No kneeling for national anthem? Donald Trump is going to love Vince McMahon’s rebooted XFL

US president has tweeted his disdain for NFL players protesting, and WWE owner’s relaunched league could provide an alternative for conservative supporters

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 January, 2018, 7:05pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 January, 2018, 7:05pm

Next Monday morning, fans of American football will be calling in sick across Hong Kong and finding a bar open early enough to watch the NFL’s showpiece event, the Super Bowl.

But in 2020, it could be a different league capturing the attentions of fans worldwide, if WWE owner Vince McMahon gets his way.

The professional wrestling visionary announced on Thursday he is relaunching the XFL, his failed pro football venture that was cancelled in 2001 after one season.

A press release promises shorter, faster-paced and more family-friendly games than the NFL, with real-time fan engagement.

“Don’t get me wrong, it’s still football, but it’s professional football reimagined,” the 72-year-old said at a news conference. “We’re going to give the game of football back to fans.”

The XFL was a spectacular financial failure in its first run, losing McMahon and US television broadcaster NBC a reported US$70 million. So what’s different this time around?

“The media landscape has changed. Facebook, Amazon – they’re all really getting into [live sports], but it’s only the beginning,” said McMahon, who added he has already spoken to potential digital partners.

But there is perhaps another explanation why McMahon is willing to try again – US President Donald Trump’s disdain for the NFL.

The two men, just a year apart in age, go back a long way. When he was still a reality television star on NBC’s The Apprentice in 2007, Trump grappled ringside with McMahon at WWE’s showpiece annual event, WrestleMania 23, in the “Battle of the Billionaires” with each choosing a wrestler to represent them in a match at Ford Field in Detroit.

Trump won the contest, meaning he got to shave McMahon’s head – but their relationship goes beyond the scripted confines of the wrestling ring.

Trump appointed McMahon’s wife Linda McMahon – the former president and CEO of WWE before her failed runs as a Republican candidate for the US Senate in Connecticut in 2010 and 2012 – to a role in his administration.

After Linda McMahon was approved by the Senate as Administrator of the Small Business Administration last February, the extended McMahon family posed for a picture at Trump’s desk in the Oval Office, with two of Vince and Linda’s grandchildren holding a photograph of that hair-shaving moment.

And after Trump has repeatedly taken aim on Twitter at NFL players who kneel for the national anthem in protest at police brutality against black people in the US, claiming that they are disrespecting the country and the flag, perhaps Vince McMahon saw an opportunity.

With NFL ratings and attendances falling amid the controversy, McMahon maybe feels there is an opening for a more conservative product.

“I have no idea whether or not President Trump will support this,” McMahon said on a live stream conference call.

“As far as our league is concerned, it will have nothing to do with politics, absolutely nothing, and nothing to do with social issues, either. We’re there to play football. We want really good football, and I think that’s what fans want as well.”

But despite McMahon’s protestations, politics seems to be precisely at the heart of the XFL relaunch.

McMahon told ESPN players will be required to stand for the national anthem, and players with “any sort of criminal record” will not be able to join the league.

“In the XFL, the quality of the human being is going to be as important as the quality of the player,” McMahon said.

Is it really too hard to imagine Trump tweeting about how people should watch the XFL instead of the “failing NFL”?

After the XFL’s miserable first run, the current political climate and the increased consumption of digital content could be the perfect time for McMahon to try to correct the one big failure of his career.

WWE shares hit an all-time high of US$34 after Thursday’s announcement, with McMahon putting US$100 million of his own money in to the project, while ESPN’s recent “30 for 30” documentary This Was The XFL generated some nostalgic buzz.

With Trump’s endorsement, McMahon may finally have another hit on his hands outside the confines of the wrestling ring.