NFL

The XFL Was a Flop, But It Made the NFL Better

Failures can be fodder for improving other products. Creative destruction needs bad ideas as much as good ones.

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EZIO PETERSEN UPI Photo Service/Newscom

The "X" in XFL never stood for anything. It was there literally only because it looked cool.

That's the story in a nutsehll of the XFL, the professional football league dreamed up by professional wrestling mogul Vince McMahon that lasted for all of one season in the early aughts. It was style over substance, flair over football. And now, nearly two decades after it flopped, McMahon has announced the league's resurrection, promising a "family-friendly" version of football where players will stand for the national anthem.

Play is supposed to begin in 2020. For now, there are no concrete plans regarding teams, stadiums, or a television deal. Which means that—like the "X" in the name—the league doesn't really exist at the moment as anything more than an idea, a placeholder.

Even if the new XFL does manage to make it to the field, it's difficult to see this announcement as much more than very expensive publicity stunt by one of the greatest showmen of recent American history. McMahon is testing the thesis that fans have stayed away from NFL games this past year because of a handful of players' political statements, and he's promising to create a league that appeals to your relatives who write angry Facebook posts about Colin Kaepernick.

His league is hardly going to challenge the NFL for American football supremacy, but it might help the NFL get better. After all, that's what the first iteration of the XFL did.

Don't believe it? When you're watching the opening kickoff of next Sunday's Super Bowl, take a moment to appreciate the camera angle being used. Nearly every kickoff, field goal, and punt (along with many replays) in every NFL game is shown via the so-called SkyCam, a camera suspended over the field on a set of wires, giving the audience a low-flying bird's eye view. In many ways it's a better perspective on the game than you get from the traditional sideline camera, and it gives the TV audience a better view of the players than what the fans sitting in the front row get.

And for that, you can thank McMahon. The SkyCam is probably the most longlasting contribution the former XFL made to the game of professional football, or at least to how we watch it. That camera angle is now a staple of NFL broadcasts. The league even used it as the main camera angle for one Thursday night game this season, to mixed reviews.

Even when a single entity dominates a marketplace like the NFL has dominated the market for American professional football for five decades—the NFL, which has a special exemption from federal antitrust laws, has become the epitome of a corporate monopoly—it must continuously evolve to stay on top. Often, those evolutions come from the absorption of ideas pioneered by smaller firms trying to gain a toehold in the market. Even failures, such as the XFL, provide fodder for improvement of other products. Creative destruction needs bad ideas as much as good ones.

The XFL's actual product was bad football. NBC sportscaster Bob Costas called the league a mixture of "mediocre high school football with a tawdry strip joint," and NBC had the contract to broadcast XFL games. Worse, it was forgettable football. Go ahead, name a single team that played in the league's one and only season. You can't. No one remembers the teams, or any of the games, or who won the lone championship (it was, fittingly, the Los Angeles Xtreme).

That first iteration of the XFL, which lasted just a single season in the summer of 2001, was never a serious threat to the hegemony of the NFL. Still, innovation happens on the margins.

Bob Falcetti/Icon SMI 581/Bob Falcetti/Icon SMI/Newscom

Drawing on his background in professional wrestling, McMahon (along with the then-president of NBC Sports, Dick Ebersol, who co-founded the league) devised small but important changes to how games were presented on TV. Besides the SkyCam, the XFL was the first football league to use steadycam-equipped cameramen on the sidelines and near the endzones, and it was the first to have players wear microphones while on the field. Rather than replicating the experience of fans sitting in the stands, as TV broadcasts previously tried to do, McMahon wanted fans to feel like they were on the sidelines or in the huddle with the players, as he explained in ESPN's excellent documentary on the league, This Was The XFL.

Shortly after the XFL's demise, the NFL adopted many of those techniques. They are now standard elements of any game broadcast. Other XFL ideas, like replacing the pre-game coin toss with two players wrestling for a football, were discarded.

The NFL has absorbed innovative ideas from would-be competitors for decades. The fledgling United States Football League, which lasted just three seasons in the 1980s before folding, was the first to allow referees to use instant replay for reviewing calls on the field. The USFL also gave teams the option to try to score two points after a touchdown instead of merely kicking an extra point. (Lower levels of football had previously used the two-point conversion, but the USFL was the first to bring it to the professional game.) Both elements were later adopted by the NFL, and it's hard to imagine a professional football game without them today.

The USFL's most lasting contribution to the NFL, though, might be Donald Trump. The future president was an owner of the USFL's New Jersey Generals franchise, and he encouraged the new league to challenge the NFL's antitrust exemption in court. It did, and it won, but the $1 in damages awarded to the USFL was hardly enough to cover massive court costs that contributed to the league's bankruptcy. Trump later tried to buy the NFL's Buffalo Bills, but was prevented from doing so, possibly because other NFL owners were still upset at Trump's role in the USFL. When the president fires off angry tweets about the NFL, it's not just about politics. There are decades of bad blood.

That mix of politics and sports is also at the heart of McMahon's new XFL, which seems timed to capitalize on NFL fans who have been driven away from the sport by a handful of players' political stances. Whether such an exodus of fans exists is a subject of some debate, but McMahon (like his longtime friend Trump) knows that perception can be as good as reality.

NFL team owners gathered in Minnesota this week for pre–Super Bowl festivities surely are not worried about the second iteration of the XFL threatening their place in American sporting culture. Health issues and the eroding participation in youth football are far larger existential threats.

If they're smart, though, they'll be paying attention to McMahon's latest foray into the sport. In the XFL's second failure, there might be another idea or two worth appropriating.

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37 responses to “The XFL Was a Flop, But It Made the NFL Better

  1. Add in an eSports connection and they may have something….

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      1. All these AI advances, but spam filters still don’t catch this stuff.

    2. I already got my fill with AGDQ, it’ll take me a while to watch all the VODs

  2. Trump later tried to buy the NFL’s Buffalo Bills, but was prevented from doing so,

    The NFL exercises a “morals/character” test which Fat Rush Limbaugh (Praise Be Unto Him) also failed.

    1. Hillary is way fatter than Rush. Plus, she’s far shorter and has cankles.

      How about the Chappaquidick chubster, Teddy K? He was far flabbier.

      How about Oprah? As Chris Rock’s character, Cheap Pete, In Living Color noted, “why should I pay to go to see the fat lady at the circus, when I can see Oprah, for free, on TV?”

      1. When did they try to buy an NFL team?

        1. “Forget it Jake, it’s Whataboutismtown.”

      2. Teddy needed a Bro!

    2. Yeah, it would be a bad look if the league had any more Jerry Jones or Robert Crafts.

    3. It’s a good thing Rush Limbaugh was prevented from buying the team for political reasons. The NFL’s felons, wife beaters, and high speed freeway racers can carry on their tradition of honor and glory undisturbed.

      If Rush bought the team, he might have been all like “The NFL is hiding the concussion crisis or something.” The left was spared a black eye!

  3. Much, much more influential was the USFL. Bring back Bandit Ball!

    1. But the World Football League scared the NFL into adopting a whole slough of rule changes that sports writers had advanced for yrs. previously.

      1. I remember Larry Csonka going to the WFL.

    2. Herschel Walker would already be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame if they counted his pro football stats from the USFL when he worked for Trump.

  4. If you can’t trust an ex-pro-wrestling huckster to launch a cleaner, G-rated version of the NFL, well, who can you trust?

  5. The guys doing drugs IN THE LOCKER ROOM and ON CAMERA was a nice touch. I actually thought the opening ball scramble was an interesting idea, but seeing guys injured before kick-off was dumb.

    Vinnie’s biggest mistake then was trying to create teams and put them on the field in about 2 months. No way that works out well for anybody. So, yes, the football sucked (also not helped that their marquee opening day match-up was awful while the secondary game was much, much better). And Vince has failed in every single non-wrestling thing he’s tried (an Even Knievel jump. the WBF, some boxing PPV) and, honestly, he has squandered his wrestling empire something fierce.

    This is a really, really bad idea…but it is his own money, so more power to him.

  6. I will give him credit though…Vince wants this whole thing to be on him. His own money and he is in charge so, if it fails, as he’s said, it’s his fault.

  7. he’s promising to create a league that appeals to your relatives who write angry Facebook posts about Colin Kaepernick.

    Ironically, Kaepernik could land a starting job in the league.

    1. “Ironically, Kaepernik could land a starting job in the league.”

      You think they’re that desperate for QBs? Pretty sure there’s some high-school kids who’d eat his lunch.

  8. The WFL had more influence on the NFL than the XFL did. The XFL’s influence on the NFL was comparable to the USFL’s.

  9. Lower levels of football had previously used the two-point conversion, but the USFL was the first to bring it to the professional game.

    I think you might’ve forgotten a little thing called the American Football League. Then again, they say if you can remember the 1960s, you didn’t live it.

    & I do remember XFL team names, esp. the Chi. Hitmen. I even remember much of the play & show on TV. The sweetest snap for a quick kick I ever saw stood out; the ball was nearly left on the kicker’s foot by the snap, the kicker barely having to handle it. But I was looking w a future coach’s eye.

    1. I’m trying to remember if the Continental F.L. used the 2-pt. conversion too. The Canadian F.L. had it before the N.F.L. Actually it was the NFL that was unusual among pro leagues by not adopting it for so long.

    2. Oh, and the snap was blind, & the punter used a perfect rocker step. The onside recovery attempt (made possible by the revival by the XFL of a rule that existed in the 1910s & early 1920s), however, failed.

    3. Hard to believe this guy Eric Boehm never mentions maybe the greatest American sports league ever, the AFL which had the 2 pt. conversion….Wide open exciting passing, great athletic talent & superior coaching & marketing that was way ahead of its time!….Heck, by 1965, after only 4 years, its product was significantly better than the NFL’s!….Yes, Green Bay won the first 2 Super Bowls over KC & Oak, but they were an incredible team for the ages…The next 2 years, the Jets & KC wiped the floor with the Colts & Vikings!

      1. Greatest American sports league ever? Don’t you mean the ABA?

  10. I’m not a football or wrestling fan but I wish Mr. McMahon the very best of luck. If he can implement rule changes that lead to games being done in two hours or less, then that alone makes it worthwhile.

    1. From the few games I watch, it seems like the only way that will happen is to show about 2/3 fewer commercials.

  11. “…promising a “family-friendly” version of football where players will stand for the national anthem.”

    How about one where we leave the jingoism at the door?

  12. McMahon looking to place the new XFL in the missing place where a professional minor league would go is interesting because of how it potentially impacts both the NFL and he NCAA if it’s played straight as a league. We could see a number of 18-year olds foregoing college and the tight strictures of college ball to sign with XFL teams as a way to earn money while fulfilling the three-year post-HS requirement the NFL has (similar to how an increasing number of young basketball players are signing with European minor leagues instead of going the usual NCAA grinder after the NBA added a similar requirement post-LeBron). Between the debates over paying college football stars and further debates on how the NCAA does or doesn’t prepare athletes for an NFL career with their divergent systems, an actual professional minor league like we see in baseball and basketball would be a market-based challenge to the system at that end as much as at the top professional end.

  13. The trouble with leftists is they view every action as political. The XFL is not political. He sold his stock to fund this thing a while ago. He might be trying to take advantage of that lost viewership by appealing to them,but it’s pretty clearly silly to say it’s a driving force.

    I think it’s like before. He seems room for a minor or lesser football league and thinks in today’s streaming market, it will pay for itself.

    Will it? Maybe, maybe not. But considering all the bitching Reason does about sports owners wanting sweetheart deals and public money, it’s hilarious that they are now bitching that a private owner is using his own money to start a league just because it might have athletes stand for the national anthem.

    1. …it’s hilarious that they are now bitching that a private owner is using his own money to start a league just because it might have athletes stand for the national anthem.

      I don’t think they were bitching about a privately-operated alternative league; I had the impression they liked the idea if for nothing else than to give the semi-publicly-funded NFL a needed kick in the ass.

      Granted, the “athletes standing for the national anthem” was a bit snarky, but what’s Reason without a good dose of snark?

  14. The XFL Was a Flop, But It Made the NFL Better

    What, chair-shots and cage matches???

    Then again, that just *might* make it better though… Whenever I’d go to a “Superbowl Party” the only part I might watch would be the halftime (if it was a decent band like The Who). Watched all of two college games (Army) because I was in the halftime presentations for both. Beyond that I have no interest in any professional sports.

    1. In their defense, WWE has toned down chair shots massively. Huge issues with concussions changed that.

  15. The XFL has no chance against the Big Baller League.

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