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The XFL is basically an NFL for Trump supporters, its creation is a naked attempt at monetising a divided America

The XFL will return in 2020, but it's hardly an underdog sporting start-up for fans to get behind

Ed Malyon
Sports Editor
Friday 26 January 2018 15:25 GMT
Vince McMahon announcing the return of the XFL in 2020

To sum up how poorly conceived and badly executed the XFL was in its first (and last) season in 2001, you need only look at its opening play.

Many won’t even remember the XFL, a failed venture that was joint-owned by what was then the WWF (before its run-in with the panda conservationists) and American television network NBC. The concept was for an American football league that would take place during the long NFL off-season, boasting fewer, modified rules, bigger hits and more pizazz.

One of those rule quirks was that instead of a kick-off to commence proceedings, the XFL was to have an ‘opening scramble’ where each team would sprint 20 yards to a stationary football and literally fight for possession.

The XFL brought in skimpier cheerleaders to try and differentiate itself

And in the first scramble of the first game of the first XFL season, Orlando Rage free safety Hassan Shamsid-Deen suffered a separated shoulder that would rule him out the entire season. Fans excited – or, at the very least, morbidly intrigued – by this new league were greeted with a ten-minute injury break before the first pass had even been thrown. That was when they started to turn off their TVs, and it was a trend that never stopped, resulting in the closing down of the league after just three months.

The whispers had got louder through late 2017, and then there was the announcement… of an announcement.

It was coming back. Vince McMahon, most famous for owning, running and making billions from the WWE (as the WWF is now known), was bringing back the XFL.

McMahon will revive his footballing Frankenstein in 2020, he said on Thursday. A venture purely funded by himself this time after NBC’s withdrawal left him financially hamstrung and publicly humiliated at the turn of the Millennium.

Advert shows the vision for XFL in 2020

Even with a major television network on board, the eccentric North Carolina native discovered it isn’t easy to simply conjure a sports league out of nowhere and convince people to watch. The rules changed mid-season as the league descended into farce in 2001. Half-decent opening ratings dipped like one of its dreadful quarterback’s wobbling passes. The quality of play was, as people probably should have expected, not very good.

In 2018, the billionaire owner of WWE does not need co-investors to make the XFL reboot work but what he will need is to right the wrongs of last time if he does not want to be doomed to repeat failure. The problem is there simply aren’t enough good players to go around.

Nicknames on jerseys was another XFL gimmick

McMahon legitimately saw an opportunity at the turn of the Millennium that still exists. The NFL is still king among American sports leagues and dominates TV ratings every year - in 2017, seven of the ten most-watched broadcasts in America were NFL games - but the regular season only lasts from September until early January. There is a thirst for more, as well as recognition that the NFL could do with some sort of ‘farm league’ to develop overlooked prodigies and perhaps refurbish those discarded by the sport’s cut-throat nature.

The USFL actually became a notable rival to the NFL in the 1980s, taking away some of its better talent, but then New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump decided he wanted the league to play at the same time as the NFL to take it on directly. He and some other USFL owners voted to move the season, also attempting to sue the NFL for anti-trust violations in a parallel move intended to up the ante or possibly force a merger.

It all backfired. They lost the case and the USFL shut down, $160m in debt, and any player of worth scampered back to the National Football League.

The NFL has had many challengers but despite taking the occasional right hook, remains undefeated. It picks the best of the college system every year and generates $17bn in revenue. If you are coming for an entity of this size and wealth, you had better have a really good plan.

Vince McMahon has announced the return of XFL

Vince McMahon announced the XFL’s return on January 25th 2018 but the league is not slated to return for another two years, giving the sports entertainment mogul time to iron out some details.

And from his first conference call it does appear that he is going to need it.

As yet, he doesn’t know where the franchises (which would all be owned by him, by the way) would be located. He has no broadcast partner – a key component given how the rug was pulled out from underneath him last time. McMahon and the XFL have no concrete distribution plan. Nor do they have sponsors, players or many answers. They have very little, and yet the fact that they appear to have a crystal clear vision on other things appears to betray the real motives at play.

The details announced yesterday may as well have come straight from a market research focus group looking for chinks in the armour of McMahon’s (and formerly Trump’s) great rival which has, due to a number of factors, suffered declining ratings in the last two seasons.

The XFL ultimately failed because the play was so poor and the adapted rules nonsensical

“Why don’t you like the NFL?”

“Grrr, all these players kneeling, these players are all criminals, the games are too long, it’s too unsafe, the rules are too complicated, it’s too political.”

Vince McMahon’s plan could not more obviously be a response to this, appealing directly to the sub-section of people who like their sportsmen to know their place.

“It is a time-honoured tradition to stand and appreciate the national anthem with any sport,” said McMahon, before adding “as far as our league is concerned, it will have nothing to do with politics. Absolutely nothing. And nothing to do with social issues either.”

Letting the mask slip, McMahon admits what right-leaning Americans haven’t been able to since Colin Kaepernick’s knee first hit the turf in late 2016 – that the kneeling has been a protest against racial inequality, policing and a range of “social issues” rather than the reframed Trump idea of disrespecting veterans and insulting the flag.

For some there is, undoubtedly, a view of the largely-black sporting body as entertainers rather than human beings.

McMahon’s XFL announcement came in the form of a poem – yes, seriously, though it was more The Simpsons than Homer – labelled a ‘manifesto’. Now remember those focus group criticisms swirling around the NFL before you read.

The XFL's rhyming manifesto is quite something

The manifesto claims the league will be quicker (tick), simpler (tick), fewer rules (tick) and safer (tick).

Is now the best time to bring into the conversation that McMahon has a long-standing relationship with Trump, who once bodyslammed him at Wrestlemania XXIII and, in return, McMahon has spent years donating millions to the Trump foundation? His wife, Linda, forked out over $7m to groups supporting Trump’s election campaign and is now a member of the president’s cabinet as the Administrator of the Small Business Administration.

But even the support of the White House won’t help a league that is destined to have sub-standard players thrashing it out to a set of confused, experimental rules.

Looking at it now, the XFL simply comes across as a sort of ‘NFL for Trump supporters’ - complete with red, white and blue logo, of course - which begs the question: would people really watch a lower-quality sport simply because of a political affiliation?

But then you remember that, in 2016, a large number of Americans heard a recording of a man saying he non-consensually “grabs women by the pussy” and then duly elected him President.

This is an America divided, and McMahon sees the business opportunity to potentially peg the XFL as the league for men who watch Fox News – who would be a great fit as a broadcast partner, by the way - and the NFL for people who don’t think tax breaks for the 1% constitutes Draining the Swamp.

“We’re going to give the game of football back to the fans,” McMahon said on his conference call. Taking back control, perhaps, but also profiteering by division.

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