How the XFL came crashing down, and what its collapse means for the future of spring football

By Kevin Seifert, ESPN Staff Writer

April 10 was payday at the XFL. Kurt Hunzeker hadn’t slept. As the St. Louis BattleHawks’ president, his job was to shepherd the team into a presumptive 2021 season. Kickoff to that second season was at least 10 months away — and because of the deepening coronavirus pandemic, maybe longer. COVID-19 deaths in America would top 2,000 for the first time that day. The sports world was frozen, and many among the league’s 400 staffers wondered if owner Vince McMahon would continue funding the operation.

Alarm bells started ringing. Staff reductions or furloughs seemed possible. XFL president and chief operating officer Jeffrey Pollack was a no-show for a regularly scheduled conference call of team executives on April 8. Staffers began calling their bosses. Bosses called their bosses. Hunzeker even called commissioner Oliver Luck. No one had answers.

As he lay awake the night before, Hunzeker vowed to look at his bank account first thing in the morning. He knew how corporate America sometimes handles layoffs. One day, you get a check that combines your salary and accumulated vacation time. It’s your final check and your last day at work.

“And then we all woke up that day,” Hunzeker said. “And that’s exactly what happened. There was a very different entry in our bank accounts. And we’re like, ‘Oh, crap.’ Even before they told us, I knew what was going to happen.”

Hunzeker had been living apart from his wife and two children, who had remained in Tampa, Florida, to finish the school year after the XFL hired him in 2019. Once the XFL issued a work-from-home order in March, he rejoined the family in Tampa. When the end came, they had just started packing the house for the pending move to St. Louis, where Hunzeker and his wife grew up and were eager to return.

“It was just a dream job,” Hunzeker said. “And what sucks is that it was working. This league was an asset. We were on our way.”

Over in Houston, Roughnecks general manager Randy Mueller was awakened by a text message from the team’s equipment manager. “What’s this email about?” the staffer asked. Mueller had no idea what he was talking about. He checked his inbox and found an alert. An all-company conference call had been scheduled for noon ET.

“I was totally caught off guard,” Mueller said. “On the football side, we had no inkling about what was going on.”

The call was brief. As the entire XFL workforce listened in from around the country, Pollack confirmed the news: All of them had been terminated. Pollack read from a prepared statement, attributing the decision to the pandemic, and took no questions. Luck, who had been fired the day before, did not participate. The final blow arrived three days later, when the XFL filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, dumping it into the trash heap of every other alternative football league during the past 50 years (including the first iteration of the XFL, played in 2001).

This one had seemed different. McMahon poured more than $200 million into its startup, a process that took two full years, and had committed repeatedly to a multiyear window for proof of concept that would have cost him at least $500 million through three seasons of play. He hired experienced executives in the league office and in each local market, giving them guaranteed multiyear contracts with mid-six-figure salaries and an extensive bonus structure.

Internal planning meetings routinely included projections not only for a 2021 season but one in 2022, as well. And even after the pandemic cut the inaugural season at its midpoint, five weeks into a 10-week campaign, McMahon authorized full-scale preparations for next year. Luck’s staff, charged with nothing less than reimagining the game of football, dove in with a fanatical belief in the product and a fierce loyalty toward the commissioner, who was known for his calm demeanor and the occasional memes he sent via text message. Luck’s stature as a former NFL quarterback, college athletic director and NCAA executive — and the guaranteed $35 million contract it took to lure him — was the most important symbol of McMahon’s commitment to building a serious, long-term enterprise.

“I’m not a gimmicky person,” Luck said last fall.

The league averaged 1.9 million television viewers per game and generated nearly $20 million in gross revenues in 2020, according to court filings. It had projected $46 million in gross revenues for the 10-game season, each data point exceeding internal expectations, according to sources.

“The end was frustrating but mostly because it was like, ‘Damn it, this was going to work,'” said Eric Galko, the XFL’s former director of player personnel. “That’s what I think most everyone felt throughout the league. If you talked to anybody in the XFL, they would be shocked to know that we weren’t going to do this for a long time. Not because we were misled by anyone, but because the evidence was there.”

The ensuing weeks have been a jumble of legal disputes and plot twists. Luck filed a wrongful termination lawsuit, claiming McMahon owes him $23.8 million. McMahon, who declined ESPN’s interview request, was accused by the bankruptcy’s unsecured creditors committee of rigging the process to retain ownership. (In a deposition, McMahon denied the accusation.) Although many staffers consider the league as they knew it to be shuttered, given the uncertainty of the short-term economy McMahon has put the brand up for sale, and there are strong indications that it will be sold and relaunched under new ownership within a year or two.

“I have no doubt that had we completed the full 2020 season, we would have proved that spring football — more professional football — can work,” Pollack said. “We were on track to be the most successful launch of a new sports league in decades, if not ever, and we are hopeful the XFL can resume that trajectory with a new owner, for the fans and players and for the love of football.”

It’s fair, though, to probe deeper into some fundamental questions. The XFL’s local attendance varied widely per team, and television ratings, despite the respectable average, dropped every week of the season. Did the XFL really prove its concept? Was its demise caused solely by the pandemic? Or was it accelerated by a significant period of unrest at World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. (WWE), McMahon’s primary venture? Could a new iteration of the XFL survive? And in a larger sense, did it demonstrate enough to disabuse the prevailing notion that alternative football leagues — under the XFL brand or any other — are doomed to fail?

Ending at a turning point

The first time he saw the XFL’s proposed kickoff alignment, with everyone but the kicker and returner required to stand still for the first three seconds of the play, Greg Gabriel shook his head.

“I was like, what the hell is this?” said Gabriel, a veteran NFL evaluator who had been hired as the DC Defenders’ personnel director.

The kickoff, like every other XFL rule tweak, was a product of two years’ worth of work among the league’s innovation committee. Director of football operations Sam Schwartzstein headed the project, utilizing focus groups to understand how much change fans would tolerate and where they most wanted to see adjustments. At one point, Luck said last year, a sampling of American fans recoiled when they were shown video of games in the CFL, where receivers are allowed to run toward the line of scrimmage before the snap. At that moment, Luck and Schwartzstein understood their limits.

But once Gabriel watched the kickoff in action, and realized it all but guaranteed a return while minimizing high-speed collisions, he was relieved and impressed. Assimilation of the XFL’s other innovations followed a similar path. After five weeks, players, coaches and fans had grown accustomed to a three-tiered option structure after touchdowns. They had come to expect in-game sideline interviews and live broadcast of replay decisions, among other attempts to add access to television production, and they appreciated a quicker pace that carved about 15 minutes off the average NFL game without sacrificing the number of plays. Locals were beginning to develop their own traditions, most notably at the Defenders’ Audi Field, where fans attached plastic cups into a “beer snake” that even drew the participation of Luck in the team’s final home game on March 8.

“We started off trying to reimagine the game of football,” Schwartzstein said. “But I think what Oliver and I and the rest of us ended up doing was to reengineer it. What we realized is that you don’t want to change too much, and then have fans look at our game and say, ‘That’s not football.'”

The midseason numbers were a mix of modest achievement and mild disappointments. Teams averaged an unexceptional 20.5 points per game, and from a gambling perspective, 12 of 20 games fell under the total. Television ratings dropped from a high of 3.3 million average viewers per game in Week 1, roughly the same average as the 2019 Liberty Bowl, to 1.2 million in Week 5, equivalent to the 2019 First Responder Bowl. Those numbers were slightly ahead of the Alliance of American Football (AAF) in 2019. Average attendance remained flat at 18,600 fans per game. The XFL’s two biggest-market teams, the Los Angeles Wildcats and New York Guardians, actually drew the lowest average attendance figures at 13,124 and 14,875, respectively.

On the other hand, there were legitimate reasons to project optimism for the second half of the season. Of the XFL’s final 16 regular-season games, 12 would have been broadcast on ABC or Fox as opposed to cable — raising the possibility of a ratings rebound. A handful of teams were catching fire in their local markets, most notably St. Louis, where the BattleHawks averaged 28,541 fans per game and had already sold 36,000 tickets for their next home date on March 21 against the Wildcats.

The actual crowd likely would have been larger, Hunzeker said. When the XFL initially suspended its season March 12, the BattleHawks were selling 6,000 tickets per day. Their ticket office was projecting attendance of at least 45,000. By that point, the BattleHawks had taken in $6 million in local revenue, well exceeding their fiscal goal for the entire season ($4.7 million).

Meanwhile, coaches were beginning to grasp the new math imposed by the XFL’s point-after options, veering away from one-point plays from the 2-yard line (37% of the time) in favor of two points from the 5 (47%) and the occasional three-point attempt from the 10.

It had taken some time after the league hired eight head coaches from traditional and conventional football backgrounds, headlined by former Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops in Dallas. Three former NFL head coaches — Jim Zorn in Seattle, Kevin Gilbride in New York and Marc Trestman in Tampa Bay — acknowledged the steep learning curve during the season. Former NFL assistants Winston Moss (Los Angeles), Pep Hamilton (DC) and Jonathan Hayes (St. Louis) were adjusting to their first head-coaching jobs. Only June Jones (Houston), with experience as a head coach in both the USFL and the CFL, seemed unfazed by the transition.

And in what turned out to be the XFL’s final game, the Wildcats and Tampa Bay Vipers produced the kind of event league executives had been dreaming about. The Wildcats won 41-34 in a game that featured a combined 136 offensive plays and, despite being delayed by a serious injury that required an air cast, was completed in 3 hours, 3 minutes — shorter than the average NFL game in 2019.

“I really think that last game of the season showed what the rest of the year would have looked like,” Schwartzstein said. “Because every one of our players were essentially rookies. We were getting better every week, and it was going to get exciting, just like the NFL gets exciting, toward the end of the season. We had really just scratched the surface. We were playing at a level that was equivalent of the highest level of college football. Maybe not LSU against Clemson in the national championship-type level, but still really high-level football with some really cool innovations. I was pleased with it.”

For its debut season, the XFL mostly pursued players who had been released from NFL training camps or rosters within the past year. It signed one player, St. Louis safety Kenny Robinson, who still had college eligibility remaining and was subsequently drafted by the NFL’s Carolina Panthers. The Wildcats’ Josh Johnson and Dallas Renegades’ Landry Jones, both longtime NFL backup quarterbacks, were the most recognizable names in the league. Jones was lured in part by a contract that paid him near $500,000, a bit more than the average No. 3 quarterback in the NFL.

But the best team was the 5-0 Houston Roughnecks, led by June Jones and featuring quarterback P.J. Walker. Once a member of the Indianapolis Colts‘ practice squad, Walker received a recommendation from former Colts starter Andrew Luck, Oliver’s son.

“If you stack up Houston against any other team,” Galko said, “in any other league, I think only an NFL team would beat them. That includes the CFL.”

In fact, given a few years, Mueller said, the XFL could have developed a handful of teams that would be competitive in the NFL.

“There is enough talent out there,” Mueller said, “and the XFL was providing the structure to build a USFL-, ABA-type of league. I would have liked to have had a run at that over the next two or three years. Building from scratch is an easier and quicker way to top-notch competitiveness than taking over an NFL team and being stuck with 70% of your cap and roster.”

Walker parlayed his XFL performance into a backup job with the Panthers. The BattleHawks’ Jordan Ta’amu, meanwhile, signed with the Kansas City Chiefs. Overall, however, the XFL recognized a need to adjust its quarterback-recruitment strategy. Veterans, such as Landry Jones and the Guardians’ Matt McGloin, who were signed in part because of their familiarity with coaches, largely flopped.

In 2021, Galko said, the league planned to pursue younger and higher-profile NFL quarterbacks who had been lost in the shuffle.

“We wanted to go to a Josh Rosen, for example,” Galko said, “and say, ‘Hey, we know you have talent. You got screwed by circumstances in two different spots. You’re going to get cut by the Dolphins. Don’t go be a backup for the Seattle Seahawks. Come show teams how many players you are better than.’

“Quarterbacks need to play or else their value is going to be greatly diminished. Who knows what would have happened, but that was our plan.”

Reposted by permission.

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