Vince McMahon has announced that he’s bringing back the XFL.
The independent football league existed briefly in 2001, and it will return for a second season in 2020. Details are sparse so far, but it appears that sports betting and fantasy sports will be part of the XFL’s game plan.
The 72-year-old McMahon is best known as the chairman of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE).
XFL hints at betting, fantasy sports
Prior to McMahon’s announcement, Alpha Entertainment broadcasted a short hype video. It seems to indicate where the XFL stands on betting and fantasy sports.
Here’s part of the voice-over:
This is gaming and fantasy. This is padded roulette. Make a trade, make a team, make a move, make a bet.
Unfortunately, McMahon didn’t field any questions regarding betting or fantasy sports during the Q&A session that followed. But the video says plenty, and the context makes it easy to infer the rest.
Fantasy XFL for fan engagement
The XFL is going to need to take some significant steps to acquire an audience. Lack of interest was the primary reason for the failure of the original league. Despite a network TV deal and a flashy on-field product, it lasted just one season.
Getting anyone to care is going to be the biggest hurdle for the new league, too. The NFL has arguably the largest brand in all of sports, and even it has had some trouble keeping fans interested these days. Two pro football leagues might just be too many.
But as any league commissioner can tell you, fantasy sports is one of the most effective ways to get fans involved. Engaged fans watch games, buy merchandise and keep leagues afloat.
McMahon needs all of those things to be successful. And he realizes that he needs to get the fans on board. “Our approach to presenting games will be multi-platform,” he said on Twitter, “which will allow us to engage fans and customize the viewing experience in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago.”
Daily fantasy football didn’t exist during the XFL’s first run, and it’s a tool that McMahon will almost certainly leverage for the revamp.
But what about sports betting?
Betting on the original XFL
When the league first launched in 2001, Las Vegas sportsbooks carried action on XFL games.
As a reminder of how long ago that was, the now-demolished Stardust was the first book to set a line for opening weekend. The maximum bet was just $1,000, a fraction of what they accepted on NFL games.
Still, the books felt confident they were getting a fair product at the time. Nevada sports betting law prohibits betting on events with known outcomes (like the WWE), but the XFL was not scripted. By hanging lines on games, sportsbooks gave the XFL some implicit validation as a legitimate sports league.
The fact that the original XFL had a team in Las Vegas put some additional pressure on bookmakers. And opening week was the same week as the Super Bowl, one of the biggest betting days of the year.
Fans could watch the games on national television, too. McMahon secured a lucrative broadcast/ownership deal with NBC, which put the product in the primetime spotlight. That partnership also gave the sport viability in the eyes of some bookmakers.
“Had it not been on a major network, we would have waited,” said Joe Lupo, manager of the Stardust sportsbook.
So far, McMahon hasn’t indicated if TV will be part of his broadcast package in 2020. He has divulged plans to pursue more modern distribution channels such as Facebook and Amazon, which carry some weight in the modern day. But, even in this online age, digital broadcasts still don’t provide the same visibility as network television does.
That being said, fans are the ones who ultimately decide which games are worth betting on. And they’ll bet on pretty much anything they can watch.
Is it fair to worry about XFL integrity?
Professional wrestling, where McMahon originates, isn’t exactly known for its sporting integrity. It’s an entertainment product with scripted outcomes designed to create artificial drama. There is no system of accountability in place, and outcomes have previously been leaked before events. That makes it off limits for Nevada sportsbooks, which are prohibited from offering WWE action.
It’s fair to assume the XFL will use the same entertainment-forward recipe as the WWE. Stats and analytics will take a backseat to action and entertainment. The outcomes may not be scripted, but there certainly won’t be an NFL-like attention to rules and enforcement.
So is there any concern about XFL match fixing? Probably not. That’s especially true if regulation and legalization of sports betting rolls out in states in the coming years, should the US Supreme Court strike down the federal single-game wagering ban.
Betting on XFL games is likely to be small, which makes it easy to spot potential shenanigans. If bookmakers do have any concerns, they could simply limit the bet amounts.
McMahon did offer that there will be “no crossover whatsoever” in talent or “anything like that” between the WWE and the XFL. But the McMahon mindset will certainly be visible in the XFL’s product.
The only surprise on the fantasy and sports betting fronts would be if the XFL doesn’t try to leverage the engagement both verticals provide.