The future of sports is up in the air right now, but at least one person thinks it’s a good time to invest. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, alongside his manager and ex-wife Dany Garcia, recently purchased the XFL, an “alternative” football league that WWE founder Vince McMahon has been trying and failing to make “happen” for nearly 20 years. The Rock scored the league for $15 million, backed by RedBird Capital Partners, after it filed for bankruptcy in April when the coronavirus shuttered its opening season.
After two decades as an ESPN punchline, the XFL is now attracting a frenzy of excitement in the sports world. Here’s what you need to know about the league, the sale, and its upcoming 2021 season.
What is the XFL?
The XFL was founded in 2001 as a more extreme, down and dirty, less politically correct competitor to the NFL, that emphasized rougher play, fan access to players and entertainment value. A joint venture between WWE and NBC, the concept was that the season, held in the winter and spring, would fill the football void on TV once the pro and college seasons ended.
So it’s like wrestling? Is it scripted like WWE?
Nope. It’s football. Off-field elements and Wrestlemania-inspired theatrics set the XFL apart from NFL, but the initial games squashed rumors that winners and plays would be predetermined like its parent company WWE.
Why did it fail the first time?
XFL 1.0 shuttered after a single season of disastrous ratings; concerns about player safety; and criticism that games were reliant on violence, stunts and sex appeal rather than athleticism. See: the 2001 halftime stunt planned by McMahon to rescue ratings, which sent a cameraman into the cheerleaders locker room. WWE and NBC lost over $35 million, and WWE owner Vince McMahon called his league a “colossal failure.”
When (and why) did it come back?
After 17 years as the biggest joke in football, in January of 2018, McMahon announced he was bringing back the XFL without the “sex, booze and sleaze,” dropping the gimmicks and the cheerleaders. His timing was opportune.Plagued by controversy over concussions and race, the NFL’s ratings were down 17%, according to NYT. McMahon liquidated $270 million, or 4% of his WWE stock to get the league up and running. The new pitch what that they were
Why did it fail the second time?
Things were going better than expected. After two years in development, XFL 2.0 launched in February with solid talent and sponsorships from Gatorade and Anheuser-Busch. Critics liked the playful attitude and fan access: two of its selling points are in-game sideline interviews with players, and letting fans listen in whie teams deliberate and review calls. Ratings were respectable if inconsistent for the first five weeks of games. Then came coronavirus. Like the NBA, NHL and the MLB, the XFL was forced to cancel its season. The pause on business was too much for the already precarious venture. A month later, the XFL laid off nearly all its employees and filed for Chapter 11, listing assets and liabilities each in the range of $10 to $50 million. Staffers said the league was not coming back.
Before becoming one of the most beloved and richest men in Hollywood, The Rock was a college football player and one of the biggest wrestling stars in history, winning NCAA championship for University of Miami in 1991 and headlining the most watched pay-per-view wrestling event in history. The Rock says, according to ESPN, that he got involved because of "my passion for the game and my desire to always take care of the fans.
Dany Garcia, his manager and the new co-owner of the XFL, is a movie producer (Baywatch, Skyscraper, Rampage) and former bodybuilder. Garcia, an admirer of XFL 2.0, tells ESPN that she called her ex-husband as soon as she heard about the bankruptcy. Between the two of them, they’re betting they have the sports and entertainment expertise to deliver the XFL a third chance. Garcia will be the first woman to ever hold a majority stake in a professional sports league.
With my trail blazing partner @DanyGarciaCo & Red Bird Capital, we have acquired the XFL.— Dwayne Johnson (@TheRock) August 3, 2020
With gratitude & passion I’ve built a career with my own two hands and will apply these callouses to our @xfl2020 brand.
Excited to create something special for the fans! #XFL #fullcircle pic.twitter.com/LprJ6HjglD
The Rock and Garcia made a very good deal. Many were surprised at the low price of the sale, which was lower than the XFL’s revenue from its five game 2020 season. ESPN chalks it up to low interest. Houlihan Lokey, which brokered the deal, said it received more than two dozen inquiries, but The Rock’s was the only qualified bids. The two Hollywood fixtures have some serious money behind them: RedBird Capital manages over $4 billion in assets and has a history of success in the sports world, according to XFL News Hub, including a player licensing rights company with the NFLPA and MLB, and Toulouse FC, a French football franchise in Ligue II.
What will The Rock’s XFL look like?
The new owners plan to continue down the path XFL forged in February. Garcia has suggested that the league will largely keep the format and much of the same executive tem. "I think there was a lot to build on," she said via ESPN, "and not so much a matter of changing it... The roots and the bones of what were there were excellent. I like the speed of play. I loved the access.”
What are people saying about its future?
The biggest uncertainty remains the pandemic. The XFL’s spring 2021 season will potentially take the same “bubble concept” of a fanless season played all in the same city, that the NFL has put forward. The NFL’s fall season currently scheduled to start on-time, though players are expressing concern. ESPN says this concern could work in the XFL’s favor, if players opt out of the NFL for the fall, join XFL in the (potentially safer) spring, then enter the NFL 2021 draft.
The Rock’s star power and irresistible charisma will certainly help the XFL I mean, the guy managed to put Jumanji and Fast & Furious franchises back on the map. But Forbes warns the actor can’t guarantee the league’s succes and won’t mean much if they don’t secure on-field talent. Others are more optimistic: with deep pockets to help weather bumps in the road and all eyes trained on the venture, Barrett Sports Media wagers The Rock is exactly what the XFL needs.