if you’re in the football business, you could do a lot worse than pin your hopes to Texans’ appetite for the gridiron.