This time, Vince McMahon was doing everything right.
The WWE CEO teamed up with former NFL executive Oliver Luck to revive the XFL in 2018, with plans to play the league’s initial season in 2020. McMahon ran the XFL during its 2001 season and was essentially the poster child for the league.That season not only ended in the suspension of the league, but also forever linked McMahon with one of the most spectacular failures in the history of American sports.
2001’s XFL was poorly executed, poorly attended and perhaps most importantly, poorly played.
2020’s XFL was none of those things.
McMahon took much more of a hands-off approach in his second venture into running a spring professional football league, letting executives like Luck handle how the league would differentiate itself from the NFL. That decision paid off in a big way, resulting in an exciting, watchable brand of football with several new innovations.
Some of those elements, like the revamped kickoff and the league being in-tune with sports gambling, are changes that the NFL will probably adopt sooner rather than later. The NFL probably won’t go as far as putting the points spread on the television scoreboard. However, the XFL successfully started the conversation about major professional sports leagues more closely associating gambling with the fan experience.
Other elements like sideline interviews during games, the double-forward pass and the option to go for one, two or three-point conversions after touchdowns will probably never be introduced to the NFL. And for what the XFL’s purpose is, that’s okay. Luck and McMahon did a fantastic job of making the league unique enough to attract new viewers while maintaining the standard elements of a professional football game for traditionalists.
Additionally, the XFL had what so many failed spring professional football leagues craved: solid ratings and a strong network television deal. The ratings steadily decreased after week one, but the XFL competed with, and occasionally beat out, other sporting events airing at the same time.
Cities like St. Louis, Seattle and Washington D.C. showed incredible fan support for their respective XFL franchises. Those three cities, along with Houston and Dallas, made up the strongest markets in the league in terms of fan attendance.
St. Louis was the most impressive of those markets by a significant margin, filling up the Edward Jones Dome with over 27,000 fans in the BattleHawks’ first two home contests. Professional football’s return to the Gateway City was such a huge hit that the team announced it would be opening the upper bowl for the BattleHawks’ next home game, a March 21 showdown with the LA Wildcats.
That game never happened.
By now, the massive impact COVID-19 has had on our lives and will continue to have in the future is known. COVID-19 has shut down travel, closed schools and stopped sports worldwide. While major sports leagues like the NBA, NHL and MLB continue to navigate resuming what will likely be a pandemic-shortened season, the XFL announced it was going in a different direction.
After originally announcing the suspension of the league with a goal to return in 2021 on March 12, the league’s Chief Operations Officer Jeffrey Pollack all but completely shut that down in a ten-minute conference call with XFL employees on April 10. In that call, Pollack announced that the league would be firing nearly all of its staff and suspending operations, leaving a few executives as the lone remains.
The article went on to mention that the XFL currently has no plans to return in 2021. And if that wasn’t enough discouragement, the final deathblow came on April 13 when the league officially filed for bankruptcy.
As someone who followed both the XFL and last year’s failed spring professional football league, Alliance of American Football (AAF), it’s depressing and incredibly ironic that the XFL didn’t last as long as the AAF. The XFL was everything that the AAF wasn’t. It was better-attended, more closely followed on social media, had a clear direction with the financial support the AAF didn’t and was much more entertaining to watch.
This unfortunate ending will undoubtedly be seen on the surface as another massive financial loss for McMahon, but it doesn’t deserve to be. It took circumstances out of anyone’s control to shut down a league that had the chance to be a mainstay in American sports. Despite the league’s competitive ratings and solid markets, it couldn’t survive missing out on months of revenue.
I feel horribly for the league’s players, some of whom have had to deal with the AAF and XFL shutting down in back-to-back seasons. The XFL is yet another wasted option to give players a shot at professional football. Some NFL players have dipped into the league’s pool of players to boost their rosters, most notably Houston Roughnecks quarterback P.J. Walker signing with the Carolina Panthers and St. Louis BattleHawks quarterback Jordan Ta’amu signing with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Even though it ended in such a disappointing fashion, the XFL’s stretch proved that if done correctly, spring professional football can work in the United States. It can provide a great bridge from college football to the NFL and give players a shot to prove their worth. Here’s to hoping it returns sooner rather than later.
The XFL ending also means that five former Huskers are out of a job. Let’s take a look at how they fared this season.
Jerald Foster, Tampa Bay Vipers, offensive guard
Foster started five games for a Vipers squad that finished the 2020 season with a 1-4 record.
Tampa Bay struggled to find offensive consistency all season, switching between quarterbacks Aaron Murray, Quinton Flowers and Taylor Cornelius in the first two weeks of the season. The Vipers had a solid option with Cornelius, even though he finished with 858 yards, four touchdowns and six interceptions.
The highlight of Foster’s season came when he anchored a dominant offensive performance in a 25-0 victory over the DC Defenders in week four. Tampa Bay gained 477 total yards against the Defenders, 266 of which came on the ground.
The Lincoln native spent the 2019 preseason with the Washington Redskins but has not yet found an opportunity for the future in professional football. Foster posted a picture on Instagram amid the early COVID-19 panic on March 12 with the caption, “Just know it was worth it,” in a reflection on his time in Tampa Bay.
Alonzo Moore, Seattle Dragons, wide receiver
Moore falls in the category of players who spent time in the XFL and AAF, as he played for the now-defunct AAF San Antonio Commanders in 2019.
Much like in the AAF, Moore failed to make a consistent impact in the Dragons offense. He flashed his big-play ability, evident by a 57-yard catch-and-run against the BattleHawks in week four. Unfortunately, that catch marked over half of the receiving yards Moore had on the season.
He finished with eight receptions for 110 yards and was targeted 14 times.
Seattle finished the season with a 1-4 record, and Moore thanked the XFL with an Instagram post. Like Foster, Moore also hasn’t found a home in the NFL.
Mohammed Seisay, Seattle Dragons, cornerback
Seisay appeared in three games for the Dragons this season. He finished with four solo tackles and seven total tackles. He also had one pass defended.
Like Moore, Seisay also appeared in the AAF last season. Seisay spent 2019 with the Arizona Hotshots. Unlike Moore, Seisay’s 2020 season ended even earlier than expected on an unexpected note. He suffered a scary head injury in the Dragons’ week four contest and had to spend the night at a St. Louis hospital.
It was revealed that Seisay broke a bone in his neck but he provided an update on social media revealing that he was in good spirits. The Dragons placed him on the reserve/injured list on March 3. Hopefully Seisay remains in good health and is back on the field soon.
Brandon Reilly, St. Louis BattleHawks, wide receiver
Reilly failed to make much of an impact in his time in St. Louis. The highlight of his campaign in the XFL was a three-reception, 46-yard outing in week four against the Seattle Dragons. A majority of Reilly’s production on the season came in that contest, finishing the regular season with seven receptions for 107 yards.
The XFL was the most recent stop in Reilly’s journeyman career, as he bounced around various NFL practice squads before landing in St. Louis. Reilly thanked the city of St. Louis in an Instagram post, citing his gratitude for the relationships he made on the BattleHawks.
De’Mornay Pierson-El, St. Louis BattleHawks, wide receiver
Pierson-El was far and away the most productive former Husker in the XFL.
He landed in St. Louis after spending the 2019 season playing for the AAF’s Salt Lake Stallions. After that league was cut short, Pierson-El was signed by the Oakland Raiders. He spent the 2019 NFL preseason with the Raiders but did not make the final roster.
In his return to spring professional football, Pierson-El again showed why he could be a valuable piece to an NFL roster. He finished with 23 receptions for 209 yards and two touchdowns. Pierson-El also spent time returning punts for the BattleHawks.
Out of the former Huskers in the XFL, Pierson-El has the best chance to land on an NFL roster. Had he played in eight games like he did in the AAF, he would’ve blown his receiving numbers from the AAF out of the water. He surpassed his touchdown total from last spring, finishing with two XFL touchdowns to one in the AAF.
All of these players are deserving of another opportunity, but Pierson-El has the resume of a player that deserves a spot on an NFL roster this summer. He has experience as a wide receiver and on special teams. That versatility should make him an appealing option at the next level.