I was born in 1995, which means that I was just a hair too young to have any real memories of the original XFL, Vince McMahon’s first crack at a new brand of football.
In fact, I only learned about the league while watching VH1’s I Love The New Millenium. One segment of that early-aughts nostalgia-fest was about the XFL and the insanity of it all was mind-blowing.
The nicknames, the cheerleaders, the overall Xtremeness. I couldn’t get enough.
From there, I watched the ESPN 30 For 30 documentary, This Was The XFL to help feed my appetite for information about the ill-fated league.
In my head, the original XFL has taken on an almost mythological quality. It was a league that was at the time believed to be unsinkable thanks in part to a partnership between McMahon and NBC but eventually went the way of the Titanic after only one season.
That mythological quality made me all the more excited in 2018 when Mr. McMahon announced the XFL was coming back this year.
I was pumped. I kept tabs on the league’s development over the next two years, and when teams were announced, I hitched my wagon to the new Tampa Bay Vipers (a decision I’m already questioning after their inaugural game).
This past weekend we got our first glimpse of the new XFL, and you know what? I thought it was pretty damn great.
Many of the elements that made the original XFL what it was were noticeably absent. There were no nicknames on the backs of jerseys so, unfortunately, there will not be a new “HE HATE ME”-level superstar this time around.
The attitude factor was toned down as well. The original XFL debuted toward the tail-end of the WWE’s Attitude Era and when shock jocks ruled the radio airwaves (the notorious duo of Opie And Anthony even hosted the league’s pre-game show). Back then, edge was in (for better or worse) but it just isn’t in 2020 and the new league seems to have understood that.
But one thing that does remain in the current XFL is a spirit of innovation.
Despite the laundry list of shortcomings the XFL had, it helped introduce some of the technological and broadcasting advancements that we now take for granted. Things like the skycam and in-game sideline interviews were hallmarks of the original XFL and are still around today.
That spirit of innovation also made its way into the rule book and onto the field and it continues to make its presence felt.
The current iteration of the league has a number of rule changes—including a new kickoff—that have been met with mostly rave reviews.
If you skimmed through social media over the weekend, you no doubt saw a lot of XFL engagement, (and most of it seemed to be pretty positive). The majority of the games were pretty exciting, the new rules provided an interesting wrinkle, and people seemed to really dig the overall product.
The rebooted XFL even garnered solid viewership, with nearly four million people tuning in for Saturday afternoon’s tilt between the Houston Roughnecks and Los Angeles Wildcats. Attendance wasn’t bad either, with all four games on the slate drawing in more than 17,000 fans apiece.
So, this means smooth sailing from here on out, right? If history is any indicator: not at all.
The original XFL put up monstrous numbers for its first game in 2001, a 9.2 share that was an 86% improvement on what NBC typically did on a Saturday night. This was due in part to an aggressive marketing campaign that piqued the interest of fans to check out a league and teams they had never seen before.
From there, however, things took a turn for the worse.
Viewership would decline over the course of the season and the league’s championship finale, “The Million Dollar Game,” could only scrounge together a modest audience.
One of the biggest factors that played into the failure of the original XFL was its inherent identity crisis. It was marketed as a cross between professional wrestling and pro football. While the on-field product succeeded in that endeavor, it created a problem when it came to finding an audience.
Who was this league for? Wrestling fans or football fans?
The answer was neither. There wasn’t enough pro-wrestling-style excitement for the WWE fans, while football fans yawned at the subpar level of play as the season went on.
A lot of these shortcomings appear to have been rectified for the 2020 edition of the XFL but the fate of last year’s Alliance of American Football could be another reason for concern.
The AAF kicked off in 2019 with a one-year head start on the XFL, which was supposed to be its direct competitor.
Like the current version of the XFL, the AAF started off well. In fact, it started so well that I still remember this hit that happened in the first five minutes of the very first game courtesy of San Antonio’s Shaan Washington.
It was jaw-dropping. The only person whose jaw moved more than those watching the game was the recipient of that hit, San Diego quarterback Mike Bercovici.
Yet that’s the end of the on-field memories. What most of us remember is that the league ran out of money midseason and couldn’t afford to pay its players, which led to an abbreviated year and a claimed championship for the Steve Spurrier coached Orlando Apollos.
If you’ll allow me to share an ironic side note, I’d like to point out that the Apollos played their games at Spectrum Stadium on the campus of my alma mater, the University of Central Florida, who famously claimed a national championship after their 2017 season, where they secured an undefeated record with a Peach Bowl victory over Auburn.
At least one team that played there can say they won an actual title.
The AAF drew similar praise after its first weekend of play with decent TV ratings (albeit with less than desirable stadium attendance).
So, while the new XFL is off to a strong start, one weekend does not make a season. It’s happened too many times in the past for me to believe that it’s smooth sailing from here on out.
While I’m cautiously optimistic, you never know what can happen in the coming weeks.
However, this is a league whose brand is based around unpredictability and excitement so I have a feeling it’ll fare a bit better this time around.