In 2020, the resurrected XFL began a brave quest: to upend the NFL’s monopoly on professional football. Many previous leagues – definitely more than I remembered – attempted to slay the NFL dragon and failed, though some lasted much longer than others. To judge the XFL’s success on its journey, we’re tracking the most basic metric possible: successfully completed games. TV ratings and attendance and merchandise sales matter, yes, but they require you to actually play.
After five weeks of play, the Covid-19 pandemic forced league management to cancel the rest of the season. This is by the least at fault any alternative league has ever been for stopping play. Usually it’s permanent, and it’s a matter of “we’re about to run out of money” or “we ran out of money weeks ago and can’t pay people.”
For these purposes, we will focus on leagues that were actually trying to compete with the NFL directly, which means they had to 1) be based in the United States, 2) play outdoors (arena football is wonderful but also very different), and 3) not set out to be a minor league. We’re only considering leagues started after World War II; before then, even the NFL was kind of a bumbling half-business, and only two of its 15 original charter franchises still exist today.
Here’s where XFL 2.0 currently stands compared to its predecessors:
The XFL says it plans to return in 2021, and if it sticks to the same number of teams and scheduling format, it’ll finish that season with 63 games completed, jumping it to fourth place on this list.
So far, the present-day XFL has passed one league by virtue of playing a game:
- The All American Football League held a draft in 2008 (Eric Crouch was the third pick!) but postponed launch several times. They folded before they could hold any games, which means Crouch is tied for the career lead in AAFL touchdown passes.
And these are the leagues it still trails:
- The Alliance of American Football suspended operations with two regular season weeks left to play in 2019, the league’s first season, and filed for bankruptcy shortly thereafter. Would the Orlando Apollos have advanced to the championship game and avenged their only regular season loss by defeating the Arizona Hotshots? Sadly, we’ll never know, though Apollos coach Steve Spurrier will happily give you his thoughts if you buy him a bucket of balls at the range.
- The United Football League started play in 2009 and stayed alive until four weeks into the 2012 season. At that point, attendance was nose diving and players weren’t getting game checks, so the season was suspended. Players and coaches spent the next few years suing team owners for back pay with mixed success.
- While the World Football League didn’t make it through two full seasons, those seasons were quite long. Year 1, in 1974, featured 15 teams each playing a 20-game season, and Year 2 dialed it back slightly to 11 teams playing 18-game seasons. Money ran out, and the WFL shut down after Week 12. One franchise, the Chicago Winds, didn’t make it past Week 5.
- The All-America Football Conference started in 1946 and completed four seasons (all of which ended with the Cleveland Browns as champions) before coming to an agreement to move three franchises (the Browns, the 49ers, and the first version of the Colts) to the NFL and merge another (the Dons) with the Rams. Cleveland won four more titles after the move, though they were all pre-Super Bowl. Did the NFL create the Super Bowl just to derail the dynasty that was the Browns? Probably!
- The death of the United States Football League, the NFL’s longest-lasting competitor involves antitrust law, television contracts, a comic strip, and Donald Trump. There’s a whole book about the league’s history if you want to learn more. Like the WFL and Mario, the USFL’s reign was short (just three years) but thick (teams played eighteen game seasons).
NOTE: We’re not including the American Football League in this comparison, though the AFL spent 10 seasons competing directly with the NFL. The NFL, fearful that the AFL would overtake them, proposed the merger, which means the AFL maybe could have surpassed the NFL but chose not to. YOU WERE THE CHOSEN ONE, AFL!