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FORMER professional wrestler turned cage-fighter CM Punk once said of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) owner Vince McMahon: “He is a millionaire who should be a billionaire.”
Those words immediately sprang to mind when McMahon relaunched his failed American football league last week. The XFL was an absolute disaster when it launched in 2001, lasting only one season.
McMahon lost $35 million in his attempt to rival, and better, the National Football League (NFL) and, though he insists the league will not be in competition with the established NFL, it wouldn’t matter if it was.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s juggernaut cannot currently be stopped. But it is by no means perfect, and there is room for an alternative.
However, it isn’t difficult to see what McMahon’s alternative is. The XFL is a league for right-wing fans of Donald Trump.
It didn’t take long at the press conference for the league’s relaunch for someone to ask whether protests during the US national anthem would be allowed.
“People don’t want social and political issues coming into play when they are trying to be entertained,” McMahon said. “We want someone who wants to take a knee to do their version of that on their personal time.”
At best, McMahon’s missed an opportunity. If the league became the home of Colin Kaepernick, who kicked off the anti-racism protests, it would draw a large section of fans both in the US and abroad.
It would give the league a kind of credibility, that it stood for something outside of the sport itself.
But it’s not a surprise McMahon’s taken this path. You only have to look at his wrestling organisation and the way minority groups are portrayed. And his close relationship with Trump is no secret.
McMahon and Trump first worked together when Trump’s Atlantic City hosted Wrestlemania IV and V in 1988 and ’89.
Twenty-three years later the pair clashed in the “Battle of the Billionaires” at Wrestlemania XXIII. Trump is in the WWE Hall of Fame.
McMahon money has been given to Trump businesses and campaign groups in various capacities.
McMahon’s wife Linda donated $6m to a pro-Trump campaign group, while the pair gave $5m to the Trump foundation in the mid-2000s, the Washington Post reported in 2016 and 2017.
And Linda McMahon is now a member of Trump’s cabinet, as the Administrator of the Small Business Administration.
So what does McMahon’s relaunched league mean for the fan who just wants to watch more American football once the Super Bowl is over?
The league will be faster, with matches being played within two hours and no half-time. Cheerleaders are gone — surprising given how little they wore in the league’s first incarnation. And players with a criminal record will be banned.
But it’s difficult to get past McMahon’s prohibition on “social and political issues.” It plays into the rhetoric Trump has been spouting for months, that people are turning off the NFL because players are protesting.
That isn’t the reason and never was. Selling to those who have been put off by the NFL’s recent political stances is targeting a specific group of people.
To those that can’t stand those ungrateful kneeling players, you can watch this league knowing full well that every player will be upright for the national anthem. The XFL’s red, white and blue logo is surely no coincidence either.
But once you reel in this segment of fans, how do you keep them? Are these people really going to stay for NFL-quality football without the quality of the NFL?
People tune out of the NFL in their millions each week. What’s to say they don’t do so again?
Maybe their loathing of those who protest during the national anthem is enough. And maybe thousands of fans will boycott the NFL for good.
But McMahon is hoping for a lot. He is hoping that the deep divisions in the United States stay that way, that the civil unrest continues and that more and more people fall for what Trump is telling them.
Yet it’s more likely that the XFL will fail in 2020 as it did nearly two decades ago.
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