By now, the effects of the government response to the Chinese coronavirus have touched just about every facet of our lives, from business shutdowns to bans on in-person church services. Even sports, once an entertaining escape from the chaos of everyday life, have been altered.
The big examples are obvious: the NBA shut down its season; the NCAA halted all collegiate athletics, including the highly anticipated March Madness basketball tournament; baseball fans recently experienced the sour sting of an opening day without a single game, as the MLB has pushed its season back indefinitely.
But perhaps one of the biggest sports casualties of the coronavirus shutdown is a new football league that was forced to cease in its infancy: the XFL.
Created by Vince McMahon of WWE wrestling fame, the XFL 2020 was not the first attempt at creating an alternative spring football league, as some may recall last year’s financially strained Alliance for American Football (AAF), which had a team in San Antonio before the whole operation folded midseason. In fact, this year’s XFL wasn’t even the first time they had attempted spring football.
In 2001, McMahon began the XFL as an alternative to the NFL, promising more “extreme” gameplay. (Contrary to popular belief, however, the “X” did not stand for “Xtreme.” Due to copyright conflicts, the league claimed it stood for nothing.)
That first attempt could only be described as a colossal failure, as the broadcasts more closely resembled Wrestlemania than a serious football league. The game quality was poor, the new rules were decidedly dangerous, and after only one failed season, the league was put away, resulting in a $70 million loss.
It appeared as though the XFL would be relegated to the memories of only a select few sports fanatics and a resulting ESPN 30 for 30 documentary.
But nearly 18 years later, McMahon announced that he would be attempting the concept again.
Gone this time were the cheap gimmicks, such as storylines where players would “date” cheerleaders, or the silly nicknames players were encouraged to put on their jerseys. Instead, the 2020 XFL revival was poised to provide a faster and higher-energy alternative to the NFL at a price point that appealed to American families, with serious network coverage to boot.
Texas was home to not only one, but two XFL teams: the Houston Roughnecks and the Dallas Renegades, with home games played at the University of Houston and Globe Life Park in Arlington, respectively.
During the league’s first few weeks of play, the XFL shocked many by its above-par quality, leading Sports Illustrated to refer to the league as “on-the-rails, appropriately-quirky spring football.” Fans grew to love the exciting kickoffs with no running starts, double-forward passes, and no automatic extra point after touchdowns (instead, teams could elect to run one-, two-, or three-point conversions with growing distance from the goal line).
Having attended a game during the league’s truncated season, it’s easy to see why the XFL appealed to so many. What the event lacked in expensive bells and whistles it more than made up for in exciting gameplay and family-friendly entertainment.
Kneeling during the national anthem? Not on their turf.
Instead, players were genuinely happy to simply be given the opportunity to prove their worth. Much of each team’s roster consisted of players who, for one reason or another, failed to make it big in the NFL and were hungry for another chance to play the game.
The league’s tagline, “For the Love of Football,” was more than just a slogan. It embodied the spirit of the players and served as a contrast to the often overtly political NFL.
And perhaps that’s what was most appealing of all. In a world where seemingly everything from sports to snack foods is wrapped up in some form of left-wing political messaging, the XFL represented the opposite. It was instead a respite for hardworking sports fans to spend a couple of hours with family and friends celebrating what makes America great.
Unfortunately, it appears that time may have come to end.
Five weeks into its season, the league was forced to suspend operations due to social distancing requirements imposed by the government in response to the Chinese coronavirus. While, at the time, the organization seemed optimistic about returning in 2021, the financial burden was too great; this week, the league was forced to file for bankruptcy and lay off its staff.
The announcement was simultaneously sudden and expected.
“Unfortunately, as a new enterprise, we were not insulated from the harsh economic impacts and uncertainties caused by the COVID-19 crisis,” the XFL said in a statement. “Accordingly, we have filed a voluntary petition for relief under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.”
This doesn’t preclude the XFL from having a third renaissance down the road, as McMahon is reportedly seeking a buyer for the league.
Houstonians can take some pride in the fact that the Houston Roughnecks ended the year as the only undefeated team in the league. As a Dallas Renegades fan myself, that 2-3 record will sting for a while.
It’s impossible to know for sure whether the XFL would have survived in the absence of the virus, but all signs appeared to point towards success for the league.
Put simply: the XFL was the right league at the wrong time.