On Friday afternoon, I received a particularly surprising DM from someone whose information is normally solid, if not always reportable. The DM said that Vince McMahon is bringing back the XFL, with a press conference announcing the move on Jan. 25. The scuttlebutt was that not only had ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary about McMahon’s failed Spring football league gotten him going about the idea again, but that he saw an opening in the marketplace given the response to NFL players’ on-field protests. I started pursuing the story, but a few hours later, a man named Brad Shepard, a conservative blogger who used to do some wrestling writing, tweeted the same information as his own news item. My source didn’t know him, but soon after, Brian “Front Row Brian” McMahon, a mixed martial arts “insider” type who sometimes breaks MMA and pro wrestling stories, backed up Shepard. Whether it was true or not, it was a story.
At that point I reached out to WWE, asking them to confirm or deny the story. I got this statement back a couple hours later:
Vince McMahon has established and is personally funding a separate entity from WWE, Alpha Entertainment, to explore investment opportunities across the sports and entertainment landscapes, including professional football. Mr. McMahon has nothing further to announce at this time.
You’ll notice that there is not a denial in that statement. As a result, the story blew up both here at Deadspin and just about everywhere else. Those renewed XFL trademarks were sometimes cited, but that was initiated last year as protection in advance of the 30 for 30. Anyway, if McMahon’s football project is is not part of WWE, it probably can’t be called the XFL; WWE owns the trademarks and licensing/selling them to the chairman might not look great. Chris Harrington of Fightful.com did some additional detective work over the weekend, looking up various related public records that provide further insight into what McMahon is trying to do. What he found suggests that whatever this project winds up being, it will be something short of a literal XFL revival. Harrington discovered that:
- Alpha Entertainment, LLC was incorporated in Delaware (same state as WWE) on Sept. 6.
- The same company filed for trademarks on “URFL” and “UrFL” later that month. The attorney of record, Christopher Verdini of K&L Gates, has done intellectual property work for WWE in the past.
- Also in September but a few days before Alpha’s filings, VKM Ventures LLC, a company bearing McMahon’s initials and also represented by Verdini, applied for a few other trademarks. Those are “For the Love of Football,” “UFL,” and “United Football League.” If you’re wondering about how that relates to Mark Cuban’s United Football League, that league’s trademarks have largely been abandoned.
(On top of all that, I discovered myself that when you search for the file number for VKM Ventures on the Delaware corporations website, it brings up Alpha Entertainment, so they’re actually the same company. It just got confusing because the name changed between Sept. 14 and Sept. 21, right in the middle of the trademark filings.)
The XFL was announced in 2000 and launched in 2001, when the newly publicly traded WWE was in an expansive mood. NBC had lost its NFL contract, the NFL was not yet at its zenith, and McMahon saw an opportunity to market an alternative league based on the idea that the NFL had become tragically pussified. “This is where football is played for the love of the game,” begins the narrator in one early commercial spot, putting forth branding that’s echoed by one of the UFL/UrFL trademarks. “No indoor fields. No prima donnas. No wimps. Here, the rules are fiercer, the clocks are faster, and halftime is a break, not a vacation. This is football the way it was meant to be played, in giant coliseums, major cities: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago. Where the fans want the game pushed to the extreme. Risky plays, fearless tackles. And one more thing: No fair catches.”
That last one was arguably the biggest selling point in XFL advertising, a catchphrase that promised a more violent version of football to an audience that McMahon believed was waiting for a more brutal product. And the XFL was brutal, all right, if not quite in the way McMahon intended. The quality of the football was appallingly bad, thanks in large part to teams that only had a few weeks of practice together and a player pool of sub-NFL talent; most of the new de-wussification rules got changed midway through the season, anyway. By that time, it was too late: Ratings, which were above projections in week one, quickly nosedived. Week seven’s flagship game was the lowest rated show in the history of Nielsen tracking the “big three” networks.
For reasons that should be obvious, the whole Now With More Brutality gambit won’t work if you’re trying to start a new football league in 2017; what was merely overdetermined back then is now, in light of the ongoing discoveries with regards to brain trauma, something far worse. From McMahon’s perspective, even if this is technically not a WWE project, it’s arguably an even worse idea. WWE is itself fighting off lawsuits related to brain trauma, one of which names Vince personally as a defendant. If you’re not pitching a “more exciting” version of football, or at least not with the NFL’s more explicitly violent promises, exactly what would be the hook of the U[r]FL? You can probably guess.
In the closing scene of the aforementioned 30 for 30, Dick Ebersol asked McMahon if he had considered rebooting the XFL. “Yes I do,” began McMahon. “I don’t know what it would be. I don’t know if it’s gonna be another XFL or what it may be or how different I would make it.” After musing about the idea of partnering with the NFL and getting help funding it without NBC footing half the bill, Vince eventually conceded that it wasn’t really feasible without a the NFL giving him an opening. “I don’t know what else we could do that the NFL isn’t doing now, but I’m sure we could find a way,” he said.
Breitbart News, which picked up the XFL story on Saturday, has an idea: make this new league Football for Donald Trump supporters. Dylan Gwinn’s article stressed that President Trump, a longtime WWE collaborator, would likely support the project. “A few tweets and public shows of support from Trump, would amount to tens of millions of free advertising for the new league,” Gwinn wrote before suggesting that McMahon “might want to make a rule against protesting the anthem. Like, immediately.” When asked by Deadspin, Gwinn said that the MAGA-centric part of the article was “totally editorializing” on his part and not a reaction to rumors or any other guidance.
That said, it’s worth noting that when Trump went all in against the NFL and its players in September, he didn’t just focus on the “son of a bitch” protesters who knelt during the playing of the national anthem:
When the NFL ratings are down massively, massively. The NFL ratings are down massively. Now the number one reason happens to be they like watching what’s happening ... with yours truly. They like what’s happening. Because you know today if you hit too hard: Fifteen yards! Throw him out of the game! They had that last week. I watched for a couple of minutes. Two guys, just really, beautiful tackle. Boom, 15 yards! The referee gets on television, his wife is sitting at home, she’s so proud of him. They’re ruining the game! They’re ruining the game. That’s what they want to do. They want to hit. They want to hit! It is hurting the game.
That speech was just one day after the “UFL” and the “United Football League” trademarks were filed, eight days after the “For the Love of Football” filing, and four days before the application for the “UrFL” trademarks. Even setting aside any kind of conspiratorial angle, it sure looks like the decision to move forward on whatever this is as a real project was made as the NFL’s player protest movement became a story that transcended sports and rankled the president and his devoted following. If Trump really did get behind the new league with supportive tweets, would the U[r]FL even need to advertise itself as more violent, or “kneeling free” football themselves? Probably not. But banking on partisan politics or even a broader divisiveness is a sufficiently risky proposition that McMahon may well opt out. After all, there’s a reason that it has not been mentioned once on WWE programming that WWE Hall of Famer Donald Trump is the president and former WWE executive and on-screen character Linda McMahon is in his cabinet.
Now, setting all that aside, if all this isn’t a response to the protests, then what the hell is Vince thinking? Doing MAGA football is, even if probably ill-advised, at least a gamble on filling a perceived space in the market. But what other void is there that the NFL, NCAA or even the remnants of the Arena Football League aren’t filling?
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are eavailable. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.