No Skin, No Sin: The XFL Gets a Family-Friendly Makeover

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McMahon: Ready for some(thing approximating) football
McMahon: Ready for some(thing approximating) football Credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Vince McMahon is rebooting the short-lived 2001 curiosity that was the XFL, and while the WWE founder and chairman is offering few details about the new venture, he vowed Thursday to supply football fans with a product that is faster, safer and more family-friendly.

Speaking to reporters on a conference call, McMahon sketched a rough outline of a new-look XFL that would, upon a relaunch envisioned for 2020, feature eight teams playing a 10-week schedule.

He addressed almost everything else only in broad terms, saying "every city is on our radar" when asked where the XFL might establish teams, and offering vague bromides about developing a media strategy that would provide football fans "what they want, and how they want it."

McMahon suggested that the XFL 2.0 would look to embrace a multi-platform distribution scheme, but gave no specifics on how that strategy would cohere. "As we reimagine the game, we may reimagine the way we distribute the game," McMahon said, adding that the league would "probably consider a combination of any number of forms of presentation."

The XFL has not engaged in even the most informal talks with any broadcast or cable network, McMahon said, but that's not to say that the league isn't interested in courting a traditional TV partner. "We just know there's interest there," he said.

It's hard to imagine that NBC is among the interested parties. McMahon's first attempt at establishing a viable alternative to the NFL flamed out spectacularly, leaving the network up to its ears in makegoods. While the premiere broadcast of the gimmicky, frankly sleazy new brand of football put up big numbers for a Saturday night in February 2001—14 million viewers tuned in to NBC's coverage of the Las Vegas Outlaws's 19-0 victory over the New York/New Jersey Hitmen—the ratings plummeted once fans realized they were being sold a bill of goods.

After debuting to a 9.5 household rating, turnout for Week 2 of the XFL season dropped 52 percent to a 4.6. Deliveries fell another 33 percent in Week 3, at which point NBC began missing its ratings guarantees. While the network assured advertisers the XFL would average a 4.5 rating throughout the season, the 12 weeks of broadcasts (including the semifinal playoffs and the championship game) badly missed the mark with a 2.9.

Advertisers who bought time in the XFL broadcasts ponied up around $140,000 per 30-second spot, which works out to approximately $205,000 a pop in 2018 dollars. All told, NBC lost an estimated $35 million on the venture, and cut ties with the XFL shortly after the season ended.

As for what would seem to be the most obvious platform to distribute the new football league, McMahon insisted that there would be "no crossover whatsoever between the WWE and the XFL." While he was addressing a query about the possibility of using WWE talent in XFL broadcasts (the original XFL kicked off with a shouty endorsement from The Rock), McMahon's avowal to keep the XFL's interests separate from those of the wrestling juggernaut would prohibit the football games from streaming on the subscription-based WWE Network.

If McMahon didn't offer up much in the way of specifics, he did allow that some of the excesses of the old XFL would not be revived for the 2020 launch. The XFL won't be revising its occasional visits to the cheerleaders's locker room—in fact, the new version of the league will eschew cheerleaders altogether. And while he acknowledged that it was remarkable that so many people recall Outlaws running back Rod Smart after all these years—the charasmatic speedster was celebrated for emblazoning the words "HE HATE ME" on the back of his jersey—McMahon said he wasn't sure if the new XFL would bring back the loosey-goosey naming convention.

Although he was asked more than once about whether he'd make it mandatory for XFL players to stand for the pre-game national anthem, an issue with which the NFL struggled throughout the season, McMahon spoke vaguely about how he believes that it would be "appropriate" for all team members to participate in that "time-honored tradition." He then said that out-of-work NFL stars such as Tim Tebow and Colin Kaepernick would be welcome to try out for the XFL, provided they agreed to abide the league's as-yet undefined rules.

McMahon later said that he has "no idea" if the XFL would be supported by President Donald Trump, a longtime friend of his who also has been extremely critical of the NFL. An honorary WWE Hall of Famer, Trump in 2007 engaged in a mock brawl with McMahon at Wrestlemania; the bit ended on an odd bit of theater in which the real estate magnate and future POTUS shaved the WWE boss's head in the center of the ring.

"As far as our league is concerned, it will have absolutely nothing to do with politics, absolutely nothing to do with social issues," McMahon said. "We're there to play football."

A rap cut that played before McMahon addressed the press more or less functioned as a series of syncopated bullet points to which he would refer throughout the 20-minute call. Among the declarative statements made in the song were "this is football reborn" and "less stall, more ball, fewer infractions." The latter boast was a precursor of sorts to McMahon's repeated assertions that the XFL that will be reborn in 2020 will offer fans a faster, more fluid viewing experience. (In a rare instance in which he cited a practical way to revitalize the game, McMahon said he was considering eliminating halftime. He then posed a hypothetical about whether or not the XFL would feature commercial breaks.)

Another line in the XFL's promotional rap signaled a desire to embrace fantasy sports enthusiasts and gamblers: "This is gaming and fantasy, this is padded roulette; make a trade, make a team, make a move, make a bet."

McMahon is funding the startup with some $100 million in WWE shares he sold off in December. And while he's still in the early stages of putting together the playbook, McMahon noted that unlike the rushed 2001 launch, this time around he's not rushing to get a decent product on the field.

"We only had a very short time in the past to put everything together," McMahon said, adding that the haste to roll out the first incarnation of the XFL had a deleterious impact on the quality of play. "We have two years now to really get it right."

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