Report vs. Reality: Separating truth from fiction in reporting of the XFL’s sale last year
We take a look at the stories written about the XFL to better understand the current state of the league.
The last time the XFL was in the mainstream sports media’s consciousness was more than 14 months ago, when The Rock, Dany Garcia, and RedBird Capital purchased the XFL out of bankruptcy. At the time, there was plenty of reporting being done on various facets of what XFL 3.0 could look like, including quotes from Dany Garcia, who acted as the group’s spokesperson.
Since then, there has been no significant news from the league. The only time the XFL garners a mention is either when there’s an update on the Oliver Luck-Vince McMahon lawsuit, or when a former XFL player makes noise in the NFL. Kickoff for the rebooted league is scheduled for 2023, but many fans are pessimistic of that, due in part to the lack of information coming from the new ownership.
In early August of 2020, at the time of the purchase, there was much more optimism. The reporting played a part in setting positive expectations. So let’s take a look at the stories that were written, the sources that were cited, and see just how accurate all that reporting ended up being. We’ll also see if what was reported at the time will help give us a better understanding of why the league is in the position it’s in today.
The Single Bidder is Revealed
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Dany Garcia put in the only bid to buy the XFL by Daniel Kaplan (The Athletic – subscription required, 8/3/20)
-Garcia noted the capital they were willing to put in to the XFL is “substantial,” but did not quote a dollar figure
-Garcia declined to commit to the league returning for sure in 2021
-She likes the eight-team structure and would like to expand in the future, but they’re going to assess the current locations of the teams
-Jeffrey Pollack and his management team will be kept
-Pollack said the TV deals with ESPN and FOX being part of the bankruptcy process remain unresolved
The first mention of expansion is here from Garcia. At the time, most figured that would be down the road once the league was shown to be a success. Instead, it seems like expansion is baked-in to the idea of XFL 2023; not just expansion, but potentially expansion outside the United States. The new ownership group is for sure taking an aggressive tact in reshaping the league. As for assessing current team locations, we’ve heard very little even at the local level of city representatives being in contact with the league office about a potential return. Perhaps, with the XFL so far off the radar, no one has bothered to ask.
While McMahon was up front about how much money he was willing to spend on the XFL over a three-year period, Garcia and RedBird have played it close to the vest. Thus far, they’ve put little money into the league. Most reporting ties in the XFL’s “substantial” investment with a paying TV deal, in that the league won’t spend until they get a major broadcast partner on board willing to contribute a healthy amount of money. So far, that supposition appears to have come to fruition as there’s no TV deal and as of yet, no spending.
Pollack, the president and COO of the league under McMahon, and his management team were indeed kept, though Pollack recently departed. If the intent was always to keep Pollack on for the transition, it’s a little surprising he lasted more than a year. That’s a long transition period. But as is the case when most new owners take over businesses, the RedBird team likely wants to put their own people in place. There never seemed to be any follow-up reporting on the status of the TV deals in the bankruptcy. With FOX reportedly throwing a lot of money behind their USFL project, and the sheer length of time that will pass before the league kicks off again, it’s clear those contracts are no longer relevant.
XFL sale details revealed
The XFL, The Rock, Dany Garica and $15 million: What we know about the league’s sale, 2021 season by Kevin Seifert (ESPN.com, 8/4/20)
-Oliver Luck unlikely to return (not a quote from Garcia, but an aside from Seifert)
-They are open to rehiring other executives who were fired in April when the league shut down
-Many if not all of the innovations the XFL created will stay, though Garcia aims to make access more “elegant.” She looks at this as an opportunity to take what’s already done and ask “how can we make this even better?”
-The bubble plan created by XFL 2.0 is part of the IP purchased by Garcia/Johnson, so they have that to use if they so choose. They are seriously considering a 2021 season
Oliver Luck’s lack of involvement has turned out to be true; that seemed pretty obvious given the legal entanglement he became embroiled in with McMahon soon after he was terminated. The bit about rehiring executives has come true on a much smaller scale: In addition to Pollack, former New York Guardians team president Janet Duch has also found herself back with the XFL, in charge of league marketing. There could be others we don’t know about given how much of what’s going on is cloaked in secrecy. Even so, there still isn’t much of an infrastructure in place at the league level, and none at the team level, so others who have yet to find work could still be brought back. The more time passes, however, the more unlikely that seems.
The news on the innovations came at the same time Dany Garcia mentioned in interviews how much of a fan she was of XFL 2020, which led to her idea to purchase the league. Given that, it makes sense that many of the on-field alterations would stick. The quote, “how can we make this even better?” (or, more accurately in hindsight perhaps, “bigger”) is a telling one so far removed from the sale. If that question is being asked of every phase of the organization’s operations, it’s almost understandable that the league has seemingly slowed to a crawl. Almost.
It’s hard to believe Garcia et al ever seriously considered playing a 2021 bubble season. It may have been a fishing expedition in the hopes that a television network would approach them with a dump truck full of cash for the right to air games. That clearly didn’t happen. Maybe 2021 was on the docket, and maybe plans changed. If the idea for the XFL is truly as expansive as it seems, it’s hard to believe that wasn’t the initial plan at the time of purchase. And if that was the plan, there’s no way 2021 would’ve been feasible. It’s difficult to reconcile the potential of playing in 2021 with the grand vision of the league we’ve been hearing about. Ringing that 2021 bell is certainly one of the more curious, and at this point inexplicable, statements made by Garcia in her media blitz.
Dany Garcia Talks of XFL plans
Dany Garcia talks XFL purchase, challenges ahead, being the first woman to own stake in pro sports league by Dan Gartland (SI.com, 8/5/20)
-Garcia loved the quality of play, production, and new rules
-She talked as if a lot of the other businesses she and Dwayne Johnson have worked in led them to the XFL
-Building relationships between the viewer and athlete is important
-“Expansion” and “more storytelling” were both at the top of her list when asked what the future holds for the league
This Q&A with Garcia gave a lot of fans hope, as she came off as a real fan of the league. That assuaged some fears that the formula of XFL 2020 would be tampered with, or there would be big changes. Ultimately, even if it wasn’t by design, the new owners really are starting from scratch by virtue of how much time has elapsed since the league last played a down. We’ll have to see what that means for each characteristic of the league, from business, to on-field play, to production.
The two ideas she gave for what the future holds for the league actually could be the two biggest hold-ups resulting in the lack of news. Expansion, especially internationally during a global pandemic, could take some time to figure out. The increased storytelling and engagement could be a factor in the dragging of feet on TV deals. This has always felt like more than just finding a space to show the games; rather, Garcia’s 365 days a year philosophy for the league requires the marriage of actual games with other behind-the-scenes content. It could also tie in traditional broadcast cable with streaming services and even online content providers. All of those factors could be conspiring to slow down the process.
XFL Purchase Approved
Judge approves sale to group led by The Rock, but 2021 relaunch unlikely by Daniel Kaplan (The Athletic – subscription required, 8/7/20)
-Citing “a source close to the new group,” Kaplan said it’s unlikely the Fox Sports and ESPN contracts carry over. Per the source: “Media discussions are already starting up informally and will start to ramp up over the next few weeks”
-The source also doubted the league will start back up in 2021, but left open the possibility of it
-Apparently FOX is in talks with the XFL to have their contract carry over. ESPN’s objection to its contract carrying over has been “adjourned to a date to be determined,” according to court documents
-From the article:
“‘These guys won’t move a muscle until they have a lucrative media rights deal,’ one former XFL insider wrote of the new owners’ plans. This source said Fox Sports had already rebuffed a new proposal.”
More refusal to outright close the door on a 2021 season, even with the TV contracts “unlikely” to carry over. That would’ve been just another hurdle to clear. Pardon me for laughing at media discussions informally starting so soon after the purchase and expecting to “ramp up” in the ensuing days. If that’s the case, this must be the longest television rights negotiation in history.
It’s clear the new owners didn’t find the offers they may have been expecting, which is why things are still in limbo 14 months later. Looking at the timeline, you have to imagine FOX and the XFL were far enough apart in what they were looking for in a deal that FOX just walked away and got into bed with The Spring League, and later the USFL. It certainly feels like a missed opportunity for the XFL at this point.
The most prescient quote is that from an “XFL insider” that noted the league wouldn’t “move a muscle” without a “lucrative media rights deal.” That still seems to be the barrier to getting anything accomplished. It was a concerning quote to read at the time, even more so now with nothing announced on that front.
Fox Sports Interest
Sources: Fox Sports interested in TV deal with “The Rock’s” XFL 3.0 by Michael McCarthy (Front Office Sports, 8/7/20)
-Fox may be attracted to XFL 3.0
-Sources don’t believe it would be a substantial paying deal even to the level of XFL 2.0
-A time buy, where the league purchases time and keeps advertising revenue, is floated
-DAZN was named as a party that could be interested
The new owners stuck to their guns about getting a major paying TV deal as neither the scenario of an XFL 2.0-like TV deal nor a time buy would fit those parameters. DAZN is a streaming network that owns the rights to air many sports properties overseas, including the NFL and MLB. In the United States, they are most known for being the home of combat sports. Even if DAZN was a partner, you’d have to imagine the league would desire a more well-known platform to attract as many eyeballs as possible.
In summation, most of the early reporting, especially on TV contracts, was strong. While not necessarily untrue, the reporting on a potential 2021 season and that TV deals would begin in earnest not long after the sale was approved, appear particularly egregious all this time later. We know something is causing this delay, contributing to this lack of news, but we’re not sure what. That’s unsettling for many who want a bright future for the XFL, particularly now that the USFL has shown to be a serious competitor in the field of alternative football.