Vince McMahon plots to take on NFL again with rival league
America at Large: Man behind failed XFL wants another go at cashing in on national obsession
San Francisco Demons in action against Los Angeles Extreme in 2001. A league then that will mandate blind patriotism and ignore the possibility of brain trauma could just work in Donald Trump-era USA. Photograph: Paul Sakuma/AP
During the third quarter of the Los Angeles Xtreme’s first home game in the XFL, play was stopped because the Chicago Enforcers’ Bishop Octavius broke his leg.
When medics took too long to evacuate the stricken tackler, fist-fights broke out in the stands, some fans hurled beers and popcorn onto the field, and more appeared distracted by three bikini-clad employees of the nearby Spearmint Rhino strip club suddenly cavorting in the hot tub behind one of the end zones. Afterwards, a spokesman for the Xtreme promised improved crowd control at future fixtures and denied the women had been hired for the evening by the team.
In its own rather grotesque way, that unseemly paragraph perfectly captures the strange, distasteful brew that was Vince McMahon’s attempt to create a rival to the NFL.
Sixteen years have passed since the WWE and NBC lost $70m on the XFL, a bizarre and ultimately ill-fated notion that a sexier (cheerleaders would show more!), nastier (trash-talking would be encouraged!), and rougher (none of your namby-pamby protecting the players in vulnerable situations) version of grid-iron was just what America needed.
“This is where football is played for the love of the game,” went one commercial. “No indoor fields. No prima donnas. No wimps. Here, the rules are fiercer, the clocks are faster, and half-time is a break, not a vacation.”
For all the hoopla and ersatz machismo, it lasted just one season and the catchy initials have only ever been cited since whenever any bloviator talks of fixing something that isn’t broke.
Well, that was the case up until two weeks ago when news broke that a company owned by McMahon has been very quietly filing trademarks in and around a product called the United Football League. Apparently, a recent ESPN 30 for 30 documentary about the XFL’s demise and the NFL’s own current struggles have whetted his appetite for one more go at cashing in on the national obsession.
The economic reasons behind the original XFL concept were reasonably sound. Once the Super Bowl ends every February, football junkies across America crave the sport for months until the NFL training camps swing into gear in early summer. There was and still is a gap in the market. Broadcast partners NBC wanted in back then too because they figured buying into a fledgling league would give them the rights to live games for a fraction of the billion dollars a year more established properties like the NFL and NBA command.
To separate itself from the rest, the original XFL tampered with the rules to create what it regarded as a more fan-friendly approach. A sky cam was introduced, players were miked up during matches (innovations later copied by the NFL), and, instead of the traditional coin toss, the fastest players on each team competed in a one-on-one scramble for the ball.
Cheerleaders were also encouraged to date the stars in a pathetic attempt to create WWE-type soap opera storylines, a typically tawdry McMahon plot device that, thankfully, appears to have been largely ignored.
It says much for how badly the whole farrago went down that scarcely anybody remembers who won the inaugural and only XFL title.
Indeed, most people’s abiding memory involves a character named Rod Smart, a running back with the Las Vegas Outlaws. Taking advantage of a rule allowing nicknames on shirts, he wore the words “He Hate Me” above the number 30. This earned him a notoriety his talent scarcely deserved and a footnote in sporting history beyond that normally afforded somebody who later became an NFL journeyman.
Even if Smart and a handful of other XFL alumni (most notably quarterback Tommy Maddox) made it all the way to the show, the league suffered from a dearth of real quality, looking too much like a substandard imitation of the autumn code. They were not enough talented players out there to populate two rival entities simultaneously, and, most sane people will argue, that remains an issue today. Why then does McMahon feel the time is right for a rebirth?
Against all medical advice, there is a dunder-headed constituency out there complaining that the NFL has somehow gone “soft” by obsessing over player welfare and trying to crack down on brain-damaging illegal hits.
Since McMahon’s success with the WWE was largely predicated on never caring a jot about the health of wrestlers as long as the product is what the less discerning members of the public want, an unfiltered version of smashmouth football where concussive blows are encouraged rather than disciplined might just find a market today.
After all, president Donald Trump, McMahon’s good friend and one-time WWE opponent, is among the buffoons constantly chirping about the emasculating of the game. As with everything in the culture wars that define America just now, the Trump factor can’t be ignored here either. Bitter about his own failure with the USFL, another rival league of the 1980s, his personal gripe with the NFL long predates taking issue with high profile African-American players protesting police brutality by kneeling for the anthem.
Reports suggest McMahon’s new version of the sport may include less regulations about headhunting tackles and more rules about insisting players stand for The Star Spangled Banner. A league then that will mandate blind patriotism and ignore the possibility of brain trauma. The kind of combination that might prove irresistible to Trump and his supporters.