After suspending its operations over the weekend, it was no surprise that the upstart XFL filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy on April 13th, with some $14 million in outstanding debts. This is, of course, the second time that the league has come and gone rather quickly: the original XFL failed to gain much traction some two decades ago, folding after only one season. The first iteration of the league had some embarrassing and problematic elements, but it also left its mark on the larger sports landscape, pioneering the mic’ing up of players, the skycam, and other broadcast innovations. I’ve long felt that XFL 1.0 was ahead of its time, that had they emerged a few years later as social media was starting to take off–and abandoned some of the gaudy and crude elements–they may have been able to stick around.
Things looked much different for the league the second time around, as leadership had clearly learned from their mistakes. Compared to last year’s abrupt failure of the poorly run Alliance of American Football, the XFL was beginning to hint that there could actually be a market for a well-managed and well-funded secondary football league. Viewership and attendance numbers were solid, surprising many observers. The league clearly tapped into Americans’ thirst for more football, even if that football was often sub-par. Anecdotally: my sport management students were certainly watching and were quick to form allegiances and opinions on the league; I was somewhat shocked during a February vacation in Mexico when I encountered several folks who were hoping that they’d be able to catch XFL broadcasts at the resort we were staying at. With instant access to players on the sidelines and mic’d up play calls, the league pushed the broadcast envelope once again, and I’ll be curious to see how other professional leagues adapt and adopt these innovations. Of course, not everything was great. The visual aesthetics of team uniforms and merchandise were weak and uninspired. An early promise to integrate gambling elements into broadcasts had yet to really materialize, although I expect that this angle would only have been developed more as states across the country continue to embrace the new legal landscape of sports betting.
I’ll admit, I didn’t watch too much of the action, but I’m sorry to see the league go. In our monolithic big-time sports landscape, I’m a fan of any attempts at disruption. As the economic fallout of COVID-19 continues, I fear that other professional sports endeavors at the margins will be forced to shutter as well. There are, of course, far more important things at this time, but it is sad nonetheless. RIP XFL 2.0, it was fun while it lasted.