WWE: Remembering the Failed XFL

ESPN announced that they will have a documentary about the XFL, a failed attempt of professional football formed by WWE chairman Vince McMahon.

Longtime sports writer John Clayton has sometimes said that the National Football League has always needed some type of feeder league to help develop players not quite ready for the NFL. There was a B-league in Europe and many undrafted football players. There was also the Canadian Football League and the Arena Football League.

But there has never been a quality secondary football league outside of college football. Many have tried and have failed. The World Football League struggled in the 1970s and the United States Football League lasted only three years in the 1980s. Among the long list of defunct football leagues, one might be surprised to find the WWE involved.

Along with NBC Universal, Vince McMahon announced the formation of the the XFL in 2000. It was originally planned to have eight teams with some playing in actual NFL markets (i.e. Chicago, New York and San Francisco).

The first, and only, XFL season began in February 2001 with the league promoting a football meant to be better than the “No Fun League.” Rules were few and far between, except there were a lot of changes made in the middle of the season that likely confused fans. Gone were the things like the fair catch. The coin toss was gone and replaced with an opening scramble for a football to gain opening possession.

Despite all of the bells, whistles and seductive cheerleaders who mimicked the ones seen at certain night clubs, fans had a hard time enjoying the games. The first week of the XFL on NBC actually did pretty well with approximately 14 million viewers and a TV rating close to 10. Unfortunately, those numbers fell sharply to a rating under 5.0.

On top of that, the attendance at the games was very poor. While the San Francisco Demons were attracting about 35,000 fans at their home games, NFL stadiums like Chicago’s Soldier Field had about 15,000 fans per home game.

Fans didn’t feel like they were seeing a quality football product. There wasn’t really any star power on the field. Tommy Maddox was the leading passer in the league with a little more than 2,100 yards and 18 touchdowns during the regular season. Well, Maddox did win the championship MVP award, which apparently was good enough to get him back into the NFL with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The XFL was filled with a lot of players who weren’t able to keep a roster spot with a NFL team beyond the offseason. Rod Smart, better known as “He Hate Me,” bounced around with four NFL teams, one CFL team and a brief stint with Team Tennessee of the All-American Football League.

NBC sports journalist Bob Costas said it best during a late night television appearance. The XFL felt like a combination of average high school football and a strip club experience. Despite the honest effort to provide a secondary football option when the NFL was not in season, NBC decided not to air the second season of the two-year deal for the XFL.

The XFL could have stayed alive with games airing on UPN and TNN, but that would have meant SmackDown being reduced from the two-hour format. This led to the league being dead after one season. It is said that the XFL did leave a positive impact in minor ways. For one, their in-game interviews have since been adopted by leagues like the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball.

The XFL would quickly fade into sports obscurity like many athletes who had high expectations would become busts. In the end, the XFL is sort of like the “Ryan Leaf” of professional sports leagues.

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