No one yet knows if the relationship between the Canadian Football League and XFL 3.0 will be of the casual, friends with benefits, or marriage variety. Meantime, here’s a historical tidbit for you – technically, this isn’t their first dance.
In 1999, the World Wrestling Federation (now known as World Wrestling Entertainment) wanted to buy the CFL. And when I say the WWF wanted to buy the Canadian Football League what I mean is WWF owner Vince McMahon wanted to buy it.
“The (CFL Board of Directors) decided it wasn’t something we wanted to pursue and we dropped it,” CFL President Jeff Giles told the Toronto Sun on February 1, 2000.
Giles said McMahon wanted to incorporate the existing CFL franchises into a North American league with separate divisions for Canadian and United States teams. The power brokers of the established association weren’t interested, so the rasslin’ mogul teamed up with Dick Ebersol and NBC Sports and started the XFL from scratch.
“We were concerned we would lose control of the Canadian game,” Giles added. “We would lose the CFL as we knew it.”
Jump to September 1, 2000. The Canadian Press reported that the CFL had approached the fledgling spring league about allowing its players to also play for the XFL. Giles said he had contacted XFL director of football operations Mike Keller concerning a possible arrangement.
“The XFL has issued a statement that any players that play with them in the 2001 season would be free after that season to play with another league,” Giles said. “Really, they have thrown it open. Now, it’s up to us to figure out what we’re going to do with that.”
Dan Ferrone, president of the CFL Players’ Association, admitted to CP he had informally discussed such a scenario with Giles. CFL players earned an average of $47,000 in Canadian dollars in 2000, so a side hustle would’ve provided a nice financial boost.
“Without question we would thoroughly enjoy something like that,” Ferrone said. “It’s a situation you have to love if you are a person with a football skill because your places of employment have really increased the last few years.”
As for what Canadian fans thought of a possible alliance between the leagues, a TSN poll found that 45 percent didn’t want it, 33 percent “might give it some thought,” and 22 percent were in favor.
By December of 2000 the “crossover event” had already begun – at least in the coaching ranks. Montreal Alouettes defensive line coach Don Wnek announced he’d be joining the XFL’s Birmingham Thunderbolts as an assistant – with the blessing of Als officials.
“My understanding from talking to (Montreal general manager Jim Popp) and (Montreal head coach Rod Rust) is that’s they’re fine with it,” Wnek told the Montreal Gazette. “It depends on your level of seniority. If you were a head coach or coordinator, it wouldn’t work. But with position coaches it works out.
“This is a wonderful opportunity professionally. I can expand my horizons while doing some scouting (for his CFL team). And I’ll make some extra money.”
However, by the time the XFL season approached in February, 2001, its officials were already looking down on their neighbors up north.
“Our worst team would beat the hell out of a CFL team,” Keller told the Leader-Post newspaper. “And our worst team could beat the best college team.”
Added Las Vegas Outlaws general manager Bobby Ackles – who once held the same post with the British Columbia Lions – “I don’t mean to demean the CFL, but you take the best 38 players here and 38 best there, this team would win.”
Of course, no one will ever know. While the XFL did OK at the gate (the eight teams averaged 23,410 fans per game) it was a ratings disaster on NBC, TNN and UPN, causing McMahon to pull the plug after just one season.
He rebooted the XFL in 2020 but the COVOD-19 global pandemic put that version out of business midway through its only campaign, possibly curing McMahon of his desire to fund a professional football league.
And now Dany Garcia, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and RedBird Capital Partners own the XFL. They made a splash by announcing last month a possible collaboration with the CFL, causing many people to jump to the conclusion that a merger was imminent. Honestly, I thought that was a longshot, figuring it would be more of a resource sharing-type deal.
But the fact that the XFL originally planned to make a third try at spring football starting in 2022 – and then put that time frame on hold pending the outcome of CFL talks – certainly lends credence to the possibility of a combined league. If not a merger, then some sort of shared infrastructure seems to be in the serious discussion stage.
So although the leagues already have a history, past isn’t necessarily prologue. The circumstances have changed dramatically for both over two decades. The question now is whether or not they’ll have a shared history going forward.