He’s starred in updates of Baywatch and Get Smart, so the Rock has some experience of questionable reboots. Now we’re about to discover whether he can score a box-office hit with the third version of the XFL.
The actor, aka Dwayne Johnson, is a co-owner of the spring American football league, which kicks off on Saturday when the Dallas-area Arlington Renegades host the Vegas Vipers in Choctaw Stadium, the former home of the Texas Rangers baseball team.
The original XFL, a partnership between NBC and what is now World Wrestling Entertainment, imploded after a single season in 2001 as headlines pilloried “sex, booze and sleaze” and television viewers decided that a league promising cameras in cheerleaders’ locker-rooms and Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura as a pundit was not a serious proposition.
Another spring start-up aiming to capitalize on the growing market for live betting – the Alliance of American Football, backed by a Texas-based pickleball mogul – crumbled after only eight weeks in 2019 and filed for bankruptcy.
Still, the wrestling tycoon Vince McMahon tried again in 2020: resurrecting the XFL, dropping the gimmicks, pledging a competition free from anthem kneelers and criminals and reportedly spending $200m, only for the reborn league to shut after five weeks because of the coronavirus pandemic. It promptly filed for bankruptcy.
Enter Johnson, the former pro wrestler, who as a student hoped in vain to be drafted into the NFL then had a brief stint with the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League. He bought the XFL rights for $15m, partnering with his ex-wife, Dany Garcia, and RedBird Capital, a New York-based investment firm that owns AC Milan and Toulouse FC and has partnerships with the New York Yankees and Fenway Sports Group, the owner of Liverpool and the Boston Red Sox.
An XFL representative was unavailable for comment, but the investors clearly believe the 2020 edition was doomed by unfortunate timing, not a lack of potential. Johnson vows a “league of grit and hunger”, since many players nurture ambitions of reaching – or returning to – the NFL.
As in 2020, this year’s iteration features eight teams. Washington, St Louis, Houston, the Dallas area and Seattle return, while Los Angeles, New York and Tampa Bay are out – replaced by Las Vegas, Orlando and San Antonio. The St Louis Battlehawks were arguably the league’s biggest success three years ago as fans embraced the return of professional football after the NFL’s Rams deserted the city for Los Angeles.
To limit costs – which are considerable, given the large rosters, travel, venue hire and health insurance – each team will be based at a hub in Arlington, with players living in hotels and practicing in the area during the week before travelling to games. There is another important difference from 2020: this time, the XFL has company.
The United States Football League (USFL) aimed to rival the NFL in the mid-1980s but collapsed, in no small part thanks to the hubris of the owner of one of its teams, the New Jersey Generals: a certain Donald Trump. Those days are long gone; the NFL is indomitable. Salaries are far below NFL levels and the XFL even has an agreement with the NFL to share “insights and practices”.
A new USFL with some of the old team names began play in 2022. The sides were named for cities in the eastern half of the country: Houston, New Orleans, Michigan (Detroit), Pittsburgh, Birmingham, Tampa Bay, New Jersey and Philadelphia. Oddly (but economically), all the regular-season games took place in Birmingham, leading to sparse crowds. This year the Memphis Showboats replace the Tampa Bay Bandits and the USFL will kick off on 15 April, its start overlapping with the XFL’s climactic weeks. Fixtures will be held in Birmingham, Memphis, Detroit and Canton, Ohio.
Meanwhile, the indoor Arena Football League, which went out of fashion at roughly the same time as center partings and Britpop and was last glimpsed in 2019 – plans to relaunch with 16 teams in 2024. Not to mention assorted other ventures, such as the interactive Fan Controlled Football, due to open its third season in May this year after deploying the former Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel and the 49-year-old former NFL great Terrell Owens in 2022. Preseason in the Canadian Football League begins in May.
Clearly, this is a lot, especially since the litany of past failures suggests that Americans have limited appetite for spring leagues. And there is only so much playing talent to go around, risking a dilution of the on-field product that turns off potential fans who have grown accustomed to the slick fare, packed stadiums and sense of occasion on offer in the NFL and at the top college level.
And yet… 113m Americans – a third of the country’s population – watched the Super Bowl last Sunday on Fox while regular-season NFL games averaged 16.7 million viewers. The NFL accounted for 82 of the hundred most-watched US television programmes in 2022, according to Sportico, with college football appearing five times in the chart. Surely some of these viewers want more?
“These [new] leagues are going to live and die on how they are consumed and watched and accepted on television,” says Patrick Crakes, a media consultant and former Fox Sports executive. “If you base it on how much football Americans watch in the fourth quarter of every year, my God, you’d think there’d be room for 12 of these.”
Network executives are keenly aware of the value of live sport in a fractured media landscape. Viewing figures-wise, Crakes says, “Football has stayed kind of flat. So if you stay flat while everything else goes down because the attention’s lower, you gain value.”
Since the XFL has teams that actually set foot in the cities that bear their names, even if merely on weekends, it is likely to feel more authentic and generate more fan engagement than the USFL. The XFL, which has a television deal with ESPN, averaged 1.9 million viewers in 2020, according to Sports Business Journal – higher than Formula 1 and comparable with the highest-profile English Premier League matches.
The USFL averaged 715,000 last year. That may not look like much, but it’s twice as high as MLS, which had an average audience of only 343,000 on ESPN and ABC in 2022 – yet sealed a new $2.5 billion, 10-year deal with Apple TV. Forbes reports that the average MLS franchise is worth $579m.
And as Crakes points out: “Fox basically owns the USFL”. While the XFL is beholden to investors who presumably want to turn a profit, the metrics for success probably look different to a broadcaster that runs its own league and so can exert tight control over costs and strategy while having deep enough pockets to fund the competition for several seasons even if it’s initially struggling to make money.
Fox Sports is said to have committed $150m to the USFL over three years. While still profit-driven, it can use the USFL as a proving ground for on-air talent, experiment with broadcast innovations that might graduate to its NFL coverage and refine the business model for possible use in other ventures. For Fox, Crakes says, “this is a low-risk shot to build a cost-efficient program with some value in a time period when they don’t have a lot going on.”
It’s a modest ambition and a far cry from the cultural and commercial phenomenon that is the NFL. But if history is any guide, merely surviving for more than a season or two would be no small achievement for one of these start-ups, let alone both.