Oliver Luck spent Super-Bowl weekend on “Radio Row,” trying to gain a positive vibe for the XFL.”The XFL is going to be one and done again”… “The XFL is a Trumpian Nightmare”… “Is the XFL returning really still a thing?”… “No one wants to see that garbage again.”
The biggest hurdle that the current XFL faces is changing the perception of their league. Some of that perception is earned. The league is still paying for the sins of their past. They have so many things going against them, and the past provides proof, that isn’t very kind.
Current headlines like…”The XFL doesn’t want to be developmental league” are translated to mean, here they go again challenging and disrespecting the NFL. The old narrative won’t die. Even if in that very interview, Oliver Luck praised the NFL and college football. Luck talks fondly about the NFL and his son playing in it. He mentions reaching out to NFL execs, working for the league for 10 years and how the NFL is god and can never be challenged. However, because the old XFL took an adversarial approach towards the NFL, the perception is that the current XFL is going to do the same.
Changing the XFL’s perception is going to be an uphill battle. Not just with the mainstream media but with all football fans and the public in general. Everyone who works with the XFL currently knows this. Vince McMahon even considered changing the name of the league, because of the negative stigma that is still attached to it. Getting networks, sponsors, players, coaches, the media, and fans to buy into the XFL is a really tough sell for CEO Oliver Luck and his team.
So how does the XFL go about changing the perception and narrative attached to them. How does the league start to chip away at that negativity and build credibility?
THE TV RIGHTS DEAL
Despite all of Oliver Luck’s statements at Radio Row during this past week. The detractors and naysayers do not expect the XFL to be able to land a respectable broadcast deal. When the relaunch of the league was announced, the expectation level was very low. Most detractors and even some supporters, assumed that the league would be lucky to get any kind of real exposure. The thought going around was that the XFL would be on some type of streaming service, and that maybe it would land on some cable channel. If the league does in fact, land a rights deal with an ABC, FOX, or both. The doubters will immediately start to look at the league differently. Those who didn’t have an interest in joining or following the league, may change their tune if a respectable deal is announced. A deal with respectable TV partners, will also lead to better coverage of the league, as well as having credible broadcasters calling and covering the games. With all due respect to Jesse Ventura and Jim Ross. Their association with the league helped shape the perception, that the league was not legit. That it was a second-rate sports presentation.
Despite the 500 million dollars invested by Vince McMahon. No one expects the XFL to take the USFL approach when it comes to signing players with name recognition from the NFL. In the past week, Oliver Luck has even mentioned advice he got from legendary NFL owner Lamar Hunt, of staying in your lane, knowing who you are and who you are not. This was advice, Luck received while running NFL Europe for 10 years. The one area where the league can get name value and recognition is their coaches. The expectation level here is low as well. The original XFL had some quality coaches, but most were seasoned coaches with no major NFL head coaching experience. There are some grand rumors out there now, with some big names as possibilities for the league. Oliver Luck teased this as well, that the league has former NFL and major college program coaches already signed up. If in fact, the XFL does announce head coaches with name value, this will give the league great credibility in the sports world. It would be a major selling point in attracting players to the league.
The names of the league’s teams are expected to be revealed after the league announces their TV deal and coaches. For better or for worse, some of the negative perception, that the original XFL received was for their original 8 team names. There are still those who appreciated and enjoyed the unique and brash names like Rage, Maniax, Xtreme, Demons and Hitmen. These names were a sign of the times and fit the branding of the original XFL as a renegade league. However, there were many in the mainstream who saw the league’s names as a reflection of it being non-traditional and low-brow. One figures that the current XFL, is going to attempt to take the more traditional route of team names this time. It’s a fine line of being creative and edgy, without coming off as silly or gimmicky. The team names and logos will be a major factor in the perception of the league. The Seattle Psychos and New York Killers, just won’t fly this time around. The league wants to be taken seriously. At the same time, how a league brands it’s teams, will determine if the cities and fans will support them. Something as superficial as a logo, team colors or uniforms can sink a league if done wrong.
This is also a divisive topic. There are some fans who don’t like what the NFL has become in recent years. They want to go back to the days when a Quarterback could be tackled and when there was more physicality in the sport. There is a major difference if you watch an NFL game 20 years ago compared to now. If you go back and watch an XFL game in 2001, you’ll think you are on a different planet. Hard hitting was not only allowed, it was glorified and encouraged. The sports world is changing and there’s no going back. How the current XFL handles player safety will aid them in gaining goodwill with the public and football community. The fact that they have hired famed Doctor Julian Bailes as their lead neurologist and have two of the nation’s leading insurance companies on board, are huge steps in the right direction. The league has to show that it cares about its players health and safety and that they are serious about running a respectful league.
This is going to be hard to avoid. Social issues and race seem to find their way into everything now. The last thing people want when watching entertainment or following sports is to have politics involved in any way. Sports and Entertainment are a form of escapism. Sports more than any other field unites people from all backgrounds. Politics ruin the enjoyment of sports. No one wants to hear about opposing viewpoints on abortion, when watching football. They just want to focus on the game. The current XFL has been painted by some in the media, as a right-wing organization with “Trump” values, partially because of the controversy surrounding players exercising their freedom of expression during national anthems. Some people have even suggested that Vince McMahon created this league to help the president in his never ending war with The NFL. The league needs to do everything in their power, to avoid politics and to avoid alienating people. It’s easier said than done, because every aspect of sports is scrutinized and viewed with a political bent nowadays. I’m all for the league and its players helping charities, families, and communities in their markets, but it would be wise for the league to avoid taking political stances in any way. It will get the league attention but the XFL should only be about the games and nothing else.
Some battles are lost before the war has even begun. That statement holds true in football. How a team prepares for battle, in the lead up to a game, can sometimes determine whether they will be able to obtain victory. In today’s world, your detractors will tell you, that you have already lost or failed in battle, before you even try to go to war. That’s precisely what is happening with the current incarnation of the XFL. The steps and moves that the XFL takes and makes in their journey to 2020, will help shape how their league is perceived when they eventually make it to the battle field.
Mike Mitchell is a freelance sports writer, analyst, and a general lover of all football. Mike was one of the original XFLBoard.com Team Reporters in 2001, reporting on the New York/New Jersey Hitmen. We have welcomed him back to the XFLBoard and love his ongoing insightful contributions.