The funny thing is, the XFL did just about everything right.
Friday, the league essentially boarded up shop. Last month, it canceled the remainder of its inaugural season at roughly the same time that every other major sports league suspended their seasons. Now, the XFL has suspended all operations—telling everybody whose job was presumably to get the league restarted to stop—and fired most of its staff. According to ESPN on Friday, the league is not planning a return to play in 2021; a staffer said the league is “not coming back.”
In some ways, I expected this to happen. When the fledgling AAF folded midway through its first season in 2019,because of a squabble between its founders and a new owner unwilling to wait out large financial losses, I wrote about how any minor football league without major financial backing from the NFL would be doomed to fail.
Then, something weird happened: The XFL was incredible. The on-field play was entertaining, and a well-thought-out set of rules made the games unique and enjoyable. There were the kickoffs, which seemed simultaneously safer and more likely to lead to touchdowns than the NFL’s kickoffs:
There were the 3-point conversions:
And a rule that the NFL absolutely should adopt, the double forward pass:
(Sadly, the league never got to display my personal favorite innovation: The penalty-shootout-styled OT.)
Perhaps more important than the actual gameplay was the league’s all-access presentation. A common criticism of the first iteration of the WWE-owned XFL was that it substituted wrestling gimmicks for football quality. If anything, the second XFL overcorrected, taking fans deep into the minutiae of the game, featuring live sound from players and coaches as they made playcalls:
However, the league maintained its flair for showmanship by interviewing players on the sideline during the games—and learned it was more entertaining to interview players after their failures than after their successes:
And Pat McAfee went to interview him LMAOOOO pic.twitter.com/ZhJPBzO49B— Lifelong TOMpa Bay Buccaneers fan (@FTBeard1) February 10, 2020
But while I liked the on-field product and on-camera delivery, what I truly enjoyed most about the XFL was its playful demeanor. It never got to have an MVP, so I’ll go ahead and award one: It was the Washington, D.C., Beer Snake.
Sure, other sporting events have featured massive beer snakes before; the XFL spent large swaths of a competitive game keeping fans updated on the progress of a beer snake. At one point, the league’s commissioner contributed a cup. The XFL also explored what it means to be an Extremely Online Sports League, sharing memes that would never get approved to appear on the NFL’s or NBA’s official social media channels:
The XFL was, so far as I can tell, the only league ever to share video of its players shotgunning celebratory hard seltzers.
And then came the coronavirus. At least one player, a member of the Seattle team, tested positive for it. Like every other league, the XFL had to suspend operations—and unlike other leagues, it had less likelihood of restarting. It didn’t have a billion-dollar rainy day fund; its teams didn’t own stadiums (most were rented from richer tenants, including several NFL teams); its best players took more lucrative and stable offers from NFL teams after the season was canceled—P.J. Walker, the league’s breakout star quarterback, is set to be a backup for the Panthers this year; the league didn’t have the billion-dollar TV contracts that are strongly incentivizing other leagues to restart behind closed doors.
We have to assume this is the end for the XFL. It took two years of behind-the-scenes work to get the league up and running, and it has now laid off all the people who could potentially get it back up and running. The league likely lost most of the money that was supposed to seed a growing fan base.
As it turns out, it is very hard to start a football league. The rosters are big; insurance for football players is expensive; fan bases are hard to grow. I still think the most likely hope for a sustainable minor football league would be if the NFL decided it was willing to spend millions of dollars on player development; the league has shown little interest in doing so since folding its European branch in 2007.
The XFL, really, was the best hope. It had a wealthy owner in WWE chairman and CEO Vince McMahon, who seemed determined to spend big—and eat massive early losses—to make the league happen. It proved that a spring football league could be both lighthearted and pragmatic, combining a fun-filled ethos that never would have existed under the NFL’s watchful eye with a legitimate and innovative football product. It demonstrated that there are talented players overlooked by the NFL, and it pushed football forward with ideas that the NFL would never invent on its own—but will hopefully someday adopt. Perhaps most importantly, it proved that if executed correctly, people will watch second-tier football—perhaps even enough to sustain a league. But after the failings of the AAF and XFL, I have to imagine it will be a long time before anybody else tries to start a football league like this.
And through no fault of its own, it appears to be gone. It’s a small sadness in comparison of the many actual tragedies caused by this pandemic. It was a thing that seemed to make our world richer that will now fade into nothing.