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WWE’s McMahon pushes ahead with football league

April 9, 2019

STAMFORD — A startup football league has halted play in the middle of its first season. Another gridiron venture, spearheaded by WWE CEO Vince McMahon, aims to avoid a similar fate.

In the aftermath of last month’s suspension of the American Alliance of Football, McMahon’s rebooted XFL still plans to launch next February. XFL is arguably built on a stronger foundation — as shown by McMahon’s recent nine-figure investment in the league — but it would still likely face many of the challenges that dogged the AAF.

“The likely demise of the AAF doesn’t bode well for the XFL,” said Daniel Durbin, director of the Institute of Sports, Media and Society at the University of Southern California. “McMahon may have more resources available than the AAF did. But, in the end, he will have to be willing to wait out possibly years of losses to develop a stable and successful league.”

The AAF stopped eight weeks into its first season, despite a $250 million investment in February from AAF Chairman Tom Dundon, who is owner of the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes. Dundon had said that his funding would keep the league viable for “years and years to come.”

XFL officials rejected a proposed merger with the AAF, which was grappling with financial troubles before its season even began, according to Sports Business Journal.

To put XFL on a more solid fiscal footing, McMahon has made a series of major investments. He sold nearly $272 million worth of WWE stock late last month to fund Alpha Entertainment LLC, a business that is supporting XFL’s launch.

In December 2017, McMahon sold about $100 million of WWE shares to fund Alpha. He made an additional $22 million stock sale last December.

While McMahon is financing the XFL, he has said that he has no plans to step down as WWE’s chief executive.

The two enterprises are neighbors: WWE is headquartered at 1241 E. Main St., on Stamford’s East Side; XFL is based at 1266 E. Main St.

XFL officials said they remain confident about their preparations for the 2020 season, which would start the weekend after next year’s Super Bowl.

“The XFL is well funded, we have time before kickoff to execute our business plan, and we will soon announce a national broadcast and cable TV schedule that makes it easy for fans to find our games consistently every weekend when we launch next February,” XFL said in a statement this week. “There is no doubt that avid football fans want more, and we’re excited to get going in 2020.”

The XFL would not directly compete with the NFL because its season would start the weekend after the Super Bowl.

In 2001, the XFL followed a similar schedule in the sole season of its original version. It started with strong ratings, but soon saw its audience dwindle.

“I have long believed that the strategic vision for ‘XFL 2.0’ was never modeled at all after the first incarnation,” said Josh Shuart, chairman of marketing and sports management at Sacred Heart University. “Surely, seeing another upstart football league go belly up so quickly would at least make you more thoughtful in how you rolled out your own league. The XFL leadership have plenty of time to tweak anything that they now feel might not be successful. Locking in a broadcast partner soon will be a major, positive, first step.”

Meanwhile, the NFL remains the undisputed ratings leader among American sports. In the 2018 regular season, NBC Sports’ Sunday Night Football averaged 19.6 million viewers, a 7 percent year-over-year increase that helped to counter ratings declines in the previous two seasons.

“As the NFL is often seeing diminished viewership for its product, we may not be in a time when a new football league has the ability to generate that excitement,” Durbin said. “So, the odds are against McMahon. I would tend to go with the odds on this one.”

pschott@stamfordadvocate.com; 203-964-2236; twitter: @paulschott