The XFL surprised its workforce Friday morning by issuing mass layoffs and implying a grim outlook for the future of the league. The XFL suspended operations, and multiple sources told ESPN that the league currently had no plans to return in 2021.
Indeed, it probably will become this country's first pro sports league to succumb to the coronavirus pandemic. The XFL's apparent demise represents yet another failure to establish an elusive alternative football league to the NFL.
As the day concludes, I'll clarify what I know, what I don't know and what I think regarding what it all means.
Why is anyone surprised? Wasn't this just a matter of time?
No. The league suspended play March 12 after playing half of its 10-week season, and it officially canceled the remainder of the season on March 20. Throughout that time, however, league and team employees -- including players -- were paid their normal salaries in preparation for the 2021 season. The XFL reiterated its plan to continue working toward next season as recently as three weeks ago.
So does this mean the league isn't coming back?
According to staffers who were on Friday's companywide conference call, COO Jeffrey Pollack stopped short of saying the league was going out of business. That would be a decision for owner Vince McMahon, who also is the chairman/CEO of WWE. In a statement, WWE said only that the XFL is "evaluating next steps."
But a number of league staffers left the call with the strong impression that the XFL would be shuttered, and that the handful of remaining executives would wrap up the business before departing themselves. One staffer said: "It's done. It's not coming back."
Notably, the employees were laid off -- not furloughed. The league's only public acknowledgement of the news was a tweet with a seven-second video of actor Jake Gyllenhaal waving goodbye.
What changed in the past three weeks?
Pollack didn't provide much detail on the call. Staffers who listened in thought it was clear that the world's deepening economic crisis had sparked the move. Friday also marked what would have been the final week of the regular season, after which players wouldn't be owed any more salary.
But doesn't McMahon have enough money to carry the league into 2021?
McMahon is currently worth $1.9 billion, according to Forbes magazine. That's down from $2.9 billion in 2019. It should also be noted that WWE was going through some upheaval before the pandemic. McMahon ousted two top executives in January after lower-than-expected revenues, and WWE's stock price has dropped by 42% this year to date.
The biggest question the XFL faced, as I noted when the season began, was not whether the league would run out of money, as the Alliance of American Football did in 2019, but how long McMahon was willing to fund it.
How much money did he lose in this version of the XFL?
I don't know. The league spent two years in development before putting its product on the field, and even then revenues were relatively light. Per its agreement with ABC, ESPN and Fox, the XFL received no rights fees this year to televise its games. (Broadcasters covered production costs.)
To be fair, player costs, the highest expense for most sports leagues, were relatively low. Most were set to earn about $55,000 if they were on a roster for all 10 weeks of the season. Some quarterbacks earned substantially more, but the league was believed to have a lower total payroll than the AAF did in 2019.
Absent a pandemic, would the league have returned in 2021?
Probably, but only McMahon would know for sure. The league received strong Week 1 reviews and an average of 3.12 million viewers per game. But the average dropped every week and hit about 1.5 million in Week 5, a decrease of 51%. Attendance averaged 18,614 per game, about 20% higher than the average attendance at AAF games in 2019.
In interviews at midseason, Pollack and XFL commissioner Oliver Luck said the league was poised for a strong finish to carry momentum into 2021.
What is Luck's future?
He did not speak on the conference call and did not reply to a request for comment. It's not clear whether he was part of Friday's layoffs. Pollack is the only executive who is known to be remaining with the league, even in the short term. McMahon hired Luck to boost the football credibility of this XFL incarnation, and Luck made clear he would take a football-centric approach and not succumb to gimmicks to market the league.
Did the XFL have a good plan?
The only way to answer that is to say we'll probably never know. Luck and director of football operations Sam Schwartzstein conceived and applied a series of innovations they hoped would recast football for the next generation. XFL games were about 15 minutes quicker than NFL contests, and rules designed to maximize kickoffs and improve point-after attempts proved popular. In February, members of the NFL competition committee said they were intrigued by the league's innovations and planned to study them closer.
But the overall quality of play was uneven. The league did not pursue star players, a decision it signaled when it made journeyman NFL quarterback Landry Jones its first signing, and the QBs it assembled had a wide disparity in skills.
Could the league have built an enduring fan base, and supported a profitable enterprise, with a plan built around the game rather than the players? That was its play, but barring an unexpected development, we'll never know.
Will the broadcast innovations catch on with the NFL?
XFL broadcasts featured sideline interviews with players and coaches. They regularly aired conversations between officials on the field, as well as replay officials who were deciding whether to overturn or uphold calls. It made for interesting television, but it worked in part because there had never been another paradigm in the XFL.
Does the NFL need to make their players available for interviews on the bench? Would it want its officials' process broadcast in real time? I don't think so.
Wasn't this all just a vehicle for engaging the gambling community?
I don't think it was that brazen, but the XFL definitely leaned into gambling far more than the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball. Its plan was to "embrace the spread," authorizing its broadcasters to openly discuss and display gambling activities, and it knew it could appeal to growth segments of the sports industry simply by not standing in the way of a gambling connection.
What happens now to the XFL's players and coaches?
Players have been free to sign with the NFL since March 23, and dozens already have. The league's breakout player, quarterback P.J. Walker, joined the Carolina Panthers to back up new starter Teddy Bridgewater. Coaches would also be free to pursue new opportunities.
After this experience, will there ever be another major spring football league?
It's hard to imagine someone will try it anytime soon, if for no other reason than the likelihood of an extended economic downturn.
But in the bigger picture, we still haven't seen proof of concept for an alternative football league. The XFL was the most promising attempt since the USFL in the 1980s. In the end, though, the last successful alternative football league in this country was the AFL, which merged with the NFL in 1970. No one has cracked the code, if there even is one.