He rolled the dice once. Will he do it again?
With the NFL’s popularity and ratings taking a hit over the past few years, evidence is mounting that WWE owner Vince McMahon is serious about giving professional football another go.
Sixteen years removed from the debacle that was the XFL, the 72-year-old McMahon may be ready to try once again to pull a rabbit out of his hat.
A recent tweet by freelance journalist and wrestling fan Brad Shepard indicated that McMahon was considering a revival of the failed league, which lasted only one chaotic season, and that he would make an announcement in late January.
Deadspin’s David Bixenspan later coaxed a comment from WWE that confirmed McMahon had some interest in getting back into football and had already formed a new company, and was exploring “investment opportunities across the sports and entertainment landscape, including professional football.”
WWE disclosed in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing that McMahon shifted $3.34 million of WWE shares, raising a figure estimated to be around 100 million dollars, in order to fund a new endeavor. He also registered a number of trademarks that would suggest a possible reboot.
Is it time for a new league to emerge and flex its muscles? From the rising popularity of video games to a slew of injuries to star players, along with an abundance of broadcast windows and the national anthem controversy, NFL ratings have continued to decline despite an increase in ad revenue.
McMahon may have offered a hint of his intentions at the end of ESPN’s recent “30 for 30” documentary on the rise and fall of the ill-fated league.
The WWE CEO, along with former NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol, his partner in the renegade league, commented about possibly giving it another shot.
“Do you ever have any thoughts about trying again?” Ebersol asked McMahon.
“Yes I do,” McMahon replied. “I don’t know what it would be. I don’t know if it’s going to be another XFL or what it may be or how different I would make it. It seems like in some way it would tie in either with the NFL itself or the owners.”
Known as a visionary and marketing genius, McMahon has not enjoyed nearly as much success outside the realm of his wrestling juggernaut and related interests. Most notably the XFL, a venture referred to by some as the greatest sports failure of all time.
Then again, the time could be right for a football league that gives fans disenchanted with the NFL an alternative.
McMahon, though, would likely give the league a name other than XFL, not wishing to bring back fans’ memories of a business blunder that even McMahon called a “colossal failure.” It also is likely that it would be McMahon’s money and not publicly traded money that would fund the venture this time around.
The landscape also would be much tougher than it was 17 years ago when WWE was a hotter brand and provided massive cross-promotion for the league. And securing TV rights could be a steep mountain to climb.
But McMahon is a shrewd opportunist who just might be able to lure a few big names, sell the brutality of the game and convince a substantial portion of the disgruntled NFL fanbase to give his league a try. And he’s not likely to repeat the mistakes made by the first iteration of the XFL.
Panthers in the mix?
Former WWE personality and ex-ESPN anchor Jonathan Coachman believes it’s a strong possibility that his former boss will go after a new football league. But, he told TMZ Sports, McMahon might have another big plan up his sleeve.
Rather than relaunching his own league, McMahon could be thinking about becoming part of the NFL, said Coachman.
With the Carolina Panthers suddenly for sale, it wouldn’t be a surprise to Coachman if McMahon made a play for the franchise.
Coachman contends that the self-made billionaire has the financial wherewithal, along with well-heeled contacts, to purchase the Charlotte-based team.
“He’s a billionaire, he could come up with the funds, and he’s also at the age where other owners would respect that,” said the former WWE commentator.
Moreover, said Coachman, McMahon has strong roots in North Carolina.
“Let’s remember where Vince’s home base is — North Carolina,” Coachman said. “He has a restaurant in North Carolina. Triple H’s (McMahon’s son-in-law) bachelor party was in Raleigh, North Carolina.”
McMahon’s ties go ever further. He was born in Pinehurst, N.C., spent much of his childhood in a trailer park in Havelock, N.C., and graduated from East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C. He married wife Linda in New Bern, N.C.
But Coachman, who also served as an analyst for the XFL during its one season of existence, remains more confident in McMahon bringing back his own football league. And this time with success.
“Whatever this is, they’re gonna do it the right way,” said Coachman.
“Only Vince and the crew that works for him can put together a football league in a matter of months. I would say that it’s a crazy thought process. But I was in the room (during negotiations for the XFL), and two months later they were having games.”
“Best belief is that Vince has been doing some research behind the scenes,” said Coachman. “He’s not going to come out and blow 50 or 100 million dollars on something that he’s already tried.”
Still, said Coachman, the possibility is an intriguing one.
“How cool would it be?”
Co-owned by WWE (then called the WWF) and NBC, XFL games aired on the network and on independent channels. Games were played during the spring, in an attempt to satisfy football fans’ appetite during the NFL’s offseason.
The original league kicked off with all the ballyhoo associated with its pro wrestling counterpart, including suggestively-dressed cheerleaders and WWE announcers calling the action. It also was more violent, designed to provide no-holds-barred, in-your-face, smash-mouth football.
The XFL was “not a league for pantywaists or sissies,” McMahon said at the time, adding that “the XFL will take you places where the NFL is afraid to go because, quite frankly, we are not afraid of anything.”
The NFL had become, in McMahon’s words, “The No Fun League.”
“In Vince McMahon, we’re getting the best marketer in America,” enthused Ebersol, the “SNL” co-creator-turned-president of NBC Sports, who believed the XFL would attract more young viewers than the usually low-rated Saturday night programs historically provided.
With McMahon’s uncanny ability to command attention, the early strategy was to sell more flesh than football.
“We want our viewers to be on a first name basis with the cheerleaders,” McMahon told ESPN the Magazine. “That way when the quarterback fumbles or the receiver drops the ball, we’ll know who he’s dating and our reporters will be right in her face on the sidelines demanding to know whether the two of them did the wild thing last night.”
Ten million households tuned in to see the maiden game between the New Jersey Hitmen and the Las Vegas Outlaws, out-rating everything else on television. But the excitement was short-lived. Only half as many viewers as the week before soldiered on to watch a double-overtime game between Los Angeles and Memphis.
In reality, the league was doomed from the beginning. Players had barely four weeks to train, and the first game on NBC was a 19-0 shutout. Despite heavy promotion of its players, the XFL could not make its “stars” into memorable personalities.
The XFL’s fourth game posted a dismal 2.6 rating, dropping from 13.9 million for the first game to 3.9 million. By the seventh week, when NBC’s broadcast drew the lowest recorded rating since Nielsen began tracking them, the deathwatch was on. No one was surprised, then, when Ebersol confirmed that his network wouldn’t be sticking around to make the second year work.
Three weeks after the last game of its only season, a victim of dismal television ratings, a subpar quality of play and inflated expectations, the XFL was done. The decision was made after determining that the additional investment required to further develop the XFL was not commensurate with the potential return and the risk inherent in pursuing the venture.
“All the stars had to line up for us to go forward and the broadcast component was the most important one,” McMahon told reporters after being persuaded to announce its early shutdown. “It just didn’t happen.”
“The buck stops with me,”' he added. “'We let NBC down. Had we had more time, we might have been able to do things differently and that goes with the expectations certain people thought the WWF would do in the football world.”'
In all, losses for WWE and NBC approached $140 million.
WWE stock shot up on the news that the country’s most famous wrestling promoter was returning his attention to where it belonged.