In the heady days of the new millenium, the hugely successful WWE, riding high on a product that had turned them into an international force in mainstream entertainment, decided to get into a new arena. Thus, in 2000, Vince McMahon partnered with NBC Universal to create the XFL, a football league that brashly declared they would compete directly with the National Football League. A year later, the league played its first games, and while the early results were good, things went downhill quickly, and ultimately, the league folded after a single season, a black eye on the sport that was reduced to a catchphrase on late night talk shows. So many things went wrong in such a short time, that the details of the league have mostly been lost to history. But it’s important to understand the XFL’s effect on professional football in America, and how, if not for a few things, it might have even survived to this day.
10. Originally, Vince McMahon Wanted To Buy The CFL
The Canadian Football League has traditionally been the place where many football players go if they can’t make it in the NFL (and in an indication of how bad he was, Tim Tebow couldn’t even make a CFL team, though he did try). It has also usually existed in a state of financial instability. For a few years in the mid-90s, they even expanded to the United States, putting teams in places without an NFL franchise, like Birmingham, Memphis, and a couple aborted attempts at Las Vegas (the XFL would also place teams in those locations for much the same reasons). They had abandoned the idea by 1996, but while searching for new owners for some of their franchises, they approached Vince McMahon. Vince never followed through on buying a CFL team, but in 1999, he came back with an even bigger plan: he was going to buy the entire CFL. Ultimately, the CFL Board of Governors rejected the idea, and Vince instead paired up with NBC, who had already been planning to create their own league in the wake of losing their NFL television contract to CBS.
9. The X Didn’t Stand For Anything
It was easy to assume that the “X” in XFL stood for “eXtreme”, because it was the late 90’s and we’d all been exposed to every iteration of the term that the marketing departments of the world could come up with. However, in this single case, it did not. It turns out that there was already an Extreme Football League in development at the same time, which would also fail horribly and become absorbed by the Arena Football League, but which forced Vince and NBC to claim that XFL didn’t stand for anything (although Vince tried briefly to get across the idea that it represented the “Extra Fun League”). WWE would actually re-use this concept years later, when they re-branded the company as the acronym WWE in 2011, claiming that it no longer stood for “World Wrestling Entertainment” and better represented the company’s diversified interests outside of wrestling (and inadvertently made “the WWE” grammatically correct after years of misuse).
8. Someone Got Injured Before The First Game Officially Began
One of the crazier rule changes the XFL implemented was removing the coin toss from the game. Sure, it was a boring procedure that only got noticed when somebody screwed up massively, but it did have the side benefit of nobody getting injured during the coin toss. Instead, the XFL implemented “The Scramble”, where one member of each team engaged in a chase for a football ten yards away, and whomever came up with it won the initial possession for their team. The inherent danger in such a stunt should have been obvious, and indeed, in one of the first attempts at the Scramble in XFL history, one of the players separated his shoulder in the fight for the ball. That would actually set the tone for the season, as the confusing and contradictory rules often left players (especially the quarterback and receivers) badly exposed to hits, and injuries quickly mounted for every team, forcing modifications to several rules. Ah yes, the rule changes…
7. Rules Kept Changing All Season
As part of their stated goal to be everything that the NFL was not, the XFL had several obvious rule differences. The first was the lack of fair catches on kicks, which even those in charge realized would result in kick returners getting lit up, so they created a five-yard “halo” rule to allow kicks to be fielded without players getting destroyed (coincidentally, the CFL uses the same rule). However, other rules were far less well thought-out, as they also implemented a rule that allowed defenders the freedom to make contact with receivers at any time during their routes, before the ball is thrown (the NFL has a strict “no contact after five yards” rule). This basically killed the passing game for the opening weeks as defensive backs gleefully exploited the rule, until it was changed to the same rules as the NFL. A similar problem erupted when they allowed more hits on the quarterbacks without threats of “roughing the passer”, leading to a string of injured QBs and even less offense. The major problem with most of the XFL’s rule changes was that the reason those rules didn’t exist in the NFL is because they were created to protect the players.
And even outside factors led to more rule changes, as a game that went deep into overtime (due to the combination of the aforementioned offensive issues and no tie games allowed in the XFL) forced the delay of a heavily-hyped episode of Saturday Night Live. The resulting complaints forced the creation of a rule that literally caused the games to end if they were in any danger of running into SNL’s start time. That, more than anything, was a sign of how the XFL was basically being made up as they went along.
6. TV Ratings Sucked, But The Live Audience Didn’t
After starting off with incredible ratings, the XFL lost viewers at an incredible pace, as the poor play caused by a confusing and evolving rule book (as well as the league only having four weeks of preseason to prepare) led to disappointingly dull football. Ironically, as the ratings dropped, the football improved, thanks to the necessary rule changes making the game easier, and teams coming together over the course of the season. And while they weren’t selling out most of their stadiums, the live attendance remained fairly constant throughout the season, proving that people were interested in the product.
Part of that can be attributed to WWE’s experience with hosting live events, combined with their dedication to production values, as every effort was made to make attending the games live a unique and enjoyable time. The decision to put most of the teams in areas without their own NFL franchises also proved to be a smart move in that respect, as local fans were quick to adopt the teams, even as a national audience tuned out.
5. The Black Footballs Were Both Iconic And Terrible
For some reason, whenever someone starts up a competing sports league, they often change the color of the ball to differentiate themselves from the standard. Everyone remembers the ABA and their red, white, and blue basketballs, right? And the XFL did the same thing, making their football a riot of red, white, and black that definitely stood out to the plain pigskin of the NFL. There was just one problem: an issue with the black dye used to color the XFL’s ball meant that when they got even slightly wet, even from just the humidity of the air, the paint would begin rubbing off and make the balls ridiculously slippery and nearly impossible to throw or catch effectively.
The solution? The actual president of the XFL had a brainstorm one night and discovered that if you rubbed the entire football with sandpaper, it made the ball easier to grasp without changing its appearance, similar to how umpires pre-rub new baseballs with dirt. Just imagine how much worse the offense could have been if they hadn’t figured that one out.
4. WWE and NBC Lost A Ridiculous Amount Of Money, But…
The first season of the XFL was a dismal failure financially, as many suspected it would be. The falling ratings hurt the visibility of the product, combined with the insane amount of start-up costs, and in the end, the league lost over 100 million dollars in its brief existence, with WWE and NBC reportedly losing at least $35 million dollars each. In WWE’s case, that was enough to eat into a significant chunk of the profits they’d made by taking the company public just a couple of years earlier, the largest of a series of financial mistakes that would cost WWE a lot of money over the 2000’s.
However, rather than just say “screw it” and close the doors, the XFL did one big thing right, even though it almost certainly cost their investors more money. Even though the league had folded, everyone involved in it who were owed money got paid every dime they had earned. Every vendor was paid, and every season ticket holder who had purchased tickets in anticipation of a second season was refunded.
3. Some Of The Players Were NFL Caliber
For all the talk about the XFL being made up of players that weren’t good enough for the NFL, quite a few XFL alumni went on to successful professional careers following the league folding. A handful found success in the CFL, but several dozen more found jobs in the NFL. Included among that number were nearly a dozen that played in the Super Bowl, several of whom even were on the winning team.
Most notable was the XFL’s first and only MVP, Tommy Maddox, who went from the LA Extreme to a starting QB job with the Pittsburgh Steelers, becoming the answer to the trivia question “Who was the Steelers’ QB before Ben Roethlisberger”, and getting himself a ring when the Steelers won Super Bowl XL. While the overall quality of the teams would never have been good enough to compete in the NFL, by the end of the season, they had improved enough that the product could have at least been comparable, and the end result were some bonafide NFL players.
2. Skycam, And Everything Else The NFL Copied
As we said, few can compete with WWE when it comes to the live event experience, and the XFL pioneered a lot of production values that eventually found use in the NFL. The XFL featured huge video screens and cameras everywhere, the most notable of which, a camera which hung on cables directly over top of the field and provided a bird’s-eye view of the action, would become the Skycam that is now used regularly in NFL games. The XFL also put microphones everywhere, including on players and coaches, an idea which would similarly be lifted by the NFL. Basically, anything which you see in the NFL that purports to get you “closer to the game” probably had its roots in the entertainment-heavy XFL production. In addition, the XFL did away with the routine PAT in favor of forcing teams to go for two after every touchdown, and years later, the NFL continues to try and find ways to make the PAT interesting, with many suggesting it should be abolished completely.
Plus, the XFL actually put a team in Los Angeles, an area that was without an NFL franchise for years despite being the second-largest television market in the country (until finally allowing the St Louis Rams to move back in 2016). Whatever they did wrong, you can’t fault the XFL for recognizing how dumb it was not to have a football team in LA.
1. For All The Problems, It Could Have Succeeded
Yes, they lost a bunch of money and set records for futility in terms of network TV ratings in the process. But many believe that if the league could have pushed through the growing pains and tried to make a go at another season, it probably would have survived for a much longer time, and even though nobody thinks it would have actually competed with the NFL, it was positioned to be one of the better alternatives and probably could have done fairly well as a second tier professional football league. The players appreciated getting a guaranteed paycheck, especially those who had no future in the NFL, and many alumni of the league have spoken positively about their experiences. There were even reportedly people interested in expansion teams in other under-served football markets. As for TV, although NBC pulled out of the partnership and deprived the league of a network home, both UPN and TNN (which would become Spike TV), who had also aired XFL games, were reportedly interested in continuing to do so, but allegedly wanted to renegotiate their contracts as they related to WWE programming, an offer which Vince McMahon refused. Much like WCW at the end, without a home to air the programming, there was no option for the XFL to continue. However, it’s important to know that even after the disasters of its inaugural season, there was a good chance that it could have continued, and might have even been a success. It’s a shame that we’ll never know for sure.