Not even larger-than-life Vincent Kennedy McMahon could do anything about the spread of the coronavirus. Following massive cancellations and postponements across the sports world on Thursday due to COVID-19 fears, the XFL followed suit and canceled the remainder of its 2020 season.
Unlike other sports — NCAA college basketball, for example, canceled all of its tournaments in a matter of hours early Thursday afternoon — the XFL took its time, finally releasing a statement a little after 7 p.m. ET. The day-long radio silence was frustrating, but it made sense. This is a start-up league we’re talking about here and there is one major consideration many other sports didn’t have: if the XFL ended its season early, would it be able to come back for a second one?
The league says it is committed to playing a full season in 2021. If nothing else, Renegades coach Bob Stoops plans to be back.
I just met with @XFLRenegades coach Bob Stoops. He said today felt like the end of a season and not a goodbye. I also asked him if he plans to be back in 2021. “That’s what I anticipate. That’s what I’m intending to do, but you don’t know where you’ll be at this time next year.”
— Joseph Hoyt (@JoeJHoyt) March 13, 2020
While there are no guarantees that “there’s always next year,” surely the league would not have said as much if it didn’t feel confident in the longterm relationship with its partners — in broadcasting and beyond. That includes betting. Remember after Week 1, when bookmakers boasted massive betting handles roughly 20 times greater than the AAF’s opening weekend in 2019?
Attendance was up, as well. AAF games averaged about 15,000 fans per home game. Through the first four weeks, XFL home teams were averaging about 18,600. That’s not a massive difference, and keep in mind the AAF lasted three more weeks before folding. Still, even though the XFL was not banking on attendance to stay afloat financially, it was outpacing its spring football counterpart.
Above all, the XFL was drama-free. It was enjoyable and, by and large, well-run. The in-game access separated it from a lot of other sports. The entertainment value was always there, even if there were stretches when the football itself hadn’t quite caught up. The biggest controversy was an officiating gaffe at the end of the Week 5 game between Houston and Seattle, and even that was solved efficiently and transparently.
Conversely, the AAF was dealing with some issue — mostly about money and control — practically every week. Hardly anything was ever business as usual. And therein lies the biggest reason why the XFL has more than a puncher’s chance to come back in 2021: the AAF folded because control owner Tom Dundon didn’t share the same vision as CEO Charlie Ebersol; the XFL season ended because of an act of God. Nobody — not the NBA, not the PGA, not even late-night talk shows — have been immune to that.
None of this has been fair and at first this feels like a spring football league just isn’t meant to be, but there are obviously bigger concerns at hand. The XFL did the right thing by canceling the season, giving fans a refund, paying out its players and allowing them to be picked up by the NFL in free agency. One XFL front office source also told CBS Sports that since they are salaried, many people behind the scenes still have jobs. But that was McMahon’s M.O. when his league failed the first time around. One former AAF and coach told CBS Sports last year that McMahon paid out every coach for the remainder of their contract when the first edition of the XFL fell through.
That’s not to say there won’t be hard-working people affected by the XFL’s cancellation. Stadium workers all across the country are out of luck. That’s true across a lot of sports. There’s a wider economic problem this country will be facing in the coming months as a result of the coronavirus. Retail, service and public events industries could take massive hits. And with school cancellations across the country, healthcare workers, teachers and students are being hurt. But what matters most during this pandemic is the health and safety of everyone. The XFL may have come to that official conclusion later than others, but it came to it all the same.
The foreseeable future will be tough on a lot of people. Sports are often used as a form of escapism during hard times and now those have been taken away, too. Social distancing will be difficult for long stretches of time. But this is a serious matter — it’s not “just the flu.” And the massive number of event/sports cancellations shows that people get this. If people are smart and take the proper precautions, though, we can get through it together. It will be a great day when life as we know it returns to a semblance of normalcy.
When that day comes, I remain confident the XFL will be there.