Gimmicks drive upstart sports leagues. But football leagues like the XFL, for all its innovations, didn't firmly grasp the national spotlight in its first season. That's because when the standard of American football is measured off century-old institutions like college football and the NFL, it's an uphill battle to convince fans your league is worth watching.
But fill rosters with women wearing revealing uniforms and put them on an indoor football field, and you've got a recipe for a league entering its second decade of operation.
Founded in 2009 and branded as the Lingerie Football League, the LFL sought to bring new flavor to the game. What started as the Lingerie Bowl — three annual games were played during the Super Bowl halftime show during the mid-2000s — grew into its own entity thanks to chairman Mitch Mortaza. After a full decade, expansion attempts with LFL Canada, LFL Australia, and franchises all across the United States, and more than a few naysayers, the Legends Football League — "Lingerie" was dropped from the name in 2013 — announced it was closing its doors in 2019.
Then, a few days later, the website was relaunched, announcing yet another rebrand: The Extreme Football League (X League) would be kicking off in 2020.
LFL Rebrands as The X League
"In the age of female empowerment in sports, the Extreme Football League (or 'X League') is set to kickoff April 2020. The X League will make history prior to even playing a single game, as the league is announcing it will provide its athletes with ownership equity as they build their tenure in the sport.
"Alongside shattering glass ceilings in women's sport by making its athletes future equity owners, the X League will also be established as the highest echelon of women's tackle football.
"'This is not your father's football league', the X League will compromise of some of the world's most athletic women, battling on a 70-yard field, in 7-on-7 full-contact tackle football. If you miss old school black-and-blue football, played by passionate athletes, the X League, is your league."
— Excerpt from X-League press release
Eight teams are scheduled for the inaugural X-League season — Seattle Thunder, Los Angeles Black Storm, Austin Sound, Denver Rush, Chicago Blitz, Atlanta Empire, Nashville Knights and Omaha Red Devils — with planned expansions into 24 US markets. (A timetable for that massive expansion is unclear.) Most of those markets existed in the last iteration of the Legends Football League in 2019, but the Atlanta Steam, Chicago Bliss, Omaha Heart, Austin Acoustic, Los Angeles Temptation and Seattle Mist were all renamed — Only the Knights remain.
The days of garters and lace dangling from players' shoulder pads are gone, but the league's "athletic wear" standards that compare to beach volleyball uniforms are the indoor football league's biggest calling card.
After all, seeing female athletes, many of whom played collegiate sports at the Division I level, tackle each other is easier to sell when they aren't wearing as many clothes.
Lingerie Football League Highlights
As gimmicky as the league is, it's been criticized six ways to Sunday by everyone from casual fans to the players themselves.
Melissa Marguiles was an MVP running back for the Los Angeles Temptations and key cog to the team winning three-straight Lingerie Bowl titles from 2009-2011. Described as "the threat in the LFL," she told VICE in a 2015 interview about how the league — in particular, Mortaza — had players benched because they didn't "meet the standard of attractiveness." "Bigger girls" were told to lose weight, furthering that physical appearance, not football ability, is what the LFL leaned on.
Marguiles also told the story of how, after sustaining a concussion while making a tackle, she was benched, but not due to her injury. She says Mortaza was upset she didn't celebrate and make a show of the play.
How Much Money to LFL Players Make?
During that interview with VICE, Marguiles explained how the league's football players were paid based on ticket sales and whether they won or lost. It ended up being only a few hundred dollars every season, but the injuries they were sustaining took a huge toll. (Don't forget that they're playing full-speed tackle football in bikinis and hockey helmets.)
In the newly-announced X League, players can receive ownership stakes in their team at the conclusion of their careers, but only to those who "establish tenure and proven their worth to the league." A Superstars Program is being established to help athletes create branding and revenue opportunities for themselves, which seems to be their main, if not only, source of income for playing.
The X League's opening game was set for April 11, 2020 with Seattle visiting Austin. The 2020 season would play on until conference championship games on August 29 in Los Angeles, followed by The X Cup title game on September 12.
UPDATE (June 23, 2020): The X-League announced that, due to restrictions amidst the coronavirus pandemic and spread of COVID-19, the relaunch would be delayed until 2021.
BREAKING: X League Officials Announcing Postponement of 2020 Season.
— X League (@EXTFootball) May 22, 2020
UPDATE (July 14, 2020): For a league working to rebrand itself and give women a platform to compete on the gridiron, adding a Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee with decades of NFL experience couldn't hurt, right?
Meet X-League Chairman Mike Ditka.
Mike Ditka Named X-League Chairman
In an announcement video, Iron Mike, who is taking on an "ownership and Chairman role" with the league, expressed his desire to "leave a legacy I can be proud of both on and off the field."
"I want to provide women with a high-profile platform to compete against the greatest female athletes in the world, while creating a destination league for millions of girls to aspire to play in. This will be a marathon, not a sprint. However, we are seeing the world change all around us, and it's changing for the better. The X-League will be yet another indicator that equality has come of age. It's time to give women and girls the same opportunity to play the game that the men play."
Ditka was a five-time Pro Bowl selection, four-time All-Pro and Super Bowl VI champion playing tight end for the Chicago Bears, Philadelphia Eagles, and Dallas Cowboys. The iconic Chicago Bears head coach won 106 regular season games in Chi-Town and Super Bowl XX with his vaunted 46 defense, considered one of the best teams in league history. As head coach of the New Orleans Saints, Ditka orchestrated the famous Ricky Williams trade, sending all of the team's draft picks to Washington to select the Heisman Trophy winner before being fired in 1999.
He spent nearly two decades working as an analyst for CBS Sports and ESPN.
This article was originally published March 5, 2020. It was updated following the league's postponement of its first season until 2021 and announcement of Mike Ditka taking over as league chairman.
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