In January, Vince McMahon announced that the XFL would return in 2020. McMahon, of professional wrestling fame, was the founder and owner of the original XFL, the exotic football league that folded after just one season in 2001. The reintroduction of the league was met largely with eyerolls and He Hate Me jokes, but as we’ve learned more about the new league, it’s fair to say it bears little resemblance to the trainwreck that preceded it.
The XFL failed because of lack of interest, and there are plenty of reasons the league wasn’t interesting. Football fans tuned out because of a lack of star power and overall sloppy play. Wrestling fans thought it was boring, and the early teasers and hype videos drastically overplayed the idea of gratuitous violence and pro-wrestling-level carnage. The league also focused too much on cheerleaders and McMahon himself, a larger-than-life character.
Now at 73 years of age, McMahon seems content to play the role of CEO and owner instead of ringmaster. He appears to have cleaned up some of the other issues from the first go-around as well. Players will be compensated much better, with the ability to make above $200,000 per year on short contracts, allowing them to jump to other professional leagues if the opportunity arises. The league will also pay for player insurance this time around.
Surely, these changes will influence the best non-NFL talent to at least give the XFL a shot. There won’t be much to lose on one-year contracts, and the better the players are, the more traction the league will be able to get from nostalgic college and football fans in general.
But the biggest boon to the XFL just might be something that’s already been playing out off the field: legalized sports betting.
Legalized sports betting will be a cash cow
Nielson Sports projects legalized sports betting could net the NFL an estimated $2.3 billion annually, largely due to sponsorships and advertising. That’s pretty significant cash, and if the XFL saw even a fraction of that growth, it would go a long way. And the sports betting market is growing rapidly.
Of course, it’s tough to imagine anyone but the diehards plopping down money on the Las Vegas Outlaws against the Los Angeles Xtreme some random Friday evening. McMahon hasn’t announced participating cities and claims the franchises will all have new names, but the nostalgia is strong. We may get there eventually, if the football is competitive and Tim Tebow and Eddie Lacy and JaMarcus Russell and [insert your favorite NFL flameout here] suit up, but we won’t start there.
Consider, however, the potential of prop betting and live in-game gambling.
The casual betting fan has probably been introduced to props at their last Super Bowl party (National Anthem over or under 1:40?) or daily games like ESPN’s Streak For The Cash, which is filled with fun prop bets. But what would happen if a sports league kept prop betting in mind when filling out their rules of play?
While XFL 2020 won’t be the same as the 2001 version, that doesn’t mean that the rules will be identical to the NFL. For instance, McMahon wants to keep XFL games to two hours, though it’s unclear how he will accomplish this goal. A straight-down-the-line approach wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense and would only play into the idea that the XFL is some kind of a feeder league for the big boys. The XFL needs to lean into the ways it’s unique, and they can do that with gambling.
How the XFL can leverage gambling
One of the most memorable parts of the inaugural XFL was the opening scramble, which replaced the coin toss with one player from each team in a 20-yard sprint to gain possession. On the very first night of the XFL, a player suffered a season-ending injury on the scramble. While it remains to be seen what that might look like in 2020, McMahon may want to find other differentiators between the XFL and NFL.
While he’s at it, why not work with the sportsbooks to find alternative rules that are intentionally prop friendly? It sure sounds like the new XFL brass has already given it a thought if their initial hype video is any indication.
— XFL (@xfl2020) January 25, 2018
Could gamblers get into some creative in-game prop bets? How many yards will He Hate Me gain on his next touch, over or under 4.5? Will the next challenge be upheld or overturned? Will Johnny Manziel throw a third interception this drive? Yes +250, No -200. Think of the possibilities!
Or, consider a “propbuilder” akin to the win, place, show model in horse racing. Pick the game’s leading receivers, tacklers, or all-purpose yard-gainers and rank them one, two, and three regardless of team. Hit the trifecta and win big.
It could be something as simple as a nod to the game’s moneyline, perhaps a live scoreboard that tracks the game’s popular prop bets. Live in-game betting could be announced in-stadium and tracked on TV. If fans could bet on Tim Tebow’s next passing being complete, incomplete, or intercepted, think how that might change the game. It will all be legal in 2020, so the sky is genuinely the limit when it comes to how the XFL chooses to embrace gambling culture.
And what about Daily Fantasy Sports? That’s a must-have for the XFL, but why stop with daily lineups? What if you could pick a new lineup at halftime or at the end of a quarter? Why couldn’t you pick your favorite player for just the next drive? Is there any reason you and I can’t go head-to-head picking the top fantasy player for just the next play? Every 30 seconds is another fantasy contest. Every 30 seconds is another chance to win some cash.
Plenty of fans sit at home or at a bar and enjoy a second-screen experience while following live betting. The XFL must capitalize on this and offer one major reason why it is a superior entertainment product than the No Fun League. Instead of a league that barely winks towards the faceless fans who bet the over (stay classy, Al Michaels), how about a league that instead embraces Joe from Tulsa who won the night’s biggest prize by putting a cool 25-grand on the underdog and came out a winner?
McMahon must capitalize on elements that are popular in fan circles but still taboo for the league itself. While the NFL has realized what a boon season-long fantasy has been for the growth of the game, they haven’t touched daily fantasy or anything involving sportsbooks with a 10-foot pole. The XFL can change that, and you better believe there are gamblers and fantasy football players who’d rather get their fix watching ex-Alabama and LSU stars on a Friday night in March than bet on regular season NBA games.
The XFL is doing the right thing by giving themselves two years to get ready for play. They have plenty of time to float ideas and don’t have to rush into anything. It’s enough time for McMahon and the XFL brass to iron out how they want to handle sports betting, and take full advantage of it. And if they want the XFL to work this time around, a game built around gambling interests could be just their ticket.