The Alliance of American Football, beset with a horrible financial situation that put the new league on the edge of extinction before it even played a game, lasted eight weeks before it shut down.
The XFL seemed to be in much better shape than the AAF, in every way. And it might last just five weeks.
While there are more important things during the COVID-19 pandemic than whether a professional football league makes it to its second season, that is important to hundreds of players, coaches and staff involved with the XFL.
And like most things in sports this week, it’s entirely unpredictable because we’re in uncharted territory.
XFL promises to return in 2021
The XFL did lay a foundation for a return in 2021.
The XFL announced it won’t “currently” be playing regular-season games, so while the league didn’t say explicitly that the rest of the season is canceled, it seems highly unlikely we’ll see the XFL again this year. The XFL said players will be paid for the regular season regardless.
XFL players were allowed to terminate their contracts and sign with other pro teams. The league could lose its top players before it ever plays another game. Someone like Houston quarterback P.J. Walker was an early attraction in the league, and an NFL team could decide to give him a shot. He’s free to leave.
In the XFL’s statement, the part about a full season in 2021 was included for a purpose. The XFL had to know that after the inevitable news of halting its season, the next question would be about its future plans. The league wants to play again.
But the challenges are obvious.
XFL has challenges going forward
Assuming the XFL’s first season is over, the revenue loss from playing only half the scheduled games is crushing. Aside from the lost revenue, the XFL had a little momentum that could have carried into its second season. That’s far more uncertain now.
Television ratings were declining for the XFL, but there were still some positives in that regard for the first-year league. Last weekend, the games on ABC and Fox drew 1.55 and 1.5 million viewers, respectively, according to Show Buzz Daily. That would have ranked fourth and fifth among all college basketball broadcasts last week. Only four NBA games had a bigger audience last week than the XFL game on ABC. It was far from perfect, but those are still significant audiences. But the ratings had dropped significantly and steadily since Week 1 — neither game on FS1 or ESPN last Sunday broke a million viewers — and it’s not like the downturn is a good thing as the league goes into a hiatus. People had started to forget even before there were no more games. Will the XFL be able to gain more fans or even retain those who watched this season after playing just five weeks?
It’s an amazingly unlucky blow for the XFL, whose second try at starting up a football league went much better than the first, and had been going better than the disastrous AAF, too. The XFL did a lot of things better, including securing great television contracts and building excited fan bases in cities like St. Louis and Seattle. Then came the coronavirus pandemic that would effectively shut down the country. Vince McMahon invested a lot of money in the product and it never appeared the XFL was in dire financial trouble like the USFL in the 1980s or the AAF last season, but there are still questions that won’t be answered for weeks, or months.
The startup football leagues that have failed have had similar issues: A bad on-field product, lack of attendance, tiny television ratings, not enough financial capital to survive bumps in the road. Nobody involved with the XFL could have ever seen this unique complication coming. Now, we wait to see what happens next with the league.
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