The Sports Lounge presents… Lost Leagues: The XFL

In the “Lost Leagues” series I want to take a look back at failed sports leagues from North American history. Many leagues have tried to overtake the top spots or work along side the industry leaders, but have failed. And in this first of the series, let’s take a look back at one of the worst experiments in football, the XFL.

 

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The XFL was founded in 2000 by WWE owner Vince McMahon. Already the leader of the world’s largest wrestling promotion, McMahon wasn’t interested in taking over the football world. Instead, he looked to give football fans an alternative to the NFL. The XFL’s inaugural season would take place in the spring of 2001 and feature unique rules that NFL had not seen before.

Being the man that he is, McMahon decided that the XFL was going to be known as the “eXtra Fun League”. To do this, he decided that instead of a coin toss to determine opening possession, a player from each team would race to the ball and whoever got to it first could choose to keep it or kick-off.

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Other rule changes included, no extra point kicks after a touchdown, bum and run coverage, offensive forward motion, and no fair catches on punts. Besides game play rules, the XFL also required that every team play in an outdoor, grass stadium. No retractable roofs or artificial turf was allowed. Also, players could have any name on the back of their jersey and each team apparently hired strippers for their cheerleading squad.

The XFL had a television deal with NBC for two seasons, beginning with the 2001 season. The league consisted of 8 teams split into two divisions. The Los Angeles Xtreme, San Francisco Demons, Memphis Maniax, and Las Vegas Outlaws made up the West Division. The East Division teams were the Orlando Rage, Birmingham Thunderbolts, Chicago Enforcers, and New York/New Jersey Hitmen.

The season opened on February 3, 2001, immediately after the Super Bowl. The game was played at Sam Boyd Stadium in Nevada between the Outlaws and the Hitmen. The game drew an estimated 14 million viewers which was a success for the league. Even as the game turned into a blowout (the Outlaws won 19-0), people tuned into the Orlando-Chicago game.

3 Feb 2001:  A rear view of Rod Smart #30 of the Las Vegas Outlaws walking on the field during the game against the New York/New Jersey Hitmen at the Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas, Nevada.  The Outlaws defeated the Hitmen 19-0.Mandatory Credit: Todd Warshaw  /Allsport

 

Despite the opening night success, football fans eventually stopped watching and the audience numbers dropped. But the season marched on with the Xtreme beating the Demons in the XFL Championship game, also known as ” The Million Dollar Game”. However, this would be the last game played in the XFL as McMahon announced its closure in May of 2001. Despite a decent inaugural season and even talks of expansion, McMahon could not come to an agreement on TV deals and decided it was best to walk away.

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Much like many other failed leagues, the XFL had its share of well-known talent. Tommy Maddox won the league’s MVP award with the Xtreme and later signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Los Angeles kicker Jose Cortez was named the Million Dollar Game MVP which helped him land of string of NFL jobs afterwards. Other notable players included Jim Drunkenmiller, Paris Lenon, Rashaan Salaam, and Rod Smart, who gained notoriety for having “He Hate Me” on the back of his jersey.

Nine former XFL players played in a Super Bowl and five of them won the NFL’s top game. Of those five, four won a Super Bowl and were members of the Los Angeles XFL championship team. One player, Bobby Singh, won an XFL Championship, a Super Bowl, and the CFL’s Grey Cup. All in all, over 30 XFL players played in the NFL, 14 played in the CFL, and 7 played in the AFL. There was even one player, Richard Young, who had a short stint in WWE wrestling as Ricky Ortiz.

Even though the XFL folded after one season, it was still not a total failure. Compared to some failed leagues, it did extremely well. The viewership was not great but was not horrible. The league obviously had talent and, at least, a small niche audience. But the biggest problems came from the top in owner Vince McMahon.

McMahon was known as an “over the top” personality and his ties with the wrestling world made it hard for people to take this league seriously. The media already ridiculed the league from the start and joked about its ties to the WWE. So instead of risking anymore losses, McMahon swallowed his pride and closed the doors on the XFL.

Football fans today may think that the only remnants that are left of the XFL are eBay items and YouTube clips, but that is far from the truth. The XFL was one of the first in many things we take for granted today like in-game interviews and the “sky-cam”. The XFL could also be considered a starting point for NBC and football. After the league folded, NBC started covering AFL games until 2006 when it got the rights to begin covering the NFL with its Sunday night games.

The XFL has been gone now for 14 years and it lasted only one, three month season. But it’s affects on football coverage can still be felt today. It has at least left some legacy behind which is more than most football leagues can say after they failed. And there have been plenty to fail. But maybe none with as much bravado and lasting legacies as the XFL.

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Daryl Karpinski Jr.

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