There’s some stroke of irony in the fact that the XFL was the brainchild of Vince McMahon, who turned professional wrestling into a mainstream, pay-per-view event and raised its showmanship up to a new level. One of the most memorable characters in the history of the WWE is The Undertaker, who has ‘died’ and come back I’m guessing more than once as part of his character.
And just like The Undertaker, the XFL is back once again after dying another death. Originally kicking off in 2001, the league completed its inaugural season, but McMahon shuttered the doors after that, viewing it as a loss and not promising the returns he had hoped.
More than a decade and a half later, he was prepared to give it another shot, taking it more seriously this time, bringing in ‘real’ football people, including Oliver Luck as the league’s commissioner. Truth be told, the project they put on the field earlier this year was quality.
Then the pandemic hit. And McMahon had a change of heart. After they were forced to shut down, the league originally promised to return in 2021. As it turns out, it will be back—but in 2022, and under new ownership, which includes the biggest superstar the WWE ever produced in Dwayne Johnson, or The Rock. The league issued a new hype video last week.
“Some look at this place and see only a video field”, Johnson narrates over a video of an XFL stadium field, interjected by other narrators. “But it’s more than that. This is hallowed ground. This is an opportunity. To build a league of culture, passion, and purpose. To live a dream”.
“Our work is cut out for us, but we wouldn’t have it any other way”, it goes on. “This will be earned. We’ll give it every last ounce of football-loving energy in the tank, and then we’ll give it more. Our hearts. Our souls. This is for the players, the coaches, the cities, the fans. For stories untold, for potential unrealized. We are hungry, we are humble, and no one will outwork us”.
“The XFL is back. Back for the love of football”.
It all looks and sounds good. The 2020 edition of the XFL looked and sounded good, too, and through half a season, both the product and the support for the product—in the form of ratings—was good as well. But can the new ownership, with time lost, rebuild?
McMahon, through his connections, secured prime real estate in terms of air time and channels for his league, a previously-unheard of visibility for an upstart league, which was a major part of its success. It’s unclear if the Johnson ownership group can muster that.
Another factor not yet clear is how the NFL’s expanded practice squads (it was already written into the CBA that the practice squad would expand to 14 players by 2022 before the pandemic) will impact the XFL’s talent pool. That’s 128 more players than the NFL was employing last time around.