Can the XFL Learn from the AAF’s Failure?


When the Alliance of America Football suspended operations on April 2 before the finish of its inaugural season, several questions emerged, a few related to the XFL. First, the AAF wanted to act as a developmental league for the NFL but couldn’t come to an agreement. There were rumors of the league needing more stable finances to continue before the eventual suspension. Locally, the Orlando Apollos, coached by Steve Spurrier, emerged as one of the best teams of the league.

Does this prove again in 2019 and beyond that a second North American professional football league can’t last? Vince McMahon experienced that firsthand when his first incarnation of the XFL lasted only its inaugural season before folding, with partner NBC regaining broadcast rights to the NFL in 2001.

McMahon’s second attempt at launching the league is set for 2020. Its infrastructure is built with eight franchises in the front office and half the league’s head coaches already announced. With the exception of Dallas head coach Bob Stoops, the other three coaches—Jim Zorn, Marc Trestman, and Pep Hamilton—have NFL coaching experience.

McMahon is also doing everything possible to separate the XFL from any association with his main venture, World Wrestling Entertainment, by creating Alpha Entertainment for the league. When he made the announcement in January 2018 about the revival of the league, he promised to get the best football minds, professionals in the pro and college ranks as well as fans, to ensure a better experience for its 2020 launch.

Does the AAF’s suspension cause problems for McMahon?

This is a double-edged sword. McMahon has the first failure from the XFL to draw from. He can also try to cement any problems the AAF had so the new XFL won’t have similar problems. He promised sustained financial stability, which doesn’t mean anything if the league can’t meet expectations. The good news is should the AAF fold, the XFL has a greater talent pool to pull from without competition.

The XFL can request a working relationship with the NFL, but the NFL is not obligated to adhere to any requests, let alone demands. As long as fans are aware they shouldn’t get too attached to successful XFL players and enjoy the game for what it is, success is always a possibility. The XFL can provide the perfect testing ground for new NFL league rules in practice since more fans have been souring on the dramatic changes in recent years.

Whatever is on McMahon’s mind, he needs to develop contingencies for his league to make it to year two. He needs to develop a safety net. All it takes is cracks at the foundation before it comes tumbling down. It’s not just the AAF, but the Arena Football League, which has also suffered financial hardships from the beginning.

Since starting in 1987, the AFL managed to survive for over three decades and at its peak, had 19 (2004, 2007) franchises. It was down to four in 2018, which matched its inaugural season. The league’s winning franchises, the Tampa Bay Storm and Arizona Rattlers, are no longer in the league. The Storm ceased operations in 2018, and the Rattlers moved to the Indoor Football League in 2017.

One final tidbit. Outside of WWE and WWE Studios, every single venture McMahon has tried has failed. Will the new XFL succeed where the 2001 league failed?