The year 2001 marked the birth (and death) of a new professional league meant to rival the NFL. It didn’t work out, to say the least. Here’s a look at the rise and spectacular, rapid demise of the XFL.
The XFL was the result of corporate synergy at the time. NBC had just lost the rights to air lucrative NFL games, while World Wrestling Entertainment was at the peak of its popularity (with stars like The Rock) and expanding at a rapid pace. WWE chairman Vince McMahon at first tried to buy the Canadian Football League and bring it more into the United States, but after that deal fell through, he worked with NBC. The network had already looked into creating a made-for-TV football league, but it was much easier to hand it off to McMahon and his sports entertainment juggernaut.
Black and Red
The XFL didn’t use those boring, brown footballs that the NFL and every college and high school team in the country used. Instead, the league played with specially-made black-and-red footballs. However, the paint used by manufacturer Spalding wasn’t exactly stable—if the ball got wet, which it often did because football is an outdoor sport and the XFL played in the rainy winter and spring months, the paint ran and made the ball slippery and very difficult to catch or throw. The league’s solution: Balls were periodically rubbed down with sandpaper to provide more grip.
The XFL was incorporated as XFL, LLC. Why is that interesting? Because that’s the league’s official name. “XFL” didn’t stand for anything. Sure, the “F” and “L” could stand for “football league,” but the X was really only there because it looked cool. Many thought that the X stood for “extreme” (or X-treme), but it didn’t.
Because it was made by a wrestling company, and specifically to attract TV viewers, the XFL tweaked a lot of standard football procedure to make the sport as lively as possible. For example, instead of a coin toss to determine possession, the XFL had “The Scramble,” where a representative from each team would each run from 10 yards out to get to the ball to see who could get it first. In the first Scramble in one of the first XFL games, a player separated his shoulder.
Attendance for games was high, particularly for teams that played in cities where there were no NFL teams, such as the Los Angeles Xtreme, Las Vegas Outlaws, and Birmingham Thunderbolts. TV ratings, the whole point for the XFL’s existence, were a different story: 14 million tuned in for the first game, but after seeing the poor quality of play (there was a reason why the XFL’s players weren’t already signed by NFL teams), ratings eventually bottomed out. The XFL set a record for the lowest-watched broadcast in primetime history (to that point). NBC and the WWE canceled the XFL after its one and only season in 2001. Both companies lost tens of millions.