Mon. Jul 16th, 2018

The XFL’s Return is About Strategy and Second Chances

Imagine for a minute what it would be like if we didn’t allow people to learn from their mistakes and earn second opportunities. Bill Belichick wouldn’t be leading the Patriots into another Super Bowl. Nick Foles wouldn’t be starting against him. Steve Jobs wouldn’t have saved Apple and turned it into a global success. Oprah Winfrey wouldn’t have become a revered TV personality. Jay-Z and Lady Gaga wouldn’t have become international music stars.

I could list example after example, but you get the point.

Failure owns real estate on the highway to success. You can try to avoid it, but at some point in your life, it’s going to suck you in. What’s important to remember when you face it is that it’s there to teach you a lesson. It may bruise your ego and make you question if you’re good enough or on the right track, but nobody reaps a lifetime of rewards without having their convictions challenged and their confidence rattled.

I bring this to light because on Thursday, Vince McMahon announced he was ready to gamble a second time on the XFL. The league is scheduled to begin play in 2020 and McMahon is hoping this time to learn from his past mistakes and see his dream of running a successful football league finally become a reality.

When the XFL folded in 2001, it was in bad shape. Sponsors fled. So too did the league’s television partner, NBC. Most importantly though, the audience had rejected the brand because the on the field product was inferior to what they were accustomed to watching.

McMahon at that time tried to introduce sex, violence and sideshow antics to give people a reason to tune in, coupled with appearances by WWE personalities. The problem with that formula was that although Americans can’t turn away from observing a car crash, once they see what’s taken place, they drive away. Which is exactly what they did every time an XFL game appeared on their TV schedule.

As bad as the original XFL on the field product was, some of the league’s ideas were good. Players were mic’d up. Unique camera angles were introduced. Player introductions were featured before the first series of play. They were innovative at the time, and wound up becoming a bigger part of the NFL’s television experience.

Upon announcing the news, social media was flooded with people declaring the league dead upon arrival. I ran a poll question on Twitter asking folks what percentage chance do they give the league of being successful the second time around. 58% said 0-25%, 23% went with 26-50%, 13% voted for 51-75% and 6% gave it a 76-100% chance of succeeding.

What I find interesting about that is that we haven’t learned our lesson. We’ve allowed our memories of the old XFL to shape what we think the second version will be. We’ve also read into comments made in a press conference and decided from them whether or not this league will work. We haven’t seen one player signed, one game played, one media partner added or one football executive hired to help McMahon make the most of his second chance.

I point this out because when the XFL held its introductory press conference nearly two decades ago, they promised an aggressive style of play and a whole lot of male focused entertainment. They also fired a few shots at the NFL. The public ate it up, and once the league began airing their edgy promos, mainstream interest grew. It spread so fast that the league’s first game was watched by an estimated 14 million people, helping it deliver an incredible 9.5 rating. The problem was that after football fans tuned in, just like a car crash, they observed the scene and drove away.

None of us know whether or not the XFL will work in 2020. But what I love about this story is how it involves strategy and the pursuit of redemption.

One thing to know about Vince McMahon, when he sees an opening, he seizes it. It’s why the WWE Network has become a success, WCW is no longer in business, and why brands like YouTube, Facebook, E and others have invested millions in doing business with him.

It’s no secret that the NFL has turned off a lot of fans with their willingness to allow players to speak their minds on social and political issues. The decision to give players a choice of either standing, sitting or kneeling during the national anthem is another which has troubled people and generated a lot of negative national media attention.

But that’s not all.

NFL TV ratings have declined each of the past two seasons. Booth reviews and over-analyzing the rules have led to debates over what is and isn’t a catch, QB’s have been treated like they operate behind a force field, pass interference often affects the outcome of games, and kickoffs have been changed to discourage collisions between players running at maximum speed.

Add to the conversation CTE issues, frequent stories of players being arrested (does Ray Rice ring a bell?), and a seven month period where the most popular sport in our country goes on hiatus, leaving fans starving for something to sink their teeth into. That’s especially noticeable during the months of February and March.

When you take all of that into consideration and combine it with the rise of social media and brands such as Amazon, Twitter and Facebook expressing interest in paying for content, sports betting being on the brink of legalization, and the WWE’s television deal with USA expiring in September 2019, you can see why McMahon is rolling the dice.

So how do you take advantage of those opportunities? You do what McMahon is doing.

For starters, the XFL will play a ten game season starting in late January or early February. That’s right when the NFL ends their season and interest is at its peak. The rule book will be simplified to keep the pace of the game fast, commercial breaks will be shorter to retain interest, and traditional things like a halftime break will be eliminated to make games shorter. McMahon also plans to incorporate fan participation and online activities into the XFL experience.

The biggest noise was made though when McMahon announced that any player who competes in the XFL will be required to stand for the national anthem, and players with prior arrests will not be invited to participate. The WWE Chairman and CEO said he’s looking to provide family friendly entertainment and place the focus on the game of football, not on issues beyond the gridiron.

Given his lifelong connection to the world of professional wrestling and the XFL’s prior use of WWE stars, many wondered if McMahon would align the two brands again. Recognizing how that could affect the perception of the league, McMahon said the WWE’s talent will have zero involvement with the XFL nor will any members of its broadcast team. He also made it clear that he was looking to stay out of the spotlight himself and hire smart football people to help him create a high quality football product.

McMahon’s strategic approach is smart and one that each broadcasting executive would pursue if faced with trying to launch a product opposite a dominant competitor. Whether it’ll work or not will depend on what the product looks like in 2020 and what the football fan’s appetite is for more football right after the NFL season expires.

But not to be forgotten in this story is the lesson of learning from failure and taking second chances.

Vince McMahon is an entertainment industry hall of famer. He built the WWE into an iconic brand by taking risks, among them creating WrestleMania, which had it failed, would have likely bankrupted the company. He didn’t need to invest his money and gamble again on the XFL, but it’s a project he loves and is passionate about it. As a result, he’s taking a second chance to try and get it right.

Maybe this will turn out bad and Vince’s legacy takes a hit. But ask yourself this question, if you were 72, highly successful, and had the stain of the XFL on your professional record, would you have the guts to try again to erase that mistake or would you just let it linger and take it with you to the grave one day?

The reality is that most people in McMahon’s shoes would’ve worried too much about their reputation being tarnished to risk pursuing the same dream that became their worst nightmare. It’s easy to operate safe and avoid publicly being ridiculed but learning from mistakes and bouncing back is what makes many of the things we do in life important.

As I think about this story, I’m reminded of a scene in the movie “Pursuit of Happiness” where Christopher Gardner (Will Smith) tells his son, “You got a dream? You got to protect it. People can’t do something themselves so they want to tell you that you can’t do it. If you want something, go get it.”

Well, Vince, you deserve credit for crafting a good strategy and having the courage to try again. But this time, you’ll need more than that to make this work. Football fans are going to expect a quality product. If they don’t get it, they’ll once again have two words for you, “You’re Fired.”

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