Losing $375 million in the name of men's sports

The XFL shows people are out of excuses to not invest in women's sports.

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Today we’re looking at the launch of the XFL, and what it says about women’s pro sports.

But first: It was great to hear from so many of you over the weekend who were excited about a Power Plays book club. There’s enough excitement that I’m going to make this happen. If you have suggestions for books, send me an email, lindsay@powerplays.news.

Okay, friends. Let’s do this.

The XFL’s stark reminder

Over the weekend, the XFL debuted. Again.

If you’re not aware, the XFL is a football league. It was first thrust upon us back in 2001, when World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Vince McMahon partnered with NBC to launch a spring football league with “faster, more violent tackles; creative new rules; a brash attitude; and scantily clad cheerleaders.” It was essentially toxic masculinity, with a side of red bull and vodka. And it was a disaster. The league lasted just one season, produced some truly horrendous football, and amassed a $70 million deficit.

And yet, 19 years later, McMahon is back again.

(A mood, via Getty Images and Megan Rapinoe. )

This time, McMahon has toned down the theatrics and pledged to spend $500 million of his personal fortune on the league. Five. Hundred. Million. Dollars.

And he’s in no hurry to make it back!

“The way it’s structured is that Vince is probably gonna lose $375 million on this league and he will and he knows and that’s what he’s gonna do and at the end of those three years the idea is that he will be able to get television deals that will total over $125 million a year which will cover his losses and then he’s okay,” David Meltzer said on Wrestling Observer Radio. “You know… there’s a lot of factors involved in that. Again, the ratings are one of them. If he can get… if these stations feel it’s valuable to pay that much. It’s not as long of a shot as everyone thinks.”

Can you imagine that? A solo investor being willing to lose $375 million because he’s got his eye on the long-term prize?

The games are being broadcast on Fox, ESPN, and ABC. Each game in the 10-game, eight-team season will be broadcast on national television. Fans won’t have to search for streams, or pay extra for start-up subscription services, or be relegated to following on livescores if they’re out of market. The games will be accessible, because McMahon is paying for them to be, with the hopes that it will pay off well into the future.

And it certainly might! Honestly, I hope it does, for the sake of all involved. But goodness, as a fan of women’s team sports, does it make me feel like I’m losing my marbles.

Because there is absolutely no guarantee that the XFL will succeed in the long-term. Last year, a high-profile spring football league, the AAF, collapsed halfway through its first season. In fact, there have been five other major attempts to establish a football league in the United States to offer an alternative to the NFL, and none of them have been successful. So, when people claim there’s no proof that women’s pro sports would be successful even with a mammoth investment, there’s even less proof that a non-NFL football league can be successful.

But $500 million, national television exposure, and patience could change that. Five. Hundred. Million. Dollars.

Let’s put that money in perspective for everyone. The NBA has regularly spent $12 million a year for the WNBA, and that figure often gets cited as a reason why the WNBA isn’t a success. (It’s hard to check any of this, since the numbers aren’t made public, but let’s take it at face value for today.) This season alone, I should note, 117 NBA players are making $12 million or above as part of their base salary. In NBA math, that means one Cory Joseph is equal to the entire WNBA.

The FIFA Women’s World Cup, which was watched by record-setting crowds across the globe last year? The entire prize money pool was $30 million.

When the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) was formed in 2001, after the success of the 1999 Women’s World Cup, a group of investors put up $40 million to launch it — no individual group put up more than $5 million. But the league folded in 2003, because it was losing money and the investors saw no path to profitability. Did it lose the $375 million that McMahon is willing to lose? Not even close. Estimates vary, but the most extreme number I’ve seen reported is a $100 million loss after three seasons.

Now, I’m not saying that’s not a lot of money. It is! But I often wonder where women’s pro sports as a whole, let alone women’s soccer, would be if those investors had hung on and kept going; if they had seen the big picture, and hadn’t gotten scared that the losses would continue forever, because, well, women. The league could be headed into its 21st season, and women’s pro soccer in the U.S. could be much closer to the MLS’s stature by now.

Oh, and speaking of the MLS? It has been reported that MLS lost $250 million in its first five years, and more than $350 million in its first 10 years. Today, 25 years in, the league is thriving financially.

Men’s pro sports succeed because people with power and money have given them the investment and the time that is needed to succeed. They succeed because the people with power and money want them to. Yes, market forces are a part of it. But there’s always someone pulling the strings of those forces, deciding when they’re a challenge and when they’re a dagger, picking a choosing which messages to take from them.

What if the WUSA had never folded? What if there was an investor willing to throw even $200 million at a women’s pro league? What if the NBA decided the WNBA was worth, say, one John Wall salary ($38 million per year), instead of merely a Joseph? Thinking of such a world is both thrilling and infuriating.

The XFL provides us yet another reminder that in men’s sports, the rules are simply different.

Despite it all, women’s sports are making an impact

Let’s finish with some positive news: Here are a few tweets showing what a big weekend it was in women’s hockey, and how far that sport has come, both in the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) and in the rivalry between the U.S. and Canadian national teams.

Hundreds of millions would certainly be nice. But either way, women’s sports will not be denied.

That’s all for today, friends. I’ll be back on Wednesday looking at WNBA free agency from multiple different angles. Until then, please remember to spread the word. Thanks!