Football in America has been dominated by the NFL for about a century, becoming the most valuable sports franchise in the world, and the most-watched sport in the United States. Despite its dominance, the NFL has faced several challenges from rival leagues throughout its history. Ultimately, though, these challenges never succeed and create major financial and reputational risks for both sides in the battle. This doesn’t stop some from trying, though, and with recent announcements that the XFL will be relaunched in 2020, we look set for another battle.
What is the XFL
The XFL is an American football league that was originally launched in 2001, but played only a single season. There were a number of factors that made the league a promising challenger, but ultimately these were unable to overcome the juggernaut that is the NFL. The original XFL was a joint venture between the WWE (then known was the Word Wrestling Federation) and the US television broadcaster, NBC. The league got record TV viewing figures for the opening game, but these quickly dropped off over the duration of the season.
What’s Different in the XFL?
It was regularly stated that the X in the XFL stood for “Xtreme”, however this was regularly refuted by the league’s owners, who instead insisted that the X didn’t stand for anything. The biggest difference in the XFL is that the games featured more aggressive play, which was coupled with fewer rules to make faster and more entertaining viewing for fans. With the league’s connection to wrestling, many of the showmanship techniques from WWE were used in the XFL, combined with more camera angles and commentary and punditry from some of WWE’s characters.
Wagering & Game Outcomes
Since the XFL had strong connections to the WWE, there was a lot of speculation that the outcomes of the games would be predetermined like they are in wrestling. These concerns were addressed when bookmakers in Las Vegas announced that they would be taking bets on XFL games, providing confidence to fans and the betting markets that the games would be legitimate and fair sporting contests. Whilst TV deals have been struck to broadcast games on ABC, Fox Sports, and ESPN, no bookmakers have yet announced that they’ll be taking bets on XFL games. Since football makes up around 36% of the entire sports betting market in the United States, it is likely that companies such as SkyBet will begin allowing fans to place wagers on games like they do with the NFL.
Struggles with Talent
When two sports leagues compete against each other, they compete for several different resources, including money, stadia, TV coverage, fans, and players. The latter caused the XFL particular problems as their players (who were still very talented) were typically players who had not made it into the NFL. The most successful talent in the NFL was unlikely to switch to the XFL, particularly in its debut season as it would be a considerable risk compared to the NFL.
Supplementary, Not Competition
One of the biggest problems faced by rival sports leagues is that they typically run simultaneously. This compounds the competition for resources, as fans typically don’t have the stamina to follow two leagues, leading to lower viewing figures, and lower ticket sales and sponsorship revenue. To combat this, the XFL was scheduled to begin once the NFL league had finished, allowing fans to get their football fix for more of the year without competing for attention. However, even clever scheduling wasn’t sufficient to help the XFL succeed.
Despite starting strong, viewing figures quickly dwindled as the inaugural XFL season progressed. This resulted in the league’s joint partner, NBC, to pull out. Despite attempts from the WWE to find another partner, it was unsuccessful and the league failed to run for a second season.
Overall, the XFL had savvy strategy that ensured the league wouldn’t be a direct competitor of the monstrous NFL. It planned to capitalise on the existing fanbase of the WWE whilst also attracting NFL fans by combining elements from both sports and by being more aggressive. Some of its innovations survived into modern-day, such as “sky cams” that allow fans to see behind the offensive unit. Will the 2020 reboot fair any differently? Only time will tell.