Will it work? CFL keeping an eye on the new XFL

The “X” in XFL stands for “Xtreme,” but pro wrestling mogul Vince McMahon took a mainstream approach to announcing a reboot of his short-lived football league.

No glitzy press event featuring female cheerleaders in tiny outfits, and no hypemen borrowed from WWE broadcasts to generate buzz about McMahon’s latest venture into non-scripted sports.

Instead, McMahon sat for interviews with a pair of traditional print media outlets — Sports Business Daily and the New York Times. Both were published online at the same time the 72-year-old McMahon conducted a media conference call to lay out of his vision of how he’ll resuscitate an upstart football league that lasted just one season.

He promised fast-paced, family-friendly football that would entertain viewers and safeguard player health when it kicks off in the winter of 2020. But he couldn’t specify how the new XFL would achieve those goals, and revealed he’s still crowdsourcing solutions.

“What would you do if you could reimagine the game of football,” McMahon asked during the conference call. “(The league will feature) all the things you like to see, and less of the things you don’t.”

McMahon’s half-hour briefing, live streamed on YouTube and social media, answered a few fundamental queries about the league: eight teams, 40-player rosters and a 10-game regular season running mid-winter through early spring.

But it ignored the question that has circulated since rumours first surfaced that McMahon hoped to revive his renegade football league, and were asked again on Twitter by Detroit-based musician Lorenzo (Zo!) Ferguson during the news conference.

“Who asked for the XFL?”

Besides McMahon? It’s difficult to tell.

Not the CFL, which would likely see a reconstituted XFL as a competitor for talent. In 2001, the original XFL’s lone season, roughly 20 former and future CFL players suited up.

“We are aware of today’s event and we’ll keep an eye on future developments,” a league spokesperson said via email.

The NFL battled declining regular-season TV ratings in 2017, but still owns 19 of the 20 highest-rated broadcasts in U.S. history.

The inaugural XFL broadcast in February 2001 enjoyed similarly high viewership, capitalizing on the WWE’s marketing muscle and drawing 54 million viewers. But ratings dropped by 60 per cent the following week, and the league’s title game was the least-viewed program on a major network the day it aired. Both the WWE and main broadcaster NBC lost a reported $35 million on the XFL’s lone season.

Late last year, McMahon committed another $100 million to the new XFL, selling 3.34 million shares of WWE stock to raise the cash. But even a nine-figure initial investment highlights the financial disparity between the two football leagues.

According to Forbes, an average NFL franchise is worth $2.5 billion, while McMahon’s $100 million gives him ownership over every proposed new XFL team.

Where the XFL once branded itself as a renegade league, single-entity ownership is a safe approach for a new entrant to a competitive pro football market.

“It’s the best way to get a league going quickly,” said Norm O’Reilly, chair of Ohio University’s sports administration department. He points out that MLS and the WNBA used the same approach. “Instead of trying to recruit a collection of owners, you just run the league yourself.”

But the proposed league’s position in the consumer marketplace remains unclear. The original XFL was a line extension of the WWE’s brand, selling itself as a sexier and tougher version of a sport already rife with violence and sex-as-marketing. But without top-tier talent on the field, the league’s TV ratings tanked quickly.

McMahon stresses that the new XFL will operate independently of his pro wrestling empire. In outlining his vision for the league, he seemed to have taken inventory of NFL criticisms and promised the opposite on every front.

Concerned about long broadcasts?

The XFL is aiming at two-hour games.

Worried about NFL players with criminal backgrounds?

Nobody with an arrest record — not even for a DUI — will play in the XFL.

And if African-American XFL players think they’ll protest racism during the pre-game anthem, McMahon says they should think again.

“(The league) will have nothing to do with politics,” McMahon said. “It will have nothing to do with social issues, either.”

Under those rules, a solid citizen such as free-agent quarterback Colin Kaepernick should have a place in the XFL. But those same guidelines would likely keep an outspoken critic of racism like Kaepernick out of the league.

Those rules also underscore a branding problem the XFL will face in its second attempt at relevance. While the league calls itself “Xtreme,” the details revealed about the relaunch tilt conservative. And while McMahon might court conservative white viewers by cracking down on African-American players’ speech, Thursday’s conference call opened with a hip-hop song celebrating the new XFL.

Marketing experts say it adds up to a muddled message.

“What’s extreme about it,” says Peter Widdis, professor of marketing and innovation at George Brown College. “They don’t have their brand figured out yet. I don’t know who they’re selling to.”

Still, O’Reilly won’t entirely dismiss the new XFL. He says the original league’s failure gives McMahon a blueprint of what to avoid this time, while the WWE’s marketing acumen remains at the league’s disposal.

“(The original XFL) was a brilliantly successful launch for half a game. Then they lost everyone,” he said. “They did a great job at marketing. It’s the product that didn’t deliver.”