For the second straight year, a fledgling spring football league has shut down operations without finishing its debut season.
The XFL was five weeks into its relaunch when Covid-19 concerns forced the league to postpone games indefinitely. Less than one month later, the league discontinued all operations and permanently laid off most, if not all, employees.
Three days later, league ownership declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy, citing more than 1,000 creditors and up to $50 million in liabilities. That filing will begin liquidation of the XFL’s remaining assets. It also leaves several stakeholders — coaches like Bob Stoops, June Jones, Jim Zorn, and Marc Trestman — with millions of dollars in unpaid contracts now left in limbo.
The first lawsuit against McMahon came fewer than two weeks later. Former NFL quarterback and XFL commissioner Andrew Luck levied his claim against the now-shuttered league.
First major litigation ensuing from fall of XFL: former commish Oliver Luck suing Vince McMahon. My story https://t.co/pLxrzDSnBf— Daniel Kaplan (@KaplanSportsBiz) April 21, 2020
This all suggests we won’t be seeing the XFL rise from its grave anytime soon.
The XFL went from coronavirus postponements to total shutdown
The league enjoyed modest success after setting up camp in eight U.S. cities and filling the void left behind when the 2019 NFL season came to an end. Vince McMahon’s reboot was a fun alternative to a football-less landscape.
A global pandemic left the league unable to capitalize on that potential. It suspended operations March 12 thanks to the spread of coronavirus in the United States. Despite the cancellation of the 2020 season, the league committed to moving forward in 2021.
Days after the announcement, a player for the Seattle Dragons tested positive for the virus — barely a week after participating in a game against the Houston Roughnecks.
Per KOMO reporter Femi Abebefe, the league will not return in 2021. Employees who faced termination Friday will reportedly be paid through Sunday — the same day as the scheduled end of the league’s regular season. Among the layoffs was social media staffer Bailey Carlin, who characterized Friday’s action as firing “EVERYONE.”
Monday’s bankruptcy declaration served to drive another nail into the sealed coffin of a once-promising league.
This suspension curtails the XFL’s momentum
Spring football has only found tiny slivers of success in America, but the XFL demonstrated the potential to become a perennial post-Super Bowl staple. Players like P.J. Walker and Jordan Ta’amu shined on the field while concessions to make in-game wagers possible — such as putting shifting over/under point totals right on the scoreboard ticker — showcased the XFL’s willingness to cater to an evolving sports marketplace.
The league also embraced its audience, both in the stadium and through social media. It engaged with fans, encouraged things like rows-long beer snakes, and allowed clips from games to be shared far and wide.
The XFL provided a simpler, less dramatic alternative to the NFL. It felt more like a college game or an actually fun Pro Bowl. That was a welcome, low-stakes shift from the tense playoffs that preceded it.
Rostered players were freed to ink NFL contracts shortly after the league announced it was suspending games. Several athletes, including Walker (Panthers) and Ta’amu (Chiefs) have already signed with NFL teams.
This is a depressing, but familiar story
One year ago, the Alliance of American Football (AAF), which also had an eight-team membership and 10-week regular season, ceased operations last April after only eight weeks of action. While the AAF declared bankruptcy shortly afterward, the fate of the XFL remains unclear.
2020 marked the second time McMahon attempted to create a viable spring alternative to the NFL. His first iteration of the XFL, founded in 1999, played only a single season in 2001 before shutting its doors in the wake of sloppy play and terrible television ratings.
The positive the XFL can point to is its building momentum and the fact it was ultimately derailed not by the quality of its product — a major factor in the league’s 2001 failure — but by a global pandemic. The XFL fell victim to a landscape where no one’s really sure what the future of live sports will look like.
While that’s cold consolation for the players, coaches, and staffers who are now out of a job, it’s a glimmer of hope for spring football in the future. The XFL wasn’t perfect, but it deserved a bigger opportunity to shine.
We’ll have more updates as this story develops.