People have been complaining that entrepreneur Alex Dreyfus hasn’t revealed all the details about his Global Poker League project. However, I compared the GPL’s decision to slowly trickle out information and keep some of its innovations close to the vest to the way the XFL piqued the interest of fans before the NFL-alternative launched in large part by hyping its disruption, but not being too specific on what those changes would be.
This got me thinking about the similarities and comparisons between what Alex Dreyfus is attempting with the Global Poker League, and what Vince McMahon tried to do some 15 years ago with the XFL.
Of course, the XFL ended up failing miserably, but that had more to do with its execution and the quality (or lack thereof) of the league’s on-the-field product (which I’ll address in a moment), not its rule changes and innovations, although some were certainly off-putting to viewers, such as the silly nicknames on jerseys.
In fact, the debut of the XFL (with Vince McMahon going full WWE voice, “THIS IS THE XFL!“) was a smash hit, as it pulled in a 9.5 rating, and was watched on NBC by an estimated 14 million viewers, largely because of the way Vince McMahon hyped the league. Like the GPL, he kept a lot of the differences from the NFL a secret.
For comparison, the NBA Finals generally have a 10-13 share, World Series games are usually in the 8-10 range, and the 2015 World Series averaged 14.7 million viewers. A typical NFL game can do anywhere from a 10-25 share.
Bottom line: People tuned in to see what the XFL was all about it.
XFL failed to create a compelling product
Unfortunately for the XFL, the people who initially tuned in to see what it was all about it ended up not caring for the product. The inaugural game was a 19-0 snooze fest; wasting all of the early marketing and buildup. Week 2 of the XFL season saw ratings cut in half, and from there it was all downhill, and the league folded after its first season, with the final weeks barely registering above a 1 in market share.
However, had the XFL had better players, a better on-the-field product, and better execution from the top down, who knows how things would have turned out.
Some of the league’s new innovations — like the overhead camera, and the elimination of extra points — have caught on in the NFL to varying degrees. So even though the league failed, and many of the innovations like the cringe-worthy and injury-prone scramble for possession and the concussion-waiting-to-happen idea of “live” punts failed, the XFL did have an impact on the NFL.
Vince McMahon’s goal was to disrupt professional football, and he did. His failure was not being able to lure top talent to his league. What XFL viewers saw, when they were accustomed to the skill-sets of NFL players, was essentially middling college games.
Why the GPL can be different
There are a lot of similarities between the XFL and the GPL, as both leagues are/were trying to disrupt an existing game, and focusing on fan and viewer engagement to do so. But, the GPL and XFL have major differences too.
Most notably, the GPL won’t have to worry about a lack of talent, which was the biggest drawback of the XFL. And while not the only reason the league failed, it was likely the biggest contributor to its failure.
The problem for the XFL was it was going up against an established league, the NFL, which offered its players high salaries and a union; the latter group obviously made it difficult for anyone with NFL aspirations to join the XFL.
Fortunately for Dreyfus, the GPL is the only poker league of its kind, so even though it’s trying to disrupt the game of poker, it’s not competing directly against an established entity, and it’s able to pull from the entire pool of willing poker players.
Fifty percent of the top 50 ranked players on the Global Poker Index register for the GPL draft, including six of the Top 10 ranked players. While the biggest names in poker are missing — Daniel Negreanu, Phil Hellmuth, and Antonio Esfandiari — the talent level is off the charts. People tuning in to watch the GPL won’t be turned off by the quality of play.
The GPL has a similar goal to the XFL. But with less competition, and a better talent to draw from, Dreyfus has a much better chance of doing what Vince McMahon couldn’t: Reinvent an established product, and make it more fan-friendly.