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Does a new, conservative XFL mean WWE will lose its diverse fan base?

Vince McMahon’s old XFL: No rules! McMahon’s new XFL: All of the rules!

Maybe WWE chairman Vince McMahon didn’t know what was coming. Maybe he didn’t know, as he stood in front of digitized helmets for a WWE.com livestreamed news teleconference, how wrong things could go. He announced, 10 days before Super Bowl LII, that the XFL — his ill-received football league full of wacky rules, gruesome injuries, terrible play and poor ratings, the league that imploded in 2002 after only one season — was returning.

Maybe McMahon didn’t know that on the other side of the cameras were WWE fans, sports journalists, political pundits and amateur comedians looking to poke fun at the “new” XFL concept. Fingertips full of potential energy were poised to pounce on the keyboards like linemen on a loose ball. They were waiting for him to say it, and he did.

“People don’t want social and political issues coming into play,” said McMahon, “when they are trying to be entertained. … We want someone who wants to take a knee to do their version of that on their personal time.” The meaning was clear: The XFL, which originally rebelled against the NFL by promising more violence, individuality and unpredictability, wants to provide a safer, presumably whiter alternative to the NFL where rules, especially those likely to appeal to a more conservative demographic, are the new name of the game.

The reactions were swift and unrelenting: Memes about the XFL’s coded language and impending racism dominated social media for the ensuing 24 hours. Why? McMahon’s comment supported a widespread belief that the XFL, this time, will be a league for white conservatives turned off by black athletes speaking up about racial inequality during NFL games: kneeling for the anthem, locking arms, being generally more outspoken about their political passions.

The NFL, of course, has been consumed by political drama. The weekly will-they-or-won’t-they of anthem protests. The midseason drama of an anti-NFL tirade by President Donald Trump, ending in a Super Bowl battle that saw the Eagles, who maintained protests throughout the season and featured some of the league’s more outspoken players (Malcolm Jenkins, Chris Long), triumph over the Trump-friendly New England Patriots. All while Colin Kaepernick was one of the league’s biggest stars while never taking a snap.

McMahon must of course believe there’s a substantial opening for the XFL, which has been the butt of sports jokes for the better part of 15 years. When the league was launched in 2001, it was supposed to be an edgier version of the NFL with more scantily clad cheerleaders, harder hits and innovative camera angles. However, as documented in 2017’s This Was the XFL, the league never really stood a chance. The original XFL featured wrestling announcers as play-by-play guys, “scrambles” for loose balls instead of coin tosses and kickoffs, and no fair catches, meaning players had to field every kick return. But most importantly, the play on the field, to use a technical term, sucked.

XFL games were closer to minor league exhibitions than displays of competitive excellence. Fans noticed, and when the XFL caved, it was McMahon’s biggest embarrassment as a businessman. So it would take some remarkable circumstances for McMahon to want to revive a brand with such a stench. He clearly believes the state of the NFL has provided that opening.

There are plenty of reasons for McMahon to want to launch another football league, many he addressed in his news conference. The NFL is as vulnerable to a competitor as ever before. Ratings are down to the tune of 10 percent this season, causing a $30 million drop in ad revenue for networks. Ratings for the Super Bowl itself were down 7 percent from last year. The NFL is in the middle of its most volatile period from a media relations standpoint as well, with scandals and controversy leading news cycles as much as final scores and stat lines.

McMahon addressed NFL games as being too long, often teetering beyond three hours, and said that his broadcasts, which don’t have a network or online home as of yet, will be around two hours, maybe with no halftimes. “Sitting and watching a three-, three-and-a-half-hour game is laborious sometimes,” he said (unironically, even though he airs a three-hour wrestling program every Monday). The NFL is facing safety concerns and chronic traumatic encephalopathy/brain injury scandals, so McMahon promises a “safer” game, but he’s not sure exactly how to execute that added safety. McMahon was unsure about a lot of details around his newish league. “We have two years, which is enough time to really get it right.”

Which makes his defined stance on the national anthem stand out even more. It’s one of the only firm points about the league McMahon was able to offer.

“The national anthem is a time-honored tradition that’s played to this day and many years in the past before sporting events. One of our rules is what everyone will abide by. There’s opportunity and plenty of ways players, coaches and members of the media can express their own personal views in terms of social issues. Again, we’re here to play football. That’s everyone’s job.”

The fact that standing for the anthem is essentially the only fortified rule of law, set two years before opening night, makes one particular brand of flag-worshiping patriotism a defining characteristic of XFL 2.0. The far-right website Breitbart News Network is head over heels about the XFL, with headlines such as “Move Over NFL, The XFL Is Back!” and “MAGA Football League Coming to a Stadium Near You.”

McMahon, to his credit, insisted that the league would be politics-free. “The XFL will be having nothing to do with politics. And nothing to do with social issues either. We are there to play football. I think that’s what fans want when they tune in.”

Of course, the “politics-free” rhetoric is immediately contradicted by demanding athletes stand for the anthem, as forced participation and hampering athletes’ free speech is, in itself, a political act. McMahon can’t claim neutrality while at the same time making a statement about the biggest political fight involving sports in 2017. And despite the fact that McMahon has indicated he will have a “hands-off” role with regard to this incarnation of the XFL, it’s impossible to divorce his personal/familial politics from the league’s direction.

Vince McMahon and his wife, Linda, who was WWE’s CEO until 2017, have become power donors to GOP candidates and platforms. Linda McMahon is a politician in her own right, running for a Connecticut Senate seat as a Republican in 2010 and 2012.

“We want someone who wants to take a knee to do their version of that on their personal time.” — Vince McMahon

Then there’s the biggest elephant in the room: the McMahon/Trump relationship. He and his wife donated $4 million to the Trump campaign in 2016, continuing years of spending millions on Republican politicians and organizations. In 2010 and 2012, Linda McMahon also spent upward of $100 million trying to get elected as a Republican senator in New York. She is currently a member of Trump’s cabinet, serving as the leader of the federal Small Business Administration. The McMahons have maintained a close business relationship with Trump for decades: WrestleManias IV and V were held at Atlantic City’s now-bankrupt and closed Trump Plaza. In 2007, Trump was a featured guest in a “hair vs. hair” match with Vince McMahon at WrestleMania 23. The current president was also elected into the WWE Hall Of Fame in 2013.

So when Trump called NFL players who kneel for the anthem “sons of b—–s” and the husband of one of his cabinet members launches a football league where kneeling is prohibited, the logical leap is to believe that the XFL is a league that will at least be heavily endorsed by the commander in chief.

McMahon addressed that very question during his news conference, chuckling at the idea of a Trump endorsement: “I have no idea if President Trump will support this.” Trump also hasn’t commented on the XFL announcement. Yet.

The XFL’s success, however, won’t depend on its politics. Even if the league appeals to a certain right-wing populace, that alone won’t create viewers. The league has the same dilemma it had in 2001: How does it put a good product out on the field? The NFL talent pool is going to be shrinking as more parents grow concerned about the long-term physical and mental effects of the game. A 2016 HBO/Marist poll found that 44 percent of parents with sons under age 18 are reluctant to let them play football. And even if there were a wealth of incoming talent, the XFL would clearly be getting the players who couldn’t cut it in the NFL.

The league, then, has two years to figure out how to put a compelling product on the field, because that will matter infinitely more than any moral high ground supporting the XFL can provide. And let’s not look over the fact that the XFL will need black athletes. XFL will need to prove that the league can be a worthwhile career choice for the overlooked athlete from a historically black college, the player who suffered an injury and wants to battle back into prominence. The possibility is there for these players to get nationwide exposure, but will the league use that to boost the XFL brand or just treat it like a farm league for the NFL? And how many are going to want to put their bodies on the line for a league that flies in the face of their culture?

“This might be the last you see of me,” said McMahon, who has not spoken again publicly about the new XFL since, “in terms of being out front. … We are going to hire people who really know what they are doing, experienced executives who will be out in front. It won’t be me.” He’s even using a separate entertainment company, Alpha Entertainment, to fund the XFL with $100 million of his own money. But regardless, the XFL will be seen as an extension of McMahon and his WWE brand, and that brand has a long history of the kind of xenophobia, sexism and racism that the current presidential administration has been accused of perpetuating.

WWE has featured more diverse representation in recent years, thanks to the popularity of black stars such as New Day and Sasha Banks, more female wrestlers in prominent roles and wrestlers such as Shinsuke Nakamura and Jinder Mahal raising the company’s popularity in global markets. But decades of peddling stereotypes are hard to forget. Despite it all, more than 40 percent of WWE’s audience is nonwhite and more than 35 percent are female.

Fans cheer for their fighter at the WWE SummerSlam 2015 at Barclays Center of Brooklyn on August 23, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by)

JP Yim/Getty Images

These numbers have persisted thanks to a willingness to overlook the stereotypes and lack of positive representation, WrestleMania headliners and champions on WWE programming. While the XFL most likely won’t subscribe to the same stereotyped representations seen in the WWE, the distance between those characters and a league that reaffirms alt-right sentiments will likely not only spell doom for the league but finally be the move that causes fans to pass on McMahon’s wrestling empire.

If XFL presents a full-on extension of the WWE, a football league that embraces Trumpism and pro-Make America Great Again sentiments, then it could be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back, and the common thread is McMahon.

No matter how much McMahon distances himself from the XFL or how much he insists it will be politically neutral, the league still has to combat the notion that it is simply a proxy for alt-right ideals. And if it isn’t able to do so, it could finally lead fans to find support of McMahon’s WWE cash cow as a bridge too far.

McMahon has his own competition on the horizon — something more diverse and a compelling alternative for anyone looking for a more liberal brand, especially if they’re turned off by the XFL’s potential conservatism. New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) has always been a massively popular brand overseas with the most die-hard of wrestling lovers in America following along. Mark Cuban has been broadcasting the company’s shows on his AXS TV network since 2015 and has been dipping his toes into the possibility of pumping more money into the company as a genuine WWE competitor.

Right now, NJPW is a far cry from coming close to the American fan base of the WWE, which Cuban has acknowledged. “He thinks we’re just little s–ts,” Cuban told Sports Illustrated in December. “We’re not a threat because of the language. … But if you’re a purist for wrestling, and you like the action, it’s the best promotion by far. People here aren’t going to connect as directly, but if you really love wrestling, then it’s a no-brainer.” It’s hard to imagine NJPW overtaking WWE in popularity anytime soon, but if McMahon is trying to get conservative fans to leave the NFL for the XFL, he may run the risk of having progressives and minorities slip out of the WWE’s backdoor for NJPW.

The XFL news should be sparse in the immediate future as McMahon gathers the personnel to execute the revival. The silence will be filled with speculation and expectations of a league that can end up as divisive as any in sports. Race and sports have forever been intertwined, and if the XFL carries out in the way we expect, as a league that pits conservative Americans against protesters and people of color, then we are looking at a battle over race in sports taking center stage like never before.

David Dennis Jr. is a senior writer at Andscape and an American Mosaic Journalism Prize recipient. His book, The Movement Made Us, will be released in 2022. David is a graduate of Davidson College.