Mayhem in McMahonland

After the unfortunate demise of the XFL, the billionaire has a tough pill to swallow about the state of his wrestling empire.

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By Ka Seng Soo

Ever since the crash and burn of the original XFL in 2001, both football and professional wrestling fans have shared a strong sentiment that WWE tycoon Vince McMahon was willing to rectify WrestleMania, which is often cited as one of his all time greatest public failures. After all, it was his baby, and if the annual spectacle that is WrestleMania is anything to go off of, it’s clear that he doesn’t give in until his big idea prevails. Though it may have taken 17 long years and a list of other public relations nightmares too long to write out, McMahon finally chose to take on the challenge of reviving the spring football league, announcing its debut for 2020.

Unlike the previous XFL, which sought to capitalize on the soaring popularity of both the WWF and NFL in the early 2000s, this rejuvenated version was to be more focused on the NFL’s shortcomings, like slow gameplay and many off-field controversies. Instead of compensating for terrible football with intertwined wrestling storylines and scantily clad cheerleaders, it would provide an enjoyable, fast-paced, and professional product for the fans. Basically, it would try to provide what the NFL couldn’t: more fun in football.

And on many fronts, this XFL delivered. The shorter play clock, the three-point conversions, the double forward passes, and the new punt return rules all introduced a level of freshness to the gameplay. The football was sound enough to draw attention from NFL teams looking to bolster their own rosters (and would eventually help 14 of its early standouts, including passing yards and touchdown leader PJ Walker and interceptions leader Deatrick Nichols, earn another chance in the big league). The league’s all-access approach to presentation, from sideline interviews during games to live sound from the players and coaches during playcalls and in the locker room, made for an environment suitable for new fans of football as well as those wishing to experience something they couldn’t with the NFL. Above all, the league seemed to have elements of light-heartedness and fun that allowed it to immediately gain traction with fans. Not only were the players given the freedom to be their unique selves, whether during sideline interviews or in the locker rooms, but the fans were also encouraged to join in on the excitement and develop their own signature traditions.

And then, of course, the coronavirus ruined everything.

After only five weeks of play, the upstart league was forced to suspend its inaugural season on March 12, following similar action from the NBA and NHL; it initially told its fans that it would be able to resume operations the following year. Unfortunately, this statement did not prove to be true, as it was only a matter of weeks before the league realized that it was not financially immune to the pandemic, resulting in the termination of the majority of its staff and its filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

These filings, however, opened up a whole new can of worms in McMahon’s more established WWE empire, as it was revealed that WWE owned almost a quarter of the Class B stock shares in the XFL—contrary to his earlier claims that the two were entirely separate entities. Moreover, XFL commissioner Oliver Luck could not be found on the list of creditors, despite apparently being on a contract owing him a guaranteed $25 million over the first five XFL seasons. This reckless lack of transparency has already caused several lawsuits from both WWE shareholders and Luck to fly McMahon’s way.

McMahon is absolutely no stranger to being reckless in dire situations. Though his escapades have mostly remained within the walls of his WWE bubble due to wrestling’s negative image in mainstream culture, he might now be under a bigger microscope than ever, considering his decision to continue live programming without an audience from his Orlando Performance Center venue while all other live events are down. He was granted the opportunity after a baffling (but most definitely politically motivated) decision from Florida governor Ron DeSantis to give the WWE and other sporting media “essential business” status in an executive order.

Apparently, the reason WWE had continued running live shows was to honor its $400 million television contracts with Fox and NBCUniversal, which only allowed them to pre-record three shows a year. Despite the fact that they could run shows to full capacity and still make most of their income, the company still chose to claim financial troubles and follow through with mass cuts to their roster on April 15, releasing dozens of wrestlers and furloughing a portion of its other employees. The fact that McMahon had publicly committed to investing $500 million in the XFL over its first three seasons makes this decision all the more confusing.

All this does is ironically expose the WWE’s financial stranglehold to performers. It always has the ability to offer the most lucrative deals in order to keep the talent it will never use from working for other companies, but now that those other companies cannot operate, they have become expendable. It’s truly abhorrent, but there’s little the wrestlers can do about it because in the eyes of the company, they are merely independent contractors with no bargaining power.

Despite the fans’ visible frustration with the company and plummeting television ratings, the show will amble on. Though considering the dozens of personnel working in the confines of the venue and all the performers constantly being flown in and out of Florida at a time when social distancing is paramount, it’s only a matter of time before everything starts going even more downhill for McMahon. After all, it had already been confirmed earlier in April that an employee had tested positive for coronavirus, though the company later dismissed it as a nothing-to-see-here matter.

In all of this mess, there appears to be a pretty interesting pattern developing. Vince McMahon has always been notoriously involved as the owner of the WWE, but the unprecedented success of the new XFL in the short time it was alive (in contrast to its gimmicky forerunner) proved that a more hands-off approach can sometimes be better for business. However, especially in times of uncertainty such as now, some things are just bigger than business. And though McMahon’s people might have already helped him figure that out with football, he might have no choice but to make that call himself with the WWE.