A few hours after Dwayne Johnson, the sports and entertainment icon known as The Rock, was revealed as part of the group buying the XFL out of bankruptcy, some of the league’s former employees held a Zoom call to discuss unfinished business.
Included among the 10-or-so ex-XFLers was Brian Stull, who until April 10 was the head of public relations for the St. Louis BattleHawks, one of eight clubs in the league.
“There’s a hopefulness,” he said via telephone. “When we were let go we were crushed. Now, it’s like the line from Dumb and Dumber: ‘So you’re saying there’s a chance.’”
Stull wants his job back—so much so that he won’t look for another one while that remains a possibility.
“I can’t sit across the desk from someone and look them in the eye and tell them I’m going to work for them knowing that if the XFL called I would go and do it,” he said.
The ownership group, which agreed to pay $15 million for the league founded by WWE Chairman Vince McMahon, also includes Johnson’s business partner and ex-wife, Dany Garcia, and Gerry Cardinale’s RedBird Capital Partners.
The XFL showed promise before the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted, and ultimately wiped out, its inaugural season.
The league drew more than 3 million TV viewers in its first week. The audience was about half that when the shutdown occurred in Week 5. The league had broadcast agreements with Walt Disney’s ABC and ESPN, as well as Fox.
Jordan Schlachter, the XFL’s former chief marketing and commercial officer, says he was bullish on the league then. His confidence in its prospects for success is even higher now.
The tie up of a global icon, a female entertainment executive and a private equity group with tentacles throughout sports—and the NFL in particular—is “the perfect combination for potential success” to build on what the XFL had accomplished, he said.
“I would love a second shot with this group. I was seeing the momentum grow from Week 1,” Schlachter said. “From their track records, and the vision they’ve demonstrated, Dany, Dwayne and Gerry are the ideal owners to build success through innovation, and particularly through content creation and distribution here and internationally.”
Whether the XFL can stage a successful return may hinge on what kind of media deal the proposed new ownership group can strike. Eyeballs fuel everything from advertising to sponsorship.
Chris Bevilacqua, co-founder of media consultancy Bevilacqua Helfant Ventures, said the pandemic-forced shift in the sports calendar of the major U.S. sports leagues will make it more difficult for the XFL to find footing.
“They’re walking into an environment that’s really tough,” he said. “The calendar is pretty crowded.”
Crowded doesn’t begin to describe Haley Graves’s inbox after The Rock’s involvement lit up Twitter.
“My phone started buzzing and didn’t stop,” said Graves, who ran social media for the XFL’s Los Angeles Wildcats and who now holds a similar post with the NWSL team in L.A., where the investors include Serena Williams, Natalie Portman and venture capitalist Kara Nortman. While Graves is happy with her current job, she said a majority of former colleagues would covet another chance to work at the XFL.
“It was succeeding,” she said. “It never got to reach its full potential.”
While Graves called The Rock “the perfect bridge between entertainment and sports,’’ she’s more excited about having a woman at the league’s highest level. That, she said, will attract even more female fans to football.
Monday’s Zoom call wasn’t the first gathering of former XFL staffers. They’ve held biweekly calls to discuss everything from work to family, lending an ear or advice whenever needed.
“It was basically a support group,” Stull said.
The league’s newfound support system has a number of former employees energized about the possibility of trying it again. While Graves won’t be returning, she, too, hears that little voice.
“There’s still a piece inside of you that wonders what it could have been,” she said.