XFL returns: Are you ready for some (more) football?
Thursday, January 25, 2018
Nearly two decades after the world was blessed with "He Hate Me," WWE chairman Vince McMahon has announced the return of the XFL. The professional football league will begin play in 2020, featuring eight teams and 40-man rosters, but many of the remaining details — including franchise locations, rules, broadcasting contracts, etc. — are still up in the air.
The key factor McMahon returned to repeatedly in Thursday's news conference is that the XFL will "reimagine" all aspects of the game of football before finalizing any decisions. He mentioned ideas like eliminating halftime and simplifying the rules for a two-hour game, but nothing is set in stone yet.
"The new XFL will kick off in 2020, and quite frankly, we're going to give the game of football back to fans," he said.
However, the big question is this: Do fans really want more football?
In a partnership between WWF (before it changed its name to WWE) and NBC, the XFL debuted in 2001. The league featured eight teams, and games took place during the NFL offseason. The goal was a more "extreme" form of football that appealed to fans who felt the "No Fun League" was bogged down with too many rules (sound familiar?).
Even though many experts considered it to be a gimmick — including sportscaster Bob Costas who famously grilled McMahon in an interview back in 2001 — few thought it would fail so spectacularly. Football fans were unimpressed, and the league folded after just one season to the tune of a $50 million loss. Today, the XFL is best known for one of its players, Rod Smart, who donned the nickname "He Hate Me" across the back of his jersey.
Perhaps McMahon has learned from his previous fiasco.
While he offered few details about the new XFL, McMahon made one thing clear: There will be no involvement by the WWE. The previous iteration of the XFL featured wrestling announcers Jim Ross, Jerry Lawler and Jesse Ventura broadcasting games, as well as wrestler cameos at games.
McMahon sold $100 million of WWE stock last month and started Alpha Entertainment as the parent company for the XFL. But McMahon said he will be stepping out of the limelight and hiring executives and professionals who know the game of football — a big change from the man who has weaved himself into storylines and into the ring for the WWE.
"The most important thing that we learned between the older XFL and the new XFL is the quality of play," McMahon said. "Quite frankly we only had a short time in the past to put everything together. We have two years now to really get it right."
With decades of helming the WWE, McMahon certainly knows how to put on a performance. It's no accident that McMahon chose the week before Super Bowl LII to make his announcement. But is he making a savvy business decision in this case?
"I think we've found that America's appetite for football is unquenchable," said Sunny Mehta, the executive director of the National Fantasy Football Convention.
Fans certainly have plenty of options to quench that appetite. Just look at the typical week of football entertainment.
The NFL has games on Thursdays, Sundays and Mondays. College football games are played on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. High school football mostly plays on Fridays, but even these games have expanded into Thursdays and Saturdays as they continue to break into the TV landscape.
There's also the Canadian Football League, various indoor and arena leagues and another offseason NFL alternative, the Pacific Pro Football League, which will begin operations this summer.
By the time the football season ends in February at the Super Bowl, sports fans are burned out and ready for basketball or baseball.
TV viewership numbers back this up.
The NFL's ratings fell 9.7 percent this season, according to Nielsen. Some point to the national anthem controversy, but the league's ratings fell 8 percent in 2016 — before the "to kneel or not to kneel" drama. Experts thought that drop was related to the presidential election, but there may be a trend here.
College football is suffering through the same problem, with most networks reporting a drop in viewers this season. Only Fox saw an increase, thanks to a new contract with the Big Ten Conference.
However, Mehta thinks the ratings drop is more related to the shifting landscape of TV viewership, where cord-cutting and web broadcasts are hurting traditional viewer numbers. He points to the growth of fantasy football as better barometer.
"Participation in fantasy football has grown dramatically over the past three years, and I think that's a great indication that people are still tracking and watching football religiously," he said.
So maybe it's not oversaturation on TV. After all, the average fan can't even afford to attend games anymore — a phenomenon happening all across sports.
But people are waking up to the dangers of football, and some don't really want to be a part of the sport anymore.
Ever since Dr. Bennet Omalu discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and published his findings in the journal Neurosurgery in 2005, the sports has been dealing with the fallout of the connection between concussions and serious brain impairment later in life. New research published this month has found that CTE can be caused by repeated hits to the head, even in the absence of any concussions.
As parents learn more about the causes and effects of CTE, youth football organizations across the country are seeing participation numbers drop. And that may be translating into a lack of enthusiasm for the sport in general among the adults.
Look no further than Costas. The longtime sports broadcaster has hosted Super Bowl pregame coverage for NBC six times from 1986-2015, but when the network announced its coverage lineup for Super Bowl LII, Costas was nowhere to be found.
Costas, who cited his own lack of enthusiasm as the reason why he stepped back from hosting, made waves in November by declaring that football "destroys people's brains." He even predicted a dire future for the sport.
"The cracks in the foundation are there," Costas said at a roundtable discussion at the University of Maryland. "The day-to-day issues, as serious as they may be, they may come and go. But you cannot change the nature of the game. I certainly would not let, if I had an athletically gifted 12- or 13-year-old son, I would not let him play football."
And what happens after years of fewer young athletes playing football? That's when the sport may begin to unravel.
"The whole thing could collapse like a house of cards if people actually begin connecting the dots," Costas said.
Ratings drops, national anthem controversy, concerns about brain health — this is the atmosphere that McMahon is entering. Maybe the XFL will be successful as a counterbalance to the NFL, but the odds are certainly stacked against it in today's changing landscape for football.
"We're going to ask a lot of questions, and listen — to players, coaches," he said. "We're going to listen to medical experts, technology executives, members of the media and anyone else who understands and loves the game of football. But most importantly we're going to be listening to fans."
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