There is a perfect storm brewing for the return of the XFL, but can it really survive this time?
Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Since its one-and-only season—defined mainly by sloppy play, abysmal ratings, and the words “He Hate Me”—ended in 2001, Vince McMahon’s XFL experiment has gone down in the annals of sports history as a cautionary tale; an Icarus-like fable of a man who had it all, wanted more, and nearly lost everything. Up until about a week ago, everyone was in seeming agreement that the entire venture was a bad idea that probably should never be tried again. Everyone, apparently, except for Vince McMahon.
All of a sudden, it’s looking likely that McMahon is getting ready to announce a new football venture, and while it most likely won’t be the XFL exactly, it’s safe to assume it’s going to try and capture a market that the NFL hasn’t. (Credit especially to David Bixenspan of Deadspin for his reporting over the last week.) Have the times finally caught up to McMahon’s thinking about a new football league? Probably not. But that’s never stopped him before.
And this time he might have a tag team partner in the President of the United States—a fellow sociopathic rich man on a lifelong quest to both gain posthumous approval of his father while simultaneously tearing down his legacy to build something even more extravagant in its place.
Perhaps McMahon has grown inspired by his new partner who, after repeatedly failing at everything in his life except being a rich guy, is now the President of the United States. Much like pre-presidential Trump, one of the funniest and also most tragic recurring themes of McMahon’s life are his repeated, failed attempts to expand beyond his specific business, in this case wrestling. In a personal hell situation straight out of gothic fiction, he’s obsessed with finding success beyond the one industry that he has come to dominate so utterly, and he’s been consistently stymied each time. There’s been competitive bodybuilding. Movies, music. Restaurants. And notoriously, the two failed Senate campaigns of Linda McMahon. The image of Vince’s face during her concession speech following her 2012 run is the stuff of legend—staring at it for too long will ensure you suffer economic misfortune for the remainder of the calendar year.
Oddly enough, after the McMahons failed to secure a Senate seat through democratic means, they simply bought a place in the Trump cabinet overseeing America’s small businesses and maintaining the now-familiar Trump practice of putting people who are actively terrible at something in charge of that very same thing.
In reward for their fealty, Trump can use his carnival barking to assist Alpha Entertainment. As we know, in addition to being President, Donald Trump is also an ardent NFL and media critic (it is the gig economy, after all). He latched onto Colin Kaepernick’s silent protest against police violence early in his campaign and has gone back to it on a regular basis since being elected. He’s kept up the criticism throughout the year, constantly noting the falling TV ratings which are, to Trump, the ultimate arbiter of a person or organization’s worth.
He’s actually right that NFL ratings have been declining. According to The Hill, TV ratings across all networks are down 9 percent this year. While Trump has happily taken credit for it (or at least, blamed any decline in viewership on patriotic outrage stirred up by anthem protests) there’s less in the way of hard evidence that the ratings slippage has anything to do with him or any kind of conservative backlash or boycott. It could be that priced-out, cord-cutting millenials are turning to streaming services to get their dose of gridiron action. It could be that the growing awareness of CTE and its debilitating effect on former players is turning people away—this is also the likely explanation for the sharp drop in youth football participation that we’ve seen over the last decade or so. It could be that the games just aren’t that great.
Whatever reasoning explains the decline of the National Football League—only very recently considered an unshakeable cornerstone of American sports and culture—it seems clear that McMahon is going to go ahead with his second foray into a pro football alternative. The latest news has McMahon selling off some of his WWE stock in order to fund his mysterious Alpha Entertainment project, which will ostensibly be the vehicle that funds this new venture. But whatever that ultimately ends up looking like, will it be able to find a foothold in an increasingly-crowded media landscape? Since consumerism has become more and more intertwined with our political identities, it’s not entirely unthinkable. Would the same people that tossed their Keurig machines out a window when the company had the temerity to disassociate itself from Sean Hannity after he defended a child molester on air, also volunteer to watch second tier football players sloppily try to kill each other to, just, as they say, own the libs? Some in the conservative media sphere seem to think so. Breitbart writer Dylan Gwinn suggested that a potential Trump endorsement and a willingness to crack down on anthem protests could be enough to get the job done (potentially with an assist from sleeper-agent NFL owner Jerry Jones, though it’s not at all clear how that would work).
So while the Breitbart universe might see some hope in the idea of a McMahon-led, conservative-leaning NFL alternative, reality tells a different story. Namely that though you might be attracted to this hypothetical MAGA football experiment due to your stance on national anthem kneeling, your belief that players are not sufficiently grateful enough for being allowed to earn a living as football stars, or your disagreement with the meager steps the NFL has taken to address the head injuries that are destroying the lives of its players, you’re still tuning in, ostensibly, to watch some competently-played football. And there’s just no way to see how this alternative league delivers that.
In any case, if McMahon believes an endorsement from Trump (implicit, or even tweeted) is enough to finally allow him to achieve the success he so desperately craves; if he thinks he can successfully ride the wave of resentment to what some fans inexplicably see as an increasingly liberal National Football League, then history tells us he’ll go for it. It also says it will end badly.