USFL, the AAFL, the NPFL. The PPFL, the ASPFL, the IFL, the UFL, the SFL. Know any of these? (the first one is not the viable spring league that eventually never made it to the fall after a growing spring option, it was another iteration that never saw its first field). Then you have the AFL, AFL2, IPFL and several others. The most recognizable, the AFL, is now down to four teams. They are all football leagues, mostly in the spring, that have been mentioned, touted, strategized about…and have never made it to see the light of day. Now we have the return of the XFL.
The only “other” league with a viable existence is north of the border, the Canadian Football League, which has had its shares of ups and downs but is currently doing more than holding its own as a summer into a late fall property. The rest. Oy.
For post Super Bowl, pro football fans have The Combine, the pre-draft prep, off season workouts, free agency and of course the Draft, all leading towards the start of training camp in July. Like Ahab chasing the whale, those with a jones for the football business have looked to the spring to see if there is a viable business that can capture the casual and diehard fan and enough dollars to bridge the gap, and even provide an alternative to the NFL. Lots of ideas, lots of effort, not many or any results.
The biggest reason is simple. It’s not talented payers with great stories or innovative coaches or a lack of facilities or towns wanting to be part of professional football. It’s money. Not just startup capital, but enough capital with deep pocketed partners who are willing to withstand an onslaught of red, the perils of a public startup in the shadow of the NFL and the fickle media environment that exists and will continue to evolve over time. It’s a people business with unpredictable results, which is frankly why we love sports. Scripted has its place, but the unscripted is sublime and with that comes the need to run the marathon in a world of sports business sprints. That takes lots of Benjamins to burn.
In addition to the deep pockets there was always the media element. Every traditional media company has had their door darkened by one or more of these startup leagues. Would there be someone willing to take a risk in investing, or be a partner where broadcast time and most importantly, costly productions, could be offset in some way. Without proof of ROI and given the clutter of marketplaces (not to mention running the risk of the NFL not being happy with promotion of another football property that could be seen as competition) the spend and the exposure to gain traction was another big barrier to entry. Sure you can be on, but hand us a check.
Those two questions appear to be answered. McMahon’s principal business IS a media and entertainment company, as well as a pretty successful and growing OTT and streaming platform that was launched and has grown with lots of skeptics watching. Now that’s not to say that the WWWE Network becomes the home of the XFL, because it was clear, at least for now, that there is a separate business being run here with its own $100 million in seed money (which, given WWE is a publicly traded business makes great sense as you probably don’t want to be beholden to shareholders for this startup). That does not mean that there can’t be a direct to consumer streaming business built off of best practices in and around WWE media. It also doesn’t mean that the value of WWE can’t be quietly leveraged when looking not just for a traditional media partner (if one is needed in two years) or a growing number of platforms who would love the content and also like to do a dance for the global content riches WWE can provide with its stars and storytellers to an audience who may not be interested in football, but loves the WWE lifestyle brand. So, the barrier of having a “media” company can be solved from best practices learned within the company’s Stanford HQ. That’s another big barrier that becomes smaller; where will we be seen. Facebook, don’t forget, just did their deal with The World Surf League, as niche as you can get, so where the media space evolves to in two years when this kicks off is anyone’s guess. It won’t be what we think of as “traditional.”
Then there were the cities. Ownership being a single entity with one P and L makes great sense on cost control and for that matter, ego control. The same cities were bandied about both big and small, all with stadia looking to be filled. But why wouldn’t a McMahon venture think beyond traditional? How about Mexico? Or Montreal? Could a cost control venture work with two cities abroad, away from the bigger issues that the NFL faces? Could that be a play, to dive into some of the waters the NFL has tested? If you are not ratings beholden and are going a streaming route or an engaged audience route, the market size may matter less, so tied to New York or Chicago may get you some things for buzz, but not when you outweigh what the hard costs of doing business in crowded markets in a questionable weather environ could be. There will be many places that will come calling, but what will be the right call for engagement and success as a startup?
Ironically those who were there pre XFL, and some of them still probably have the original decks, talked of that property being a place of innovation, where coaches and executives were from diverse backgrounds, new ways of fan engagement were going to be brought in, training methods used, stories told that could not be done with the big time business shackles of the NFL. Then things went awry and show biz triumphed over substance.
This time it seems the original plan may be the one that works; a clean slate with innovation and a model that at least on paper, a fan base that loves competition will enjoy and maybe even have a say in (look at what Twitch is now doing with the NBA GLeague and what ESPN has tried with the Megacast, an opportunity for the fan to choose the way he or she wants to watch the game). Digital, mobile first, with a game the audience understands. Oh and on the mobile side, let’s not forget where we will be in the gaming and gambling world come 2020. Not said or heard today, but welcome in all that innovative fan first engagement work that will be done on a hand held mobile device, with some nice cash to be made as well.
Does this fly in the face of what many are saying about the downfall of football? Concussions, violence, less kids playing, no opportunity for women questionable global appeal? In many ways yes, but those whispering in the background, those who have scratched at another league, but without the necessary scratch in the bank, have long said that faster, innovative and safer (never totally safe, that’s what competition is) was in the offing if you could just get through the launch and refine the product.
What does all this mean for the NFL? Publicly not much for now, but it doesn’t change the fact that the bigger dog in the business is looking at itself as close or even closer than it has before to constantly find ways to solve issues and improve itself. Learning from those around you while allocating your own resources for improvement is what smart businesses do, and there are and will be many smart people at every level of the NFL. It is good to always have a little competition, an Avis to your Hertz, to keep you moving forward.
More than the league, it will be interesting to hear what the owners and other stakeholders say of anything on the matter as all eyes turn to Minneapolis, or how the well-timed announcement during a quiet football time enters into the conversation on Radio Row next week? Many a year WWE stars have made their way to Radio Row. Will that happen this year, and if so, will the XFL sneak into the debate, even if the public message is “not the sane company?” Hard to see how it won’t.
In the end, there is much to learn. Who will be the face of the venture, what will make it must follow, how will stars be built, how will this change the game, and for that matter, sports business, for the better, or will it prove what others have said; there is enough football out there now, and refining that product is better than adding another.
The folks at WWE are master marketers, whether you like their business or not. They have resurrected and expanded a global media and marketing entertainment empire, and have learned from missteps of the past in a public environ. Will that carry over with this separate venture? Today it seemed so, let’s see what the near future holds.
Oh and in addition to the buzz on social, there is the bottom line. WWE stock closed at a record high the few hours after the announcement. Questionable new venture or well timed vision, seems like The Street likes what it heard.