When Vince McMahon announced in 2018 that he would be bringing back the XFL — a professional spring football league he also tried to get off the ground in 2001 but folded after just one season — football enthusiasts were understandably skeptical that the league would succeed.
In its original incarnation, the league was a partnership between McMahon — who is also the chairman of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) — and NBC.
Back then, the league regularly featured appearances by WWE wrestlers in a strange marriage between the two completely different parties. Couple the strange relationship with low-quality football and you had a league that was almost destined to fail.
Fast forward to the present day where there is a relaunched XFL that is coming off the heels of the Alliance of American Football (AAF), another attempt at a professional spring football league that — like the XFL of 2001 — lasted just a season before ceasing operations.
Like the XFL now, the AAF believed that they would quench the desire of some Americans for more football before realizing that becoming popular and attracting consistent viewership was not as easy as offering football games in the gap between the Super Bowl and the first week of the National Football League’s (NFL) preseason.
This past weekend held the opening slate of games for the XFL, with the league’s eight teams splitting games on Saturday and Sunday. Much of the excitement around the games came from the rules unique to the XFL that were designed to make the game more exciting for the fans.
Kickoffs have been one of the most contentious aspects of football due to the recent spotlight that has been put on concussions. The NFL responded to this by incentivizing players to not return kicks by placing touchbacks on the 25-yard line.
Meanwhile, the XFL put their own spin on the rule by having kickoffs from the 35-yard line with the receiving team and kicking team at the opposite 30- and 35-yard lines respectively. This move reduces the risk of injuries as a result of full-speed collisions, albeit with the trade-off of looking unorthodox compared to the traditional kickoff style.
In another move away from conventional football, the XFL does not feature extra points. Rather, teams have the option to follow a touchdown with a one-, two- or three-point conversion attempt from the two-, five- and 10-yard lines respectively.
Moving away from the “boring” extra point kick adds importance to the conversion and gives teams the opportunity to make comebacks that are typically impossible in the NFL.
The XFL also has introduced an extremely immersive experience for the viewing audience, with coaches and replay officials wearing live mics and the showcasing of the deliberation process among officials to increase transparency in the review process.
Players and coaches are constantly being interviewed as well, and while this is nothing new for the game, this weekend alone players were swarmed by reporters following a touchdown or after missing a field goal.
Ratings for the kickoff game reflected initial interest in the league, with the opening kickoff game between the Seattle Dragons and the D.C. Defenders drawing an average of 3.3 million viewers and peaking at four million viewers at the end of the game.
Even before the Dragons and Defenders kicked off the second iteration of the XFL, ESPN analyst Darren Rovell noted that the XFL had already surpassed the ticket sales of the AAF’s entire season.
All of these changes and this initial interest amount to nothing if the XFL fails to bring a higher quality football product onto the field than its last iteration. Thankfully, at least after week one, it appears that the XFL has delivered in this regard.
None of the games in the opening weekend were particularly close. Only the matchup between the St. Louis BattleHawks and the Dallas Renegades was within one score, but fans still seemed enthused by the league’s prospects.
The games featured an immersive presentation style that added personality to the games in ways that the NFL has failed to do at times.
The skill difference was not as stark as some may have initially believed it would be, which kept the games entertaining to watch, even if you didn’t know who was playing for who.
Many people are looking forward to week two of the XFL. The problem comes in having the league maintain that level of enthusiasm throughout a season that is scheduled to run from early February to the end of April.
Even for the most die-hard football junkies, there is such a thing as too much football. The NFL season just shut the book on its 2019-2020 season only for the XFL to begin its 2020 campaign.
This football fatigue will be even more imminent when it comes time for other sports leagues to reach their peak excitement levels. March brings with it the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s March Madness basketball tournament and opening day for Major League Baseball. April will feature the beginning of the National Hockey League (NHL) and National Basketball Association playoffs.
Viewership of the XFL will almost certainly decline during this period as fans will shift their investment from the young football league to the well-established juggernauts that dominate the spring months. Is this to say that the XFL is a bad idea? Am I implying that the XFL will be like the AAF and fold after this season? The answer to both questions is a resounding no.
The XFL is allowing many talented athletes to showcase their talents to fans in a way that they would not have gotten to in the NFL. They are presenting games in a way that is fun for fans while instituting rule changes that have many fans excited. Do not be surprised if fans push for the NFL to follow suit with some of the rule changes and presentation decisions that the XFL has made.
However, without established fanbases, the popularity of the league will always be volatile. The AAF had a similarly strong opening weekend last year in terms of viewership and praise before failing to become a lucrative business venture. All it takes is one wrong decision or a weekend of bad games before fans begin turning the channel to watch one of the other spring sports.
I hope the XFL succeeds, but personally, I can’t guarantee that I will be a consistent viewer. After a satisfying Super Bowl and a lengthy NFL season, I’ve become tired of watching football and have turned my attention to the NHL season.
Whether you’re invested in the league or not, root for the XFL to succeed. Root for them to succeed if for no other reason than it gives athletes the opportunity to play a great game and coaches the chance to display their football acumen.
Bringing back the XFL was a risky venture from Vince McMahon, but there’s a reason that he’s a billionaire and I’m not. Time will tell how his football league performs and whether it will be sustainable in the long-term, but its impact will continue to be felt even if the league suffers the same fate as it did in 2001.