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Kamil: The XFL is damning for women’s sports

Before the COVID-19 outbreak caused one of the biggest shutdowns in sports history, the XFL was in the midst of its newest attempt to be the first major football league to compete with the NFL, capitalizing on the attention and disposable income of football fans from February through April. 

The graveyard of now-obsolete American football leagues includes the United Football League, which played three full seasons from 2009 to 2012, and the Alliance of American Football, which played only a partial season in 2019 before folding.

It also includes the original XFL, which played its only season in 2001. The first attempt — a joint venture between World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and NBC — advertised lighter rules than the NFL, aiming to create a more entertaining, less family-friendly version of the game. Traditional football was sidelined in favor of cheerleaders mistaken for strippers and a controversial WWE-style presentation that made viewers question if the plays were even legitimate.  

Influential sports brands and companies deciding to put their money behind an XFL product that fell flat in the past isn’t surprising. In fact, the XFL has received increased investment and coverage the second time around. 

The surprising part is this: when a women’s professional league shuts down, only to be revived later, critics are quick to point to past failures as evidence the league will never find long-term viability. 

But when the XFL does it? It’s been called “the NFL’s dystopian future,” and talks of expansion have already begun. 

Despite reportedly losing $70 million during its first go-round, XFL Version Two was announced in 2018, and for some reason, sponsors and partners didn’t hesitate to hop on board. Gatorade and Bud Light Seltzer are two of the biggest names that partnered with the league prior to its “inaugural” season this year. 

Even more notably, the league announced multi-year deals with FOX Sports and ESPN in 2019. The deals ensured every game of the XFL’s 10-week season, plus playoff and championship games, would be broadcast on either ABC, ESPN, FOX or an affiliate. 

That’s a total of 43 games, televised across six major channels, for a league that’s been extinct since the year Wikipedia went online. 

The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), founded in 2013, is the third attempt at establishing a professional women’s soccer league in the United States. Despite featuring the top athletes in the sport (which the XFL doesn’t) and drawing 1.12 billion viewers during the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, women’s soccer in the U.S. continues to struggle. 

Earlier this month, the NWSL announced a so-called “landmark” three-year deal with CBS, which would be a terrible deal for any men’s professional sports league entering its eighth season. The season opener and championship games will be televised on CBS, and 14 other games will be shown on CBS Sports Network, meaning a grand total of 16 games will grace the big screen. 

But what about the remaining 95?

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Seventy-one will be streamed on CBS All Access, the network’s subscription streaming service, and 24 will be presented for free on Twitch. 

And the NWSL isn’t the only women’s league struggling to get its games on the air. 

The WNBA’s upcoming season, which tips off in May, will feature 216 regular season games, of which ESPN will broadcast 17. Others will air on NBA TV and CBS Sports, but those have not yet been announced. In its fifth season, the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) has never landed a network TV partnership. 

So what does the XFL, a second-tier league with no history of success, have to do with women’s pro leagues? 

Besides adding yet another football season to the already crowded U.S. sports market, it serves as the newest example of how, even with great strides in viewership and success, female athletes have to fight for small bits of airtime, while networks pick up full seasons of juvenile secondary leagues like the XFL.