Rumors of an XFL reboot gained traction over the last few days, beginning late Friday with an as-of-yet still unsubstantiated tweet.
EXCLUSIVE: Vince McMahon is looking to bring back the XFL and may announce it on January 25th, 2018.
— Brad Shepard 🤘🏻 (@TheBradShepard) December 16, 2017
Now, there are myriad reasons I was and remain skeptical. The source of the originating tweet has since added, “Oh, I broke the XFL return story” to his Twitter bio, the kind of self-promotional maneuver that reminds me of the weird, cottage industry that sprang from college football conference realignment rumors a half-decade ago; in particular, a West Virginia blogger attaching himself to unverified claims of Clemson and Florida State joining the Big 12.
In much the same regard as the ongoing XFL (non?) story, the generic, noncommittal responses involved parties gave in response fueled the rumor mill. Conference realignment being catnip for web traffic, the college football blogosphere perpetuated the Clemson/Florida State rumors for months without anything substantive to support them.
XFL rumors have gained similar traction, this time in the political aggregation echo chamber, which has added its own conjecture to drive traffic. Thus far, Deadspin’s David Bixenspan has provided the most substantive reporting on a possible XFL relaunch.
All the preceding is necessary to make it abundantly clear that XFL 2.0 may or may not be a reality. If it is, kicking off with politics at its foundation is a recipe for failure — much in the same way the original XFL concept failed 17 years ago.
The recent 30 For 30 covering the XFL sparked some nostalgia, and piqued some interest. While I contend the impact of player protests have been grossly exaggerated, the NFL does have a variety of issues impacting viewership: decline in quality of play, lack of innovation, over-saturation, hubris of team owners ransoming franchises to municipalities, growing concerns over head trauma.
NFL fatigue exists and coincides at a time that XFL nostalgia gained steam. Google Trends dating back from 2004 (the furthest back Google’s archive goes) to today reflects growing curiosity, commensurate with 30 For 30 and the wave of aggregation since Friday’s tweet.
The highest spike aligns with ESPN’s debut of This Was The XFL — much in the same way USFL interest erupted when 30 For 30 covered the original alternative league back in 2009.
The comparison is to illustrate that nostalgia more than anything to do with the NFL or current climate among football fans explains sudden interest in the XFL. And something to keep in mind with regard to nostalgia is how effectively it masks flaws.
Nostalgia’s made the XFL somewhat relevant again, but that won’t last long. No one should know that any better than Vince McMahon, who amassed the wealth necessary to fund the XFL in professional wrestling. In that world, reintroducing retreads elicits what’s known as a Nostalgia Pop: a boisterous initial reaction that quickly dissipates when a name from the past returns.
The cheers eventual die down because the flaws become apparent anew. And when it comes to the XFL, the flaws were plentiful. Put simply, the XFL was awful.
The original incarnation of the XFL was announced in 2000, billed then as a more physical alternative to the NFL. Chris B. Brown broke down why this was unsuccessful rather well on Twitter:
One of (several) problems with the original XFL was the football itself. Scab players yes, but Vince was obsessed with “toughness” and “smashmouth” and thus it was a lot of 3 yards and a cloud of dust; meanwhile spread offense revolution was literally happening at the same time https://t.co/IR5BmgjGcm
— Chris B. Brown (@smartfootball) December 16, 2017
In his infamous HBO interview with Bob Costas, McMahon claimed his league was the best brand of football available outside of the NFL. The most obvious knock on the XFL — or any league that isn’t the NFL — is it’s the second pick of players. Even with former college stars like Rashaan Salaam, or eventual NFL breakout performers Tommy Maddox and Rod Smart, the XFL was clearly a rung below the NFL in terms of talent, and McMahon tacitly acknowledges as much.
“It’s better than college,” is a laughable quote in the context of Brown’s breakdown, however.
The 2000 Heisman Trophy presentation, which occurred two months prior to the launch of McMahon’s league, featured finalists Drew Brees and Michael Vick. Brees thrived in Joe Tiller’s offense at Purdue, one of the early stars of the one-back, four-wide spread. Though Vick was a few years after Charlie Ward, Vick’s performance at Virginia Tech helped pave the way for names like Vince Young, Robert Griffin III and a host of other quarterbacks who ran as effectively as they passed.
College football underwent a metamorphosis into a more open and fun style, while the XFL regressed to a bygone era. At least, the style of play was a throwback. The presentation of the league itself was very much in the vein of early 2000s pop culture, which I wrote in the context of The Grinch had a certain nastiness to it.
XFL football was not entertaining, which is bad enough in and of itself, but tried to compensate by just being…well, sorta mean, as a diversionary tactic from the quality of football. To wit, the unofficial pregame — many viewers’ first impression of the fledgling league — featured hosts Opie and Anthony. Find any random person on the street, and I surmise she or he knows more about football than either of those two. However, their boorish FM DJ antics presented the aesthetic the league sought.
Indeed, the very concept behind its very existence was singularly focused on attitude. It makes sense, given WWF was at its popular coinciding with the XFL’s short life, at a period known as the Attitude Era.
However, there’s a clear difference between the two mediums. Wrestling is part-sport, part-TV series and operates with its own unique identity. A contrived feud is central to wrestling; in football, as the XFL attempted with Jesse Ventura and Rusty Tillman, it’s just embarrassing.
Embarrassing is a fitting, one-word summary to describe the XFL’s entire run, really. Readers of The Open Man or those who follow me on Twitter know I love wrestling, and I have mostly stuck with the medium in the past 17 years. But it’s never been as popular, as mainstream, as it was in the early 2000s. I don’t see it as coincidence that wrestling’s popularity declined in the immediate aftermath of the XFL.
I have no hard numbers to prove that beyond the circumstantial dip in WWF/E ratings coinciding with the end of the XFL. To that end, though, I’m going to refer to this Jesse Ventura commercial promoting the league:
Perhaps XFL 2.0 — assuming it’s real — learned from every misstep of the original. The finished product would have to be completely unrecognizable in comparison to the first attempt, however, because the original XFL was terrible.