The definition of the eternal optimist might be found in the owners of alternate football leagues. Cases in point this week: Mike Ditka and Dwayne (you know, the Rock) Johnson.
Ditka was recently named chairman of the old Lingerie Football League and Johnson is buying up the assets (and liabilities) of the XFL. And both actions could drive up the use of both indoor and outdoor venues in different markets.
The XFL, which went looking for a buyer after entering bankruptcy earlier this year, is actually the second iteration of the league; the first was launched in 2001 with eight teams. It was intended to be another off-season league but failed to gain traction with audiences and ceased operations after only one season. It launched again for a 2020 season right after this year’s Super Bowl – but entered the bankruptcy filing shortly after having the season ended abruptly by COVID. The league’s owner is Alpha Entertainment, a private company founded by WWE (WWE) chairman and CEO Vince McMahon.
“It was especially poor timing for the XFL,” notes CNN. “The 2020 season was meant to be its grand return to action.”
But just as he does in action movies, Dwayne Johnson has (the XFL hopes) leaped in to save the day. CNN adds that Johnson is partnering with Dany Garcia, a film and movie producer to whom he was married for more than 10 years before they divorced in 2007, as well as RedBird Capital, a company founded by former Goldman Sachs partner Gerry Cardinale.
Johnson, who actually has football experience (he played at the University of Miami from 1990 to 1994) told ESPN he is looking forward to this next challenge.
"The acquisition of the XFL with my talented partners, Dany Garcia and Gerry Cardinale, is an investment for me that's rooted deeply in two things -- my passion for the game and my desire to always take care of the fans. With pride and gratitude for all that I've built with my own two hands, I plan to apply these callouses to the XFL and look forward to creating something special for the players, fans and everyone involved for the love of football."
A return of the XFL could mean an increased use of football fields, both for practice and for competition. The fact that the season runs in opposite months from the NFL would bring a demand for not only fields but fieldhouses, strength training centers and other venues. And since the previous iteration of the XFL included a cheer component, it’s likely those athletes would need their own tryout and training spaces. In short, it could be a boost to the economy. And there is always the option for cities to host a draft.
There isn’t any word of where teams will be located in this new version of the XFL, but there are a few precedents. In 2001, the XFL was made up of teams in two divisions. The Eastern Division was comprised of the Birmingham Thunderbolts, Chicago Enforcers, New York/New Jersey Hitmen and Orlando Rage. The Western Division included the Las Vegas Outlaws, Los Angeles Xtreme, Memphis Maniax and San Francisco Demons.
In 2020, teams included the Dallas Renegades, Houston Roughnecks, Los Angeles Wildcats, Seattle Dragons, DC Defenders, New York Guardians, St. Louis BattleHawks and the Tampa Bay Vipers.
The transaction is still going through so there has been no word on when Johnson’s version of the XFL will kick off. But when it does, it won’t be the only new edition of the game in town.
It was around mid-July that Ditka was announced as the new leader of what has been rebranded the Extreme Football League (or X-League). This is actually the league’s second rebrand; it debuted as the Lingerie Football League in 2009, then was renamed the Legends Football League in 2013. The league announced it was ending its run at the conclusion of the 2019 season. That didn’t last long, though; it was a matter of days later that an announcement was made that the new X-League, with a goal of “shattering glass ceilings in women’s sports,” would kick off in April 2020, although that was changed to 2021.
In an announcement of his ownership and chairmanship, Ditka noted, “I want to provide women with a high-profile platform to compete against the greatest female athletes in the world, while creating a destination league for millions of girls to aspire to play in. This will be a marathon, not a sprint. However, we are seeing the world change all around us, and it’s changing for the better. The X-League will be yet another indicator that equality has come of age. It’s time to give women and girls the same opportunity to play the game that the men play.”
Which, pundits say, might be more believable if the women wore pants.
“The days of garters and lace dangling from players’ shoulder pads are gone, but the league’s “athletic wear” standards that compare to beach volleyball uniforms are the indoor football league’s biggest calling card,” noted FanBuzz. “After all, seeing female athletes, many of whom played collegiate sports at the Division I level, tackle each other is easier to sell when they aren’t wearing as many clothes.”
The league will also have to tackle (see what we did there?) an attendance problem; all the way back in 2009, Spike Rogan of Bleacher Report went to see a game in Philadelphia. He came away unimpressed by the spectatorship, noting, “The arena holds around 10,000 fans. I give the Passion a VERY GENEROUS estimate of 2,800 in attendance. At best, all the fans in the place could fill the first five, maybe six rows of seats.”
The extra time until the league opens its season, however, will likely give Ditka more time to develop a marketing strategy. And, to be honest, he is a more marketable franchise head than the league has seen in previous years and could provide a degree of football authenticity (which, to be honest, had been lacking).
The X-League, like its predecessors, will likely play in indoor arenas – something that are going to be available since the Arena League Football departed the scene last fall. It will also need outdoor training facilities, as well as strength training and conditioning spaces, which could appeal to cities with college venues. Additionally, there is the prospect of cities being able to vie to host the X-League’s draft, which could drive more tourism.
In terms of destinations, some cities seem set. The X-League website says teams will be coming to Los Angeles (the Black Storm), Austin (Sound), Denver (Rush), Seattle (Thunder), Chicago (Blitz), Atlanta (Empire), Kansas City (Force) and Omaha (Red Devils).
Previous teams (and perhaps these could lead to opportunities for future markets) include the Baltimore Charm, Cleveland Crush, Dallas Desire, Denver Dream, Green Bay Chill, Jacksonville Breeze, Las Vegas Sin, Miami Caliente, Minnesota Valkyrie, Nashville Knights, New England Liberty, New York Majesty, Omaha Heart, Orlando Fantasy, Philadelphia Passion, Pittsburgh Rebellion, San Diego Seduction, Tampa Breeze, Toledo Crush and Toronto Triumph.
Teams that never quite got off the ground in their home cities included the Arizona Scorch, San Francisco Seduction, St. Louis Saints and Washington DC Warriorettes. The LFL also had Canadian teams, including the BC Angels, Regina Rage, Saskatoon Sirens and Toronto Triumph (as well as the Calgary Fillies, which never played). Four teams played in Australia between 2013 and 2014.
Why is it that so many alternative football leagues keep trying to take on the NFL, or run a season opposite it – despite the overwhelming evidence that it does not work? Maybe it’s because that’s the American dream – an upstart with big ambitions who doesn’t give up in the face of adversity. And football (and taking on the NFL) does represent perhaps the biggest David-and-Goliath gambit of all. Here's hoping David gets to score this time.