Back in 2001, pro wrestling mogul Vince McMahon introduced the country to the Extreme Football League—better known as the XFL. With teams like the New York/New Jersey Hitmen, players like Antonio “Big Cat” Anderson and Rod “He Hate Me” Smart, and hyper-sexualized cheerleaders, the football league was billed as a less polished and more outrageous alternative to the NFL.
It failed after a single season.
But after almost 20 years of being consigned to the dustbin of sports history, the XFL is making a comeback. Earlier this year, McMahon, who owns World Wrestling Entertainment, announced that he was planning to revive the XFL, and this week he announced its eight inaugural teams, including one that will make its home in New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium. This time, instead of trying to be the wild heel to the NFL’s babyface, McMahon is pitching the league as an option for people who want more football during the off-season.
San Francisco Demons fan Chris Wright, 11, from Benicia, Calif., holds up a sign during the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Xtreme, in San Francisco in their first XFL game in February, 2001 (Paul Sakuma/AP/Shutterstock)
“We will present a shorter, faster-paced, family-friendly and easier to understand game,” McMahon said during the launch announcement in January. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s still football. But it’s professional football...reimagined.”
So far, McMahon and XFL commissioner Oliver Luck have been light on the details as to exactly what “football...reimagined” will look like. But one thing is for sure: players won’t be allowed to make political protests on the field. When McMahon announced the XFL’s return, the NFL faced criticism over Colin Kaepernick and other players kneeling in protest during the National Anthem. On one hand, Kaepernick’s supporters said he was being unfairly benched, while President Donald Trump was tweeting that players who knelt should be fired. In the middle of all this, McMahon proclaimed that the new XFL would have none of that pesky political protesting.
"People don't want social and political issues coming into play when they are trying to be entertained," McMahon told ESPN. "We want someone who wants to take a knee to do their version of that on their personal time."
Vince McMahon unveiling the first version of the XFL on Feb. 3, 2000. (AP Photo/Ed Bailey)
Of course, McMahon and Trump go way back: the two famously faced off during WWE RAW in 2009, and the president appointed McMahon’s wife, Linda, to run the U.S. Small Business Association. Now, Sports Illustrated staff writer Conor Orr says it looks like McMahon is trying to make a buck off of Trump fans upset by being confronted with issues of race and policing during Monday Night Football.
“Vince McMahon is a showman,” Orr told WNYC. “This was a call to them, initially, to generate attention and say hey, if you’re leaving the NFL right now, this league is for you.”
Here's All Things Considered host Jami Floyd speaking with Conor Orr of Sports Illustrated about the XFL.
Since then, McMahon has toned down the Trumpian rhetoric, playing up the family-friendly angle and stating that the league will look after players’ health. (Numerous rule variations during XFL's 2001 season, like a mad "Scramble" in lieu of a game-starting coin toss, reportedly contributed to a high number of injuries.) Its initial eight teams are all located in cities that already have NFL teams and won’t directly compete with the football behemoth. But it still has some major challenges to get through first: namely, the XFL has yet to land a television contract.
“We’ve seen some leagues pop up and die very quickly over the last few years that have tried internet streaming partners,” said Orr. “They’re going to need a standard, television home if they’re going to have any hope of pulling viewers away or at least keeping their attention on football beyond the NFL season.”
Currently, the XFL is set to kick off its first game after the NFL’s 2020 Superbowl. We’ll just have to wait and see if they can get The Rock to remake his gloriously Aughties intro to the very first XFL game.
Danny Lewis is an associate producer for WNYC's All Things Considered. You can follow him on Twitter at @dannydoodar.