When Vince McMahon announced that the XFL will be returning in 2020, he promised that the league (unlike XFL’s first run, which featured amped-up violence and scantily clad cheerleaders) will follow a more traditional model. Because of this, there is a huge chance that the XFL will be a massive success this time around, depending on how things will run from the get-go.
Based on the NFL and other professional football leagues, there are four extremely important components for a new football league to be successful. These are:
– Suitable initial financing
– Markets and cities looking for a franchise
– A substantial television contract
– An available pool of potential players
The American Football League had all these components and the staying power to force a merger of its franchises with the NFL. In 1973, a World Football League was able to sign several talented stars. It had a unique compensation package, which involved paying the players a percentage of the gate. It did not though have a substantial television contract and failed after a few years.
The USFL launch in the spring of 1983 did have the requisite elements to force a merger similar to the AFL’s. The franchises were in football-crazy markets, they had wealthy owners and a promising ABC television contract, and they picked the 1983-84 drafts clean. They signed quarterbacks Jim Kelley and Steve Young, defensive end Reggie White, running back Herschel Walker and other marketable superstars. But a certain prominent figure pushed the owners into moving into the fall in 1986 to compete against the NFL, and the league never opened that season.
McMahon is committing $100 million into the relaunching of the league, which will give the league some breathing room. He is using a model in which the league owns every team, meaning no individual ownership. That means he can omit the process of finding eight owners and worrying about their liquidity. And he can maintain and ensure quality control. There are certainly substantial cities and markets beyond the NFL’s 32. Columbus, for instance, is Ohio’s largest city yet does not have an NFL franchise. Because the XFL would start its 10-game season after the NFL’s Super Bowl, McMahon could also decide to locate in NFL cities.
The NFL experienced a second straight year in dropping ratings, which has led many to conclude that the airwaves are over-saturated. But these ratings still eclipse those of other sports. Football has emerged as America’s favorite sport and highest-rated television entertainment. There is little doubt that the XFL could secure a network television contract as it is not directly competing with the NFL. McMahon has always been a visionary in understanding how to promote sports and find his audience, as he has with WWE. He will almost certainly use every form of content supply in addition to traditional television. Live streaming and other internet presentations are likely. And his flair for promotion will certainly attract attention.
There is an ample supply of talented football players still available to fill an eight-team league. The NFL scouting system has never been perfect and misses many potentially outstanding players. With teams limited to an 80-man training camp roster, many of the non-starters see marginal playing time during the preseason and are then waived. An NFL team can sign 10 of them to a practice squad; those players receive around $7,000 a week. For the players who were never signed at all or were stuck on a practice squad, the Arena League and the CFL are options. But Arena Football, while entertaining, is a very different form of football, featuring indoor offensive displays, and the CFL has a modest payroll structure and a three-down version of the game. So for players with ultimate NFL aspirations, the XFL could be tempting.
It is a mistake for a new football league to try to compete with the NFL. The revenue streams from television, the gate, merchandising and sponsorships will be much less than the NFL’s. This requires keeping costs down. And keep in mind that McMahon has some PT Barnum in him and knows how to attract attention. One key will be finding credibility with fans. The press plays a major role in this. If reporters and commentators ridicule and mock a new league, it may spread to the potential fan base. Attaching some prominent former NFL names to the project could help.
What has destroyed multiple attempts at new leagues is an inability to survive financially through the first years of growing pains. The launch date of 2020 allows valuable time for pre-promotion and sound business practices to develop. McMahon’s $100 million ought to be enough to sustain the new league until revenue streams grow. America is in a full-blown love affair with the game of football. The XFL can make it if it asks to be judged on its own merits and establishes credibility from the start.
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