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Why Vince McMahon Can’t Stop Obsessing Over Trying to Beat the NFL

Pro football, it seems, is the one thing he believes can forge his legacy as something other than just a rasslin’ promoter

A little over two years after the world was shocked by the left-field news that Vince McMahon was bringing back the XFL, his failed spring football league from 2001, said league was reborn this past weekend. And at least so far, it’s a success, with ticket revenue greatly outpacing that of last year’s abbreviated Alliance of American Football (AAF) and TV ratings that did as well as anything not affiliated with the Oscars earned all weekend. The latter is a big part of what makes McMahon’s move so intriguing: The original league, while opening strong, quickly cratered to what were then record lows for NBC. But those numbers aren’t nearly as concerning in 2020, when networks are sports hungry to deliver “DVR-proof” programing and live sports rights fees continue to be a cash cow.

It remains, though, a gamble. In some ways, it’s an even bigger gamble than the original XFL. ABC/ESPN and FOX aren’t paying a rights fee for this initial deal, although they are covering production costs. It’s better than nothing, but it’s still running a season of professional football as a proof-of-concept loss leader. And unlike the first time around, the XFL isn’t a WWE product. McMahon engaged in a massive stock sell-off to fund the new league himself through a new private company, Alpha Entertainment. (It should be noted, however, that the WWE is being paid by Alpha for both the XFL name/intellectual property and to provide some support services; in fact, it’s currently being litigated as to whether or not the relationship is entirely proper.)

So… why? A pro football league is a massive undertaking, especially without outside investors. The first XFL at least had NBC footing half of the bill, even if they joined in after losing NFL broadcast rights, as opposed to being there from the moment McMahon announced the league. Of all the things to do, why this? Why the area where you already failed and where nobody can ever gain a foothold? After all, even the long-tenured Arena Football League was on death’s door as the revamped XFL was coming together before eventually filing for bankruptcy.

In fairness, back when the XFL reboot news was fresh in 2017, McMahon was most likely looking to capitalize on falling NFL viewership. That he first applied for various football-related trademarks as the controversy over NFL players kneeling during the national anthem really picked up helped a narrative build: The XFL 2.0 was going to be MAGA football. The January 2018 media conference call announcing the new league only added to that narrative, with McMahon saying, “People don’t want social and political issues coming into play when they’re trying to be entertained.” He added that “we want someone who wants to take a knee to do their version of that on their personal time,” also throwing in an ostensible dog whistle about no players with criminal records being allowed in (a particularly rich statement given the criminal records of various WWE wrestlers, which have kept some, like Jimmy Uso, out of countries like Canada).

But now that the XFL is actually here, it doesn’t seem like we’re getting overt pandering to Trump supporters. Sure, there were some headlines last week about the no-kneeling thing being codified as a real rule, but that stemmed from a much longer interview with commissioner Oliver Luck on the Bloomberg Business of Sports podcast. It’s not like the league was marketed around MAGA trappings. It’s entirely possible that this was never any kind of real plan for the league as much as McMahon just going with the flow of what was in the news and the NFL just happening to have perceived vulnerabilities, regardless of what they were. 

So once more, why? What’s the reason for getting into this relatively long-tail investment for a guy in his 70s who’s lived a long life?

The same reason that there always is for McMahon: To prove himself as a marketing genius, not just an above-average carny promoter of “fake wrestling.”

To that end, McMahon has long tried to build a legacy as more than a rasslin’ promoter, but those non-rasslin’ businesses, usually launched within the WWE (formerly Titan Sports) corporate structure, never really clicked. A live, closed-circuit broadcast of Evel Knievel jumping across Snake River Canyon on his custom motorcycle in September 1974 was such a bomb that it drove McMahon into personal bankruptcy. Not long after, he bought the Cape Cod Coliseum, but he sold it within five years because he couldn’t build up business among the townies to the point of it being sustainable outside of the summer months. Forays into the music and movie businesses clicked only if tied to wrestling and/or as part of partnerships with bigger companies. There was also a Las Vegas hotel that never opened and a Times Square restaurant/nightclub/memorabilia store (now the site of NYC’s Hard Rock Cafe) that mostly only demonstrated WWE’s relative lack of brand power to the general public.

It wasn’t as if these ideas made no sense at all: Maybe a WWE theme restaurant could have worked, but not one in such a massive, expensive piece of real estate. Trying a closed-circuit broadcast of something other than boxing wasn’t a bad idea as much as the Knievel jump specifically was a bad fit. And it does seem like McMahon did his best to wring as much as possible out of the Cape Cod Coliseum. 

You know what was a very bad idea from the start, however? The World Bodybuilding Federation, McMahon’s attempt at turning that sport into a mainstream juggernaut the way he did professional wrestling. Despite the annual Mr. Olympia competition being only a few years removed from airing on national television when the WBF was announced in 1990, bodybuilding has always only really been the type of thing that interests those who participate in it and/or have a sexual interest in the competitors. This is doubly so for the era in which the WBF was formed, as the sport was well on its way to rewarding more freakish physiques as opposed to the aspirational bodies of the Schwarzenegger era. I mean, no average person wanted to be WBF Champion Gary Strydom; every moment of his existence looked physically painful.

Not to mention, there didn’t appear to be much of a business plan. There was only one competition annually, with no smaller qualifiers, so there was minimal live event money to be had. Plus, taking on and raiding the roster of the incumbent Weider family and their International Federation of Bodybuilding meant limited media exposure, as the Weiders owned most of the key bodybuilding magazines. There was a WBF Magazine, but it’s not as if there was much for it to cover, and the format — WWF Magazine’s colorful, childlike layout combined with a former Playgirl editor’s push for overt homoeroticism — wasn’t one that appealed to actual bodybuilding enthusiasts.

The first WBF Championship event in 1991 was taped for home-video release as more of a pilot, with 1992 being aired live on pay-per-view with overt WWF connections like McMahon hosting the show with other wrestling announcers. The WBF’s “entertainment” trappings, which really just amounted to wacky skits, nicknames and costumes, were more surreal than anything that would attract a large audience. And the hooks that actually might have drawn some curiosity buys — former Incredible Hulk star Lou Ferrigno coming out of retirement and wrestling crossover Lex Luger as a special guest — were both scrapped before the show, thanks to carpal tunnel syndrome and a motorcycle accident, respectfully. (If you’ve never seen the 1992 event, I highly suggest you watch it on YouTube: It’s two hours of pure Vince McMahon id.)

But of all of these failed ventures, McMahon isn’t going back to the restaurant business, event distribution, or God help us all, bodybuilding. He’s going back to football — albeit, not the same way as before. Namely, McMahon hasn’t been the league’s frontman since announcing the relaunch. The original launch was infamously the exact opposite, with McMahon proclaiming that “if the National Football League stands for the ‘No Fun League,’ the XFL will be the extra fun league” and asserting that his league would feature “real smash-mouth football, open football, not for pantywaists.” Yet there’s been none of that this time around.

If he’s not challenging the NFL, however, what does the XFL specifically offer for McMahon’s ego over other potential business ventures, much less other businesses he already failed at? The obvious one is that owning a football team is the ultimate billionaire status symbol and starting a whole league instead is just the McMahon way of doing things. At this point, it probably doesn’t hurt that the new rival wrestling promotion, All Elite Wrestling, is backed by Jacksonville Jaguars owners Shad and Tony Khan, but that wasn’t part of the picture when the new XFL started to come to fruition. So it may really be as simple as the XFL being the only Vince McMahon non-wrestling bust that there’s actually nostalgia for.

It seems like everyone agrees by now that This Was The XFL, the documentary on the original league that aired in early 2017 as part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, was the impetus for the revival. This is, on its own, a weirdly complicated topic: The director of the documentary was Charlie Ebersol, the son of XFL co-founder and longtime NBC Sports head Dick Ebersol. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because he was also behind the AAF, which announced two months after McMahon’s plan for an XFL rebirth while promising to launch a year earlier and with most of the same features (like faster play and fantasy/gambling integration). In other words, it’s entirely possible that This Was The XFL was produced solely to gin up demand for a revival. Because until it came out, it’s fair to say that most XFL nostalgia was at least somewhat ironic.

That’s not to say that there was zero genuine, non-ironic appreciation for the original XFL: Consensus-wise, at least, it’s long been accepted that the TV production side of McMahon’s league was first rate. Most famously, the NFL quickly adopted the “SkyCam” floating camera for its next season, while other flourishes, like players mic’d up for live, in-game audio, came later. On the field, the most famous attempted rule changes, “no fair catches” (the definition of which was ever-evolving) and the “scramble” for opening possession in lieu of a coin toss, didn’t exactly go well and injured players too easily. But that doesn’t mean they were all bad, with the elimination of extra point kicks in favor of a one-, two- or three-point conversion (depending on where the play was initiated) widely seen as a positive step (that rule is back for the revival).

Still, it’s not as if the world was clamoring for this. In the closing scene of This Is The XFL, where McMahon and Dick Ebersol mulled over a possible revival, McMahon even conceded, “I don’t know what else we could do that the NFL isn’t doing now.” His hypothetical also looked nothing like the actual XFL 2.0, positing, “It seems like in some way it would tie in either with the NFL itself or the owners.” 

The simplest explanation for its existence then would appear to be the confluence of the documentary planting the seed, McMahon allegedly rejecting an Ebersol offer to buy the XFL name, the mainline WWE programming being on its way to a $2 billion domestic TV rights contract and Kneelgate all coming together around the same time. Basically, if McMahon was going to make his mark as more than a rasslin’ promoter, he had to get it done as soon as possible with an XFL revival. What else would even make sense? For once, too, he’s sacrificing a lot of ego, hiring plenty of actual football operations people to run the league and letting them do their thing.

That last part does give the project a bit of an asterisk, though: If Vince McMahon can parlay the XFL 2.0 into a success, the actual nuts and bolts of it may not be attributable to his own business acumen as much as his ability to spot the right moment and hire the right people. Which essentially negates its whole purpose in the first place. 

That is, it’s not really a McMahon creation, or successful because of him; it’s successful in spite of him.