Football, but with worse players, more violence, and all the sex from the beer commercials.
That was the vision that Vince McMahon, the carnival-barking WWE executive, had when he debuted the XFL, a professional football league co-owned with NBC, in February 2000. Unlike the USFL, which competed with the NFL in the 1980s by focusing on a higher quality of play, McMahon wanted to create a league focused purely on entertainment — and by defying notions of political correctness.
The XFL failed after just one season. McMahon called it “a colossal failure.” Seventeen years later, he is going to try again, and he’s changing his approach.
The old XFL had violence-themed team names. Nicknames ranged from references to organized crime (Chicago Enforcers, New York/New Jersey Hitmen), to mental health (the Maniax, Rage) to terrorism (Birmingham Blasts, changed to the Birmingham Bolts before the season). Cheerleaders were a main attraction. There were three-point conversions. The opening coin flip was replaced with a scramble for the football. Players had nicknames on their jerseys. As McMahon said on-field during the league’s debut game, the XFL “gives you the freedom to go places that other leagues have determined to be off-limits.”
On Thursday, he held a press conference announcing the return of the XFL, which will begin play in 2020. This new attempt will try to thread the needle between quality, entertainment, and a self-defined code of ethics.
“We’re gonna give the game of football back to fans,” McMahon said in his opening statement.
Here are all of our questions, along with McMahon’s answers — and his non-answers.
What will make the new XFL different from the NFL?
From the beginning of the press conference, it was clear that McMahon had very few specifics. Instead, he challenged fans, experts, and the media to “reimagine the game of professional football.” In other words, the XFL will crowdsource ideas from the public. The changes that McMahon did float include:
- No halftime
- Fewer commercial breaks
- Two-hour games
- Simpler rules
- A “family-friendly” sport
Reading between the lines, it seemed that McMahon was using the press conference and ensuing attention to create conversations about football that the XFL can then research and test with larger audiences.
What will the season look like?
There will be 10 regular-season games, a round of semifinals, and a championship game. The season will begin in either late January or early February — so, smack dab in the middle of the NFL playoffs.
How many teams will there be? Where will they be located? Who will own them?
There will be eight teams, each with 40-man rosters. McMahon said there had been no decisions yet on which cities will be chosen, but acknowledged that areas with existing infrastructure, like football and baseball stadiums, will be preferable.
Interestingly, McMahon said that the XFL will not be using a franchise model, so there won’t be any owners. The XFL will operate as a single entity.
Who’s going to play in this thing? ARE WE GETTING TIM TEBOW?!?
The player pool is where the press conference got interesting. McMahon said that “the quality of the human being is going to be as important as the quality of the player.” When asked if Johnny Manziel or Tim Tebow would be targeted, McMahon elaborated.
“You want someone who does not have any criminality whatsoever associated with it. In the XFL, even if you have a DUI, you will not play in the XFL. If Tim Tebow wants to play, he could very well play.”
In other words, a spot on the St. Lucie Mets just opened up. We also may see a QB bigger than his linemen in Jared Lorenzen.
Is the league going to lean into harder hits and “real football” like it did last time?
McMahon said that reimagining the game of football means reimagining it on all levels, including safety, but he didn’t have any specifics on that when he was pressed. He repeatedly stated that he would seek the opinion of medical experts and “heed their advice.”
How does the XFL feel about the national anthem?
This is one of a handful of questions that McMahon gave a specific answer on. He said players will have plenty of opportunity to speak out on social issues, and there will be a booklet addressing what is and is not appropriate, but that players would be required to stand during the anthem.
“It’s a time-honored tradition to stand and appreciate the national anthem,” McMahon said. “With any sport and any country, they do that, so I think it would be appropriate to [put it in the rulebook].”
Asked if Colin Kaepernick would be allowed to play, McMahon responded, “Anyone who meets our criteria in the quality of the human being … as long as everyone abides in the rules as laid down … you’re going to know [the rules], so I can imagine anyone who signs on will abide by those rules.”
Is President Donald Trump onboard?
Trump, famously, has quite a history with McMahon.
Trump has been heavily critical of the NFL this season, saying in a September rally, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired. He’s fired!’” Trump has also repeatedly tweeted that the league’s ratings are down.
A league not only hoping to take a chunk of the NFL’s market share but also requiring players to stand for the anthem would seemingly have a large fan overlap with the president’s supporters.
“I have no idea whether President Trump will support this,” McMahon said. “It’ll have nothing to do with politics, and nothing to do with social issues. We want football. We want really good football.”
(Is there somewhere you can gamble on whether Trump will tweet about the XFL this week? Asking for my bank account.)
How can fans watch this league?
Asked whether the games would be available on cable or streaming services, and whether the XFL has considered its own streaming service, McMahon demurred.
“As we reimagine, we’ll reimagine how we distribute the game,” McMahon said, adding that the XFL will be available on big and small screens and “a combination of any number of forms of presentation.”
I ran that quote through Google to translate it from Marketingese, and it comes out to, “I have no idea.”
How much WWE crossover will there be?
Zero, McMahon said. Though he said he will not reduce his role in the WWE as chairman and CEO even a little, McMahon added that there will be no crossover between WWE and the XFL in terms of announcers, wrestlers, or anything else. Surprisingly, he also said that he will not be the face of the XFL.
“Quite frankly, this might be the last you see of me out front,” McMahon said. “I’m going to hire professionals. People who really know what they’re doing. I’m going to take a backseat to that. I’m not going to be out front.”
Who is funding this?
In December, McMahon filed paperwork with the Securities and Exchange Commission to sell a roughly $100 million stake in WWE, which, according to the filing, was “primarily to fund a separate entity from the (WWE) Company, Alpha Entertainment LLC, which Mr. McMahon established to explore investment opportunities across the sports and entertainment landscapes, including professional football.”
Why is he doing this now?
McMahon said that the NFL’s slumping ratings and controversies connected to protests during the national anthem this year did not influence his decision, but that he has wanted to relaunch the XFL for several years.
Why should this version work when the last one failed?
Until McMahon reveals more specifics, this is up in the air. It could once again be a colossal failure. During the press conference, SI’s Richard Deitsch noted that football is already a saturated sport, but McMahon countered that there are seven months a year without football, and the XFL will have fan-centric games. “It’ll just be a better football game than what everyone is accustomed to,” he said.
McMahon did admit that the biggest problem with the first incarnation of the XFL was quality. “Frankly, we had a short time in the past to put it together,” McMahon said. “It’s the quality of the play.”
That’s the same answer McMahon gave Bob Costas in an HBO interview in 2001, discussing what went right and wrong with the first season.
“The media … has been, I think, somewhat unfair in jumping all over us and asking for this damn thing to please go away,” McMahon told Costas. “I think it’s unfair … all I’m asking is just take another look at it now and judge it on its merit, or lack of merit, as it relates to football.”