Its first season is over, but the league will have to rewrite history if it’s going to make spring pro football work.
It’s warm inside San Antonio’s Alamodome an hour before kickoff for the XFL Championship Game on May 13 when a commotion draws fans out of their seats and towards the field. The sparse crowd, which by game time will grow to a bordering-on-respectable 22,754, has their phones out, ready to record the moment. They’ve spotted the XFL’s 6-foot-5-inch weapon against its main competition, rival spring league USFL, and its best shot at profitability — Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. The world’s biggest movie star is waving and pointing into the stands as he walks toward the sideline with Dany Garcia, long-business partner and ex-wife, who first asked him, in the pandemic summer of 2020, whether he was interested in her “crazy idea” of buying and running the XFL.
“You don’t call Dwayne Johnson and say, ‘I have a decent idea,’” Garcia told Forbes. “It’s got to be big, important and meaningful for him.”
With fellow investors Disney and RedBird Capital Partners, Garcia and Johnson paid $23.5 million to take control of the bankrupt XFL through a joint venture holding company, Alpha Acquico. The payment includes $8.5 million to settle previous XFL debt. The league wouldn’t disclose what percentages the individual stakeholders control.
Johnson, 51, who was a defensive lineman at the University of Miami before his professional wrestling career and Hollywood, considers it “a league of opportunity” for guys, like him, who played college ball but never made it to the NFL. At Miami, Johnson lost his starting job to Warren Sapp — a future NFL Hall of Famer — but he thought his name might still be called in the 1995 NFL draft. It wasn’t. “Football was my dream,” Johnson told Forbes. “The NFL was my thing. I was going to buy my parents their first house.” Already, the NFL has signed 26 XFL players. “Football didn’t end on my terms,” Johnson said. “I wish I’d had the XFL when I was coming out.” “It completes that circle,” Garcia said.
The XFL lost an estimated $60 million in 2023, according to industry sources, and cut some jobs. Next season, the league projects $100 million in revenue, said people familiar with its finances. About a quarter of its income comes from ESPN, which pays the league $20 million per season.
That there will be a second season at all puts it ahead of more than a couple past attempts at professional spring football leagues. Ownership told Forbes the XFL has capital commitments in place for years one through four, and the league has signed sponsorships with national brands such as Progressive
“We’re extremely well-capitalized for the long-term,” said Garcia, the XFL’s chair. “This is our new WWE. The next massive live property.”
If spring leagues had a graveyard, the XFL would have two tombstones. The 2001 maiden voyage by NBC and World Wrestling Entertainment impresario Vince McMahon, which fans will forever remember as the “He Hate Me” season, resulted in the TV network losing $50 million and a shuttering after one season. Years later, McMahon spent over $200 million to relaunch the league, reportedly committing another $500 million to fund it, and added Fox
The United States Football League, or USFL, started in 1983, folded two years later, then was resurrected in 2021 and is currently playing the second season of its second iteration. (The USFL declined to comment for this story.) In 1991 came the World League of American Football (not to be confused with the World Football League of the 1970s), which quit after four years. A rebrand made it NFL Europe, which ceased operations in 2007. The Alliance of American Football gave it a shot in 2019. The league needed a $250 million infusion just one week into its inaugural season and made it two months. The most successful of all was the Arena Football League, an indoor product and therefore a slightly different animal, which had a 30-year run with rock-star team owners such as Jon Bon Jovi and Gene Simmons and an iconic success story in Kurt Warner, who went from the Arena League to two NFL Most Valuable Player awards, a Super Bowl victory in 2000 with the St. Louis Rams and a bust in the NFL Hall of Fame. The league went belly up in 2019. It said it plans to return in 2024.
“I’ve yet to see any iteration of spring football work in the sense that it becomes a permanent part of the sports landscape,” former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson told Forbes. “The American public loves football. It’s called NFL and college.”
Not surprisingly, Gerry Cardinale, a 20-year Goldman Sachs veteran who founded and runs XFL co-owner RedBird Capital, thinks such criticism is just noise. RedBird, which according to its website manages $8.6 billion, has a finger and sometimes a hand in running a variety of sports teams and businesses, including the Boston Red Sox and the New England Sports Network, or NESN, through its stake in Fenway Sports Group, and the Yankees Entertainment & Sports Network, or YES, as well as investments alongside billionaires Larry Ellison and LeBron James.
“I’m a contrarian investor constantly looking for arbitrage,” Cardinale told Forbes. “And the arbitrage of the XFL: no one has done it right before.”
Cardinale likes to compare the trajectory of the XFL to Major League Soccer (pre-Lionel Messi) and aims to pass MLS to become the fifth-biggest sports league in the country. Cardinale said he expects the XFL to become cash-flow positive by 2027.
“It’s not a flip the switch and all of a sudden you’re successful,” he told Forbes. “It took MLS 30 years to get to their current average team and implied league valuations. I believe we can do it in five years.”
Cardinale said the metrics from the XFL’s first season suggest that the league is on its way. Having Disney as a partner helps — the entertainment conglomerate owns ESPN, where the league’s championship game averaged 1.4 million viewers and 627,000 per game over its 44 regular-season contests, according to Nielsen. That tops the MLS, which drew 343,000 viewers across ESPN platforms in 2022, but is dwarfed by the NFL, a TV juggernaut that averaged 16.7 million viewers over 272 games in 2022.
The USFL’s TV numbers are slightly better than the XFL’s. It’s been playing for a year longer. Its games averaged 751,000 viewers on Fox, FS1, NBC and USA Network, and the 2022 USFL championship game drew an average of 1.5 million viewers. The league will play its 2023 championship game in July. NBC Sports’ Jon Miller called the USFL a “profitable property” and Fox executive Mike Mulvihill told Sports Business Journal that the networks demonstrated that spring football works at the viewership levels of the Premier
To save money, XFL teams live and practice in Arlington, Texas and travel to local markets for games. Aside from Arlington, the clubs compete in Houston, Las Vegas, Orlando, San Antonio, Seattle, St. Louis and Washington. There’s no commissioner, and no individual team management. Former Buffalo Bills president Russ Brandon oversees day-to-day football operations.
There’s a single person who, by his presence, legitimizes the XFL and noses it ahead of the USFL. At the league’s championship game last month, Johnson was all smiles. He knows the attrition rate of spring leagues is high. “My goal was can we get through the first season,” he said.
As for the XFL championship game, the Arlington Renegades beat the D.C. Defenders, 35-26. The game had its entertaining moments. The star was the Renegades’ Luis Perez, a 28-year-old quarterback from Texas A&M-Commerce, a school few football fans have heard of, who looked a little like Peyton Manning for one night.
“This is not just an endeavor that’s going to fill up a portfolio and one day we flip it and we’re out,” Johnson told Forbes. “This is legacy. This is the long game.”
Read the full article here