The XFL rebirth: Can Vince McMahon’s former failure flourish in the Trump era?

SportsPro Americas editor Michael Long ruminates on whether Vince McMahon's decision to bring back the XFL in a different climate will offer the alternative football league redemption.

The XFL rebirth: Can Vince McMahon’s former failure flourish in the Trump era?

Vince McMahon has made a fortune dealing in make-believe. As the founder and face of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), he has spent years openly lying on live TV, duping viewers into believing the staged encounters they are watching are somehow real, even if they know, deep down, that they’re not.

McMahon is, in fact, so adept at the art of deception that he once fell victim to his own duplicity. Back in 2000, he convinced himself – and network bosses at NBC – that his Xtreme Football League (XFL) could be a success, before swiftly plunging millions into an ill-fated venture he would later describe as a “colossal failure”.

To those old enough to remember it, the XFL was a one-season wonder whose eight US-based teams carried macho monikers like Maniax, Rage, Hitmen and Xtreme. A tacky hodgepodge of dubious rules, trash talk and even trashier cheerleader outfits, it existed just long enough for people to realise it did not bear repeating, like a bad joke. Indeed, since its rapid demise in 2001 the league has been reduced to a punchline, a laughing stock struck off as another gimmicky misadventure in a long line of ill-conceived attempts at fashioning sport, or at least something akin to sport, from nothing.

Still, McMahon is not one to let the truth or history stand in his way. In January, this wily old peddler of myth announced he would revive his colossal failure in 2020, deciding the XFL could be a hit after all.

The crowd in the Citrus Bowl Stadium watch the XFL season opener as the Orlando Rage take on the Chicago Enforcers, 3rd February, 2001

The question one must ask, then, is why? Or, perhaps more to the point, why now?

On the face of it, it is no coincidence that the XFL’s rebirth is happening today, in the age of Donald Trump and amid deep societal divisions in the United States. To call the league ‘basically an NFL for Trump supporters’, as The Independent sports editor Ed Malyon put it in his recent op-ed, may be a tad reductive, but there is a sense that its revival is, as Malyon argues, ‘a naked attempt at monetising a divided America’.

There are, for a start, obvious parallels between the league’s reprisal and Trump’s rise to the Oval Office. As has been noted elsewhere, McMahon maintains close personal ties to Trump, another prominent National Football League (NFL) critic who once body-slammed him at Wrestlemania XXIII, back when the clownish president’s airtime was thankfully restricted to the realms of reality TV, fast food commercials, Miss Universe beauty pageants, and shiny men in spandex. McMahon and his wife, Linda, donated millions to groups supporting Trump’s election campaign, and Linda has since been rewarded with a position in the Trump administration. Like Trump, McMahon has his own history when it comes to accusations of sexual assault.

But the connections run deeper; McMahon’s XFL can also be seen as a populist reaction to an establishment that continues to bear the brunt of widespread public discontent. Even if the social and political forces that are fuelling national anti-NFL sentiment may subside by 2020, the new league is clearly pandering to the right-leaning worldview of a disgruntled subsection of Americans for whom the NFL has grown too soft, too political, and too big for its own cleats.

Inspired by Trump’s own playbook, McMahon’s plan is to shamelessly stoke that fire, to deregulate and simplify football and return it to the masses, complete “with all of the things you like to see, and less of the things you don’t”. Put another way, he wants to take back control and make gridiron great again, not just by stripping back rules but also exploiting the rabid appetites of those who dislike the black athletes they deem to be disrespecting their country’s flag and military by exercising their constitutional right to take a knee against racial injustice.

Vince McMahon with Jerry Jones (right), the owner of NFL franchise, the Dallas Cowboys (Picture: Vince McMahon/Twitter)

Just as troublingly, the new XFL is an indictment of the very notion of sport as an entertainment product. Never mind that over-saturation of football in the media is deemed to have contributed to the NFL’s recent dip in TV ratings, or that studies into repeated hits to the head and their long-term impact on the human brain have forced parents to rethink football as a pastime for their children. Never mind that scarcity breeds desire. McMahon has stumbled upon an idea and now he’s running with it, armed with US$100 million of his own fortune but not much else: no investors, no teams, no venues, no players, no broadcast partner, just a failed brand and a half-baked vision for a “fan-centric” league that will have fewer commercial breaks and will have “nothing to do with social issues” whatsoever – although it will, naturally, require its players to stand for the American national anthem.

Politics aside, there are those who argue that competition is a good thing purely from a business standpoint, that there will always be a place for upstart properties in the Land of Opportunity and that talented football players deserve the ability to pursue their professional dreams outside of the NFL. But can the XFL justifiably be seen as a credible challenger to the NFL juggernaut, which generates more than US$15 billion in annual revenues and continues to dominate American sports viewership?

Some might argue that, in time, it can be, not least since the world and the media landscape have changed dramatically in the 17 years since the XFL flopped. And it is true that McMahon has many more options at his disposal this time round. Unlike at the turn of the century, when social media was non-existent and delivering content direct to the consumer was in its infancy, there is now a burgeoning market of new media players looking to acquire live sports content, no matter how polarising it might be.

Whatever comes to pass, the new XFL is undoubtedly a product of the times, not just a figment of the fanciful imagination of a flashy, egotistical entertainment billionaire. By the same token, the unnerving reality is that its success is entirely plausible. Just as millions of Americans continue to buy into the cringeworthy theatrics of McMahon’s brand of wrestling, so millions voted to make Trump their president.

If recent history teaches us anything, it is that only a fool would write McMahon off just yet.