By Mike Mitchell
The Lost League
Sunday, April 26th, was supposed to be the high-point of the XFL Season. The league’s championship game would have aired on ESPN, just one day after the conclusion of the NFL Draft. Recently drafted Carolina Panthers safety Kenny Robinson Jr. may have played in that very game in Houston as a member of the St. Louis BattleHawks.
Leagues like the XFL have all ended poorly. The XFL may have eventually met its end one day, but it wasn’t supposed to dissolve this way.
With each day that has passed since March, the news surrounding the XFL has gotten worse and worse. From the cancellation of the season due to the COVID-19 crisis to the league’s abrupt folding and bankruptcy to CEO/Commissioner Oliver Luck suing the owner Vince McMahon, on the grounds of wrongful termination. A beautifully orchestrated and run pro sports league is ending on an ugly note.
Most XFL fans and supporters are stuck in limbo and a state of denial. Questions abound. What’s next for the XFL? Is there a “Next” for the XFL at all?
The one last shred of hope for XFL supporters is the fact that the league is up for sale. The shuttered XFL aims to sell its name, trademarks, and other intellectual property in a potential deal that would require a judge’s approval by July 15, At a hearing in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Delaware. XFL attorneys also outlined plans to sell merchandise, equipment, and other gear from its eight teams.
Heading up the potential sale of the league is Investment Banker Andrew Kline. He was quoted in Forbes as saying;
“There are many folks interested and calling us, but we are not working on anything, and without a billionaire stepping in for Vince, we are not interested,” Kline, a former NFL player who is now a partner at Park Lane, wrote in an email. “If Vince McMahon was 100% committed to the XFL, I think it could have survived COVID-19 and much worse.”
The outline in the quote suggests that Vince McMahon still wants to see the league succeed and is not just selling to any random bidder.
The best-case scenario of a sale would be if the NFL bought The XFL. It’s probably the only sports entity that could legitimately make it work. The time has long come for a second pro football league in the United States.
The NFL took a swing at it decades ago with The World League of American Football and NFL Europe. The environment wasn’t right at the time for long-term success. However, those leagues were significant for the sport and produced Hall of Fame players.
The entire sports viewing landscape was much smaller two decades ago. Football has also evolved significantly in the last twenty years. College football is so much more advanced and better than it was decades ago. The college game mirrors the NFL so much more closely than it did back then.
The XFL was working. The ratings and attendance were respectable. The league was innovative and fun. The most important aspect was the avenue that it created for players, coaches, team personnel, and fans.
Another random billionaire may come along and try to make the XFL work, but how long before the financial losses cripple the next attempt. The XFL was 44 million dollars in the red when the league filed for bankruptcy. The league lost 27 million dollars in-game revenue when it closed up shop. The public may not trust another independent billionaire to make it work to stick it out.
Starting up or restarting a league in the current state of the world will be difficult enough as it is. The NFL is the best option. They should do it themselves. Everyone in the NFL loved the XFL.
The only question is……. Does the NFL want to try and recapture what the XFL built, or would they look to rebrand or start their league model? Whoever takes on ownership of the XFL, will want to make it in their image. A purchased XFL may not be the same league we got.
What made many of the best aspects of the XFL work is the people behind it. People like DFO Sam Schwartzstein, Social Media Editor Bailey Carlin, Senior VP of Communications Stephanie Rudnick, and so many more who helped shape the XFL and its spirit. An XFL without them on board wouldn’t be the same.
Oliver Luck’s firing & lawsuit
The day before, the XFL filed for bankruptcy and laid off all of its employees earlier this month. XFL CEO/Commissioner Oliver Luck was fired. The backstory to the lead-up is an interesting one.
Before, the XFL did the inevitable and suspended their season on March 12th. There was a delay in the league making the announcement official. By late afternoon, Oliver Luck had reached out to media figures like NFL Network insiders Ian Rapoport and Tom Pelissero, to let them know about the league’s suspension.
According to sources close to the situation, Vince McMahon did not want to suspend play at that point. McMahon and Luck were at odds over the issue. The delay in making the suspension announcement was Oliver Luck trying to convince McMahon that it was the league’s only recourse.
The XFL had already announced that the week six game between Seattle and LA would be played as scheduled at Century Link Field without fans in attendance. (State orders)
The New York Guardians and Houston Roughnecks were all set to play at Metlife Stadium that weekend despite New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy making a last-second recommendation to limit crowd gatherings.
In an interview with Kevin Gilbride done by Jeff Jacobs from The Middletown Press. Guardians Head Coach Kevin Gilbride broke down his conversation with Vince McMahon; the day league play was suspended.
Kevin Gilbride got a call at 4 p.m. on Thursday. The players were finishing their after-practice meetings. Gilbride was told, because of COVID-19, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy had issued a statement recommending no crowds of more than 250 should gather.
“The XFL was considering whether we were going to honor it or not,” Gilbride said. “The next thing you know, I got a call at 5 o’clock that Vince McMahon said the hell with it, it was a recommendation. It wasn’t mandatory. We knew we were going to have the biggest crowd of the year. Houston was the top team in the league. He said the hell with it. We’re letting the crowds come.”
At 6 pm., Gilbride got the third call. The XFL had canceled the remainder of their season.
“So in two hours we went from discussing no fans to we’re all done,” Gilbride said.
Vince McMahon has always had a reputation as being a volatile boss. Someone who can lose faith in someone very quickly and move on. Usually, there’s a method and some merit to his madness.
In the case of Oliver Luck. The move-in terminating Oliver Luck’s contract is a business decision and not on the grounds of his performance as the league’s CEO. However, the friction created during the league’s initial suspension did not help matters.
You could argue that Oliver Luck was the XFL’s best asset. His initial hiring back in the summer of 2018, is what set the league on the right course. It was one of Vince McMahon’s best hires ever. Luck not only brought experience as a league president but credibility and respect to the entire operation.
In sports circles, The XFL went from ‘the wrestling guy is doing that crazy league again’ into a respectable pro sports start-up. All because of Oliver Luck’s involvement.
If COVID-19 did not happen, Oliver Luck would still be running the XFL. His termination was a business move to get out from under his contract.
Vince McMahon’s legal team will argue that Luck’s termination was for cause. It may not be mentioned in the courts, but the way Oliver Luck suspended play may have set the wheels in motion in Vince’s mind to fire him. An ugly end to what was a beautiful partnership.
The XFL Legacy
If the XFL is no more. What will the league’s legacy end up being?
I’ve followed and covered the XFL, very closely since 2018. It’s become increasingly difficult for me just to break free of it. The league is still on my mind and in my heart. Like a jilted lover, I am having a hard time quitting the XFL. It’s in everything I see.
I see NFL social media teams using memes, and I see franchises like the Panthers trolling their division rivals, and all I can think about is the influence that the XFL’s social media team had in such a short period.
I see NFL team uniform reveals like the New England Patriots, and all I can think about is how much the presentations mirror the XFL’s uniform rollouts.
I see Roger Goodell trying to joke around about eating a jar of M & M’s during the draft. All I can think of is Oliver Luck contributing to a giant beer snake at Audi Field.
The XFL influence will be more evident in the future. From the way, the league used analytics and technology. To how the XFL presented the game of football on television in an entirely new way. Through all of its rules and innovations. To how the league treated its fans with respect and love. Hopefully, sports leagues in the future can emulate what the XFL did.
The league’s legacy will also live on through its players that are now in the NFL. None more significant than that of Kenny Robinson. The newly drafted Carolina Panther was always going to be an essential figure in the league’s legacy. Robinson was going to be a trailblazer and set the path for future college players, stuck in limbo, or the portal. Robinson might be an NFL player now, and hopefully, he has a long and fruitful career, but he’s always going to be an XFL player first and a BattleHawk forever.
What will the XFL’s legacy end up being? Time will determine that. The innovations, concepts, and the players will be able to keep it alive in spirit.
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