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XFL: The Premature Death and Postmortem of a Sports League

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

There are many reasons for a professional sports league to shut down and dissolve. Lack of fan attendance, small revenue streams, bad business structure and an awful on-field product are just some of the myriad of reasons for a league’s death. However, a global pandemic is not high on the list of probable causes. Alas, if there is one idea that the COVID-19 crisis has unleashed on the sports world, it is that any league is as fragile as a Fabergé egg.

Unfortunately, the second iteration of the Xtreme Football League shattered after a mere five weeks of play, filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy with no plans to return in 2021. The XFL tried to stave off an inevitable suspension as long as possible, but a positive case of coronavirus for a vendor working in CenturyLink Field, the home of the Seattle Dragons, and a Dragons player spelt doom for the fledging league.

The XFL, both past and present, had a goal to provide football to fans during the spring, a season traditionally bereft of any action on the gridiron. The brainchild of World Wrestling Entertainment’s CEO, Vince McMahon, the XFL was dreamt to be a league of experimentation, great play and fun. While the first XFL crashed under the weight of its own vices, the second XFL had a legitimate chance to succeed, or at the very least, survive past its first season.

The second XFL, or XFL 2020 from this point on, were well-funded from McMahon’s own pocket, the market was there and ripe for the taking and had patience. The league waited two years after its initial announcement in order to form solid organizations, with competent football minds in places of authority. XFL 2020 had an influx of talent that far surpassed the initial iteration, coaches who understood the game, and a respected football genius in Oliver Luck as its commissioner. The league was innovative, bringing transparency to replays and calls on the field by officials. In addition, they eliminated the extra point to increase action and the traditional style of kickoffs to decrease the amount of head-on collisions.

The on-field product was decent, considering XFL 2020 was in its debut season. From the beginning, three teams stood out as teams to watch. The DC Defenders, Houston Roughnecks and the St. Louis Battlehawks were treats to watch throughout the abridged season. The return of football to St. Louis was agony and ecstasy, as the Battlehawks had one of the best quarterbacks in the league, Jordan Ta’amu. Ta’amu combined accurate passing with game-breaking ability on the ground to lead St. Louis to three wins. Unfortunately, they only got to see him for five weeks. However, the best team in the league was the Houston Roughnecks. Winning all five of their games, the Roughnecks were led by the dynamic duo of quarterback PJ Walker and wide receiver Cam Phillips. Walker was a star, leading the XFL in passing yards and touchdowns, electrifying the crowd with every snap. His partner-in-crime, Cam Phillips, led the league in receiving yards, along with 9 touchdowns.

XFL 2020 was also decent in terms of attendance, averaging over 18,000 fans per game. St. Louis, starved for football after the Rams moved to Los Angeles in 2016, had the highest single-game attendance in the league with 29,544. Houston, Dallas, and Seattle all had good attendance, totaling over 50,000 fans for their home games. The problems lied in New York and Tampa Bay. Using stadiums with capacities exceeding 65,000 created a perception that the atmospheres inside wre dead, discouraging new and existing fans from going. When fans could not go to the games, XFL 2020 averaged almost two million viewers over the course of five weeks on ESPN, ESPN2, ABC, FOX and Fox Sports 1.

With all the major figures, including Oliver Luck, laid off as part of a massive sweep of layoffs in response to the suspension and cancellation of the season, the latest chapter in the quest for spring football has ended. A bitter pill to swallow, the XFL did not do anything wrong, they were just victims of the cruelest of circumstances. What ifs are now the only questions that surround the XFL and spring football in general. If this was the last bastion of hope for spring football, fans will now have to wait until the fall for football, a tale as old as time.

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