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Where the XFL Went Wrong (and Right)

Where the XFL Went Wrong (and Right)

5 minute read

  • Former football league, the XFL, lasted one season in 2001 and is commonly remembered for its missteps
  • While the XFL did make mistakes, it also made a number of smart moves including incorporating new technology into their game broadcasts
  • With today’s broadcasting platforms, properties are able to find alternatives to traditional broadcasting to deliver their programming to consumers, an option that did not exist for the XFL at the time

Starting a sports or entertainment property from scratch can be a difficult task. Beyond the logistical and operational needs, a property needs to consider how they will compete in a crowded sports and entertainment market. This was the challenge of the joint venture between NBC and the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) when they announced the creation of the new professional football league, the Xtreme Football League (XFL) in 2001. While the XFL ran for one season, and it is generally remembered for its missteps and ultimate failure, lessons can be learned from the property. MKTG will not only highlight where the XFL went wrong, but also explore the strengths and merits of the league.

Right Move

The XFL Established Effective Brand Positioning and Pre-Promotion

The NFL has long been considered the premier professional sports league in North America. Knowing that it could not compete head-to-head with the established NFL, the XFL made many conscious branding and scheduling decisions to ensure that it would not be in direct competition. The XFL, for example, scheduled its season from February to April, with the season opener coming one week after the Super Bowl. This was a time when fan interest in the sport was high, and the NFL season would not return for another eight months, allowing the XFL to fill the void felt by football fans.

In addition to the schedule of play, the XFL introduced a number of rules in an effort to make it a rougher and different style of game. For example, they removed the fair catch rule during kick returns. A player could no longer opt out of returning the kick if the opposing team’s coverage was too close. The fair catch rule is in place to avoid hits where the returning player is not prepared. Using these rules, the XFL took on an edgier brand than the NFL, attempting to operate in a different space. This was reflected in their marketing campaigns which compared the XFL to war. This differentiated approach for the XFL proved to be successful as the lead up to the first game generated a lot of buzz and excitement. Viewership for the league’s first game surpassed all expectations, achieving 54 million viewers (double NBC’s initial projections). However, while the XFL was successful at generating promotion and buzz, they had a difficult time maintaining viewership and interest.

Wrong Move

 An Unclear Value Proposition Alienated Viewers

While XFL founder and wrestling promoter Vince McMahon was able to generate interest in the league for week 1, ratings quickly declined in subsequent weeks. In just its second week, XFL viewership declined by nearly half, and it continued to decline as the season went on. A likely cause for this decline was the league’s lack of a clear value proposition. The XFL, for example, leaned heavily on elements of McMahon’s WWF property, including manufacturing storylines between players and cheerleaders. Manufactured storylines, while appealing to wrestling fans, did not translate to the sport of football and did not interest traditional football fans who tuned-in to the XFL. By not appealing to the interests of avid football fans, the XFL alienated a key demographic. Value propositions need to be clear – in this case, what the league is, and whom it is intended for.

Wrong Move

The XFL was the Vince McMahon Show and Not about the Athletes

From the beginning, the XFL built its brand by having a brash personality. From the opening press conference announcing the league, McMahon made bold predictions and always offered an entertaining quote. While a new upstart property needs a face, once the league began, McMahon should have made an effort to pass that duty on to the league’s athletes. Throughout the season, McMahon was constantly seen throughout games, offering pre-game introductions. It continued throughout the season, giving a headline-making interview with sports journalist, Bob Costas, who challenged him on the strategy of the XFL in which McMahon became confrontational. This shifted the attention from the play on the field to the outspoken businessman off of it. Football already has a difficult time creating marketable athletes as they play in full gear and fans do not get the opportunity to relate to them as much as other sports such as basketball. In this instance, an even greater priority should have been placed on the players to market them to fans. 

Right Move

Innovative Broadcast Experimentation Created a Unique Viewing Experience

The XFL wanted to make their games not only a unique viewing experience for those attending in-stadium, but also those viewing at home. The XFL popularized a number of broadcast features that can now be found in use by the NFL. Two such broadcast features were the use of the sky cam and frequent use of in-game microphones on coaches and players. The sky cam offered fans a brand new perspective of the play, and while in-game microphones had been used before, they were never used during the broadcast in real-time. As a new up-start property, the XFL had a greater license to experiment with their broadcast. This allowed other leagues to monitor the XFL and eventually adopt their methods into their own property.


If the XFL began today...

Although the XFL only lasted one season, the league would have likely had a greater opportunity to succeed today. One of the factors which led to the XFL folding was the fact that their partner and broadcaster, NBC, pulled the plug due to disappointing ratings. However, in today’s fragmented landscape, where Twitter is making major investments in live sports, and niche programming can find an audience on YouTube, the XFL could have looked beyond traditional broadcasting to deliver entertainment to fans. While this is just one aspect that would have changed, it could have provided the XFL with an option before ceasing operation.

The XFL was an interesting venture that provides a compelling case study for marketers to study. There were many insights which can be drawn from the league during its short duration of play. While many may point to the missteps the league made, the XFL also should also be remembered for their willingness to try something new and bringing many innovations to market that can still be seen today.

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