The Real Reason The XFL Failed The First Time

In the musky, firework-singed police lineup of large-scale American business failures, one perp stands head and shoulders above the rest: the XFL, or Xtreme (sigh) Football League, Vince McMahon’s collaboration with NBC which bravely asked “what if professional wrestling got its chocolate all over football’s chunky peanut butter?” There would be badass new teams like the Chicago Enforcers, a laissez faire approach to the roughness penalties, and who knows? Maybe even some gratuitous violence along the way. It was bold, it was brash, and it featured specialty balls with a big old “X” on them. If ever there was a story printed on pages made of money and success, it was the XFL.

Only it wasn’t the XFL. After just one season, the league was disbanded, leaving McMahon and NBC with reported losses in the ballpark of $70 million, according to ABC. So what went wrong?

Not enough McMahonhandling

To hear Business of Sport describe it, the implosion of the XFL came as the result of several factors, but the biggest problem came down to viewership. While more than 50 million people tuned in to watch the first game, that number plummeted to a measly 2 million for the league championship. A retrospective look might give some insight into what that could have been: the first game was a dumpster fire. The LA Times described the new, purportedly more hardcore form of football, saying “No blood! No gore! No broken noses! No gouged eyes! No kneeing below the belt. Not one homicide, not even a body slam! Even in winning 19-0, Las Vegas acted less like outlaws than in-laws.” Harsh.

There were other problems. McMahon’s trademark, early-2000s pro wrestling showmanship came shining through in the form of — get ready to clutch your pearls – scandalously under-clad cheerleaders and some harsh words directed towards the NFL by one Jesse “The Body” Ventura. Audiences just weren’t having it.

Luckily, America is the land of second chances, and the XFL returned, bigger and badder than ever, in 2020, only to have their season truncated by mandatory social distancing. Maybe next time.

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