The Rock’s football dreams will now be fulfilled by players in his league

After a short stint with the CFL, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's pro football dreams remained unfulfilled.
After a short stint in the Canadian League, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s pro football dreams remained unfulfilled.

In the summer of 1995, staff and players in the Calgary Stampeders football organization began to take notice of a 22-year old practice squad defensive lineman with extra-wide shoulders and thighs like tree trunks.

“He was like a Greek god,” former Stampeder Stu Laird recalled.

Of course, he was talking about Dwayne Johnson, a former University of Miami footballer with NFL dreams, but trying to make it into the regular playing squad of a CFL team.

After tasting success with the University of Miami, including being part of a national championship winning squad in 1991, Johnson entered the 1995 NFL Draft. However, just as many players, Johnson’s college experience did not translate into a spot on an NFL roster. Instead, his love for the game, and an ongoing dream of making it as a pro footballer, led him to the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League.

Johnson had started with the team during the 1995 spring training camp, and he didn’t exactly impress his coaches. He had also arrived at a time when Calgary had one of the best defensive lines in the league, with Stu Laird, Will Johnson and Kenny Walker.

He was quickly relegated to the practice roster, and found himself earning only $300 a week.

“It was one of those deals where he was never really going to get a good break unless someone got hurt, and we stayed pretty healthy that year,” Stampeders equipment manager George Hopkins recalled. “You do remember certain people… you could see that he had a charisma, he had that dazzling smile even back at that point.”

Hopkins also recalls how Johnson was “deferential to the veterans,” meaning he conveyed respect upon them.

Once he was deemed to be practice squad material, Johnson still remained with the team and awaited his opportunity. Living on a meager salary, he shared a cheap apartment with other practice squad players. In a 2000 autobiography, Dwayne Johnson recalled borrowing a teammate’s truck to pick up used mattresses from a hotel dumpster to furnish the apartment.

When the rookies were called upon to sing for the team, as part of their initiation, teammate Lubo Zizakovic recalled how Johnson, whose mother is Samoan, did a Samoan war dance.

“It was cool because we would never get to see anything like that,” Zizakovic said. “It was the coolest thing any of the rookies had done. And he got a standing ovation.”

Two months into the regular season, then-Stampeders head coach Wally Buono felt it was almost time to cut Johnson. With that in mind, when Johnson’s agent called with news of a wrestling job back in the United States, Buono advised Johnson to take it.

At the time, Johnson was so broke he couldn’t even afford a taxi to the airport. Teammate Kenny Walker gave him a lift.

Johnson has often told the story of how broke he was when he left the CFL, and even named his production company “Seven Bucks,’ after the amount of money he had in his wallet at the time.

A quarter century later, after moving up the ranks of the WWF and receiving the stage name “The Rock,” Johnson has become one of the world’s biggest entertainment and movie stars.

Wally Buono still recalls Johnson as a “good guy” with a huge personality.

“As famous as he is, as well off as he is, when I see him, I see who he was. He hasn’t changed,” Buono said.

Being on the Stampeders practice roster, Dwayne Johnson did not normally travel with the team to road games. However, he got such an opportunity when the team traveled to the west coast to take on the BC Lions in an exhibition match. In 2018, while in Vancouver, Canada, filming the action flick Skyscraper, Johnson was reminded of his time in the CFL. He spoke about never making it to the NFL, and paid homage to Wally Buono, his old coach.

“So for me, playing in the NFL was the best thing that never happened, “ Johnson said. “I thank you CFL, I thank you Wally Buono. To everybody out there, keep working hard. Sometimes, your biggest dreams that don’t come true are the best things that never happened.”

For Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, an unfulfilled football dream may become more of a thing of the past when he gets a chance to quench his thirst by being a football league part-owner, as a member of the new XFL ownership group along with his business manager Dany Garcia, and RedBird Capital.

On August 4, 2020, the day after the purchase of the XFL was announced, Dwayne Johnson tweeted the message, “My pro-football dreams never came true, but buying the XFL allows me to help other player’s dreams come true. And give the fans something special and fun – for the love of football.”

“The Rock” seems to have accepted his new mission in life, and that is to help others achieve the football dream that once eluded him.

How college football decision-making will shape the XFL’s chances for a 2021 season

TCF Bank Stadium, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota
An empty TCF Bank Stadium, University of Minnesota (Image credit)

Today, the Big 10 and PAC-12 conferences officially cancelled their fall sports, including football. Other FBS conferences may follow suit, though some like the SEC and Big 12 still plan on playing. The Big 10 and PAC-12 join the MAC, the Mountain West, independents Massachusetts and Connecticut, as well as many FCS conferences in postponing fall sports due to COVID-19.

The XFL league brass should be monitoring this situation closely. The dominoes may not be done falling in college athletics just yet, and the decisions made there should surely guide the XFL in whether or not to ramp up quickly to begin play in 2021 or to wait things out until 2022.

Here are three college football scenarios that we could see play out, and what its effects could be for the XFL:

1) College football conferences cancel their fall season, move to the spring of 2021.

This is the pie-in-the-sky hope for those conferences that have suspended play for the fall. Former Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer has already come out and said there is “no chance” for a spring college football season. University of Wisconsin safety Eric Burrell termed the potential of a spring football season at “0%” on Twitter. Both Ohio State and Wisconsin belong to the Big 10.

There are a number of issues at play that makes a move to the spring difficult. First, many seniors will opt out to train for the NFL Draft. Entertaining a full slate of games in the spring, then turning around and asking the student athletes to play again in the fall would be too much, especially as athletes are increasingly demanding a stake in decision-making within their schools and conferences. A modified spring schedule of 6-8 games and a revised fall 2021 schedule of similarly limited contests might be the starting point for discussions.

If the unlikely wins out and major conferences do play in the spring, it limits the exposure the XFL could get. Networks like ESPN and FOX that could be in the running for XFL games have billion dollar commitments to college football conferences. Creative scheduling and midweek XFL games could work, but the thirst for college football will mean the XFL will get lost in the shuffle. Another downside here is that decisions about spring college football may not be made until deep into the winter; by that point, the XFL will have had to make a decision about whether or not to play in February. Just the threat of college football in the spring may keep the XFL out of the game for 2021.

2) Some college football conferences play in the fall, some play in the spring

This may be the toughest scenario for the XFL to navigate. Because the NCAA doesn’t have full control over decision-making of all its members, we could see some conferences playing in the fall, some in the spring, and some not at all. We could see some schools within a conference that chose not to play move to another conference for one season if they disagree with the decision of its conference. We could see some go independent for a year to pick up games. It could be chaos. We’ve seen college football players opt out of the fall season; even if their teams return to play in the spring, players could still opt out and choose the XFL if they believe the bubble that the XFL would likely play in would be a safer option for them than traveling back-and-forth across the country.

The XFL could also pick up players whose conferences did not return to playing the spring. With fewer college football games in this scenario, they could have interest from networks. There’s a difference between battling a full slate of college games on a Saturday and a few games here and there. The XFL and its television partners could choose to move contests to Fridays and Sundays, leaving Saturdays open for college games. Or, the network could market the XFL and college football piggybacking off each other, making a full day of gridiron action (college in the afternoon, XFL in the evening for example). Flexibility is going to be the key here for the XFL, which won’t be easy on short notice and without a full front office staff currently in place.

3) College football conferences whose fall seasons get cancelled don’t play in the spring

This is the only plan in which I’d endorse the XFL going full steam ahead for 2021. With no other football competition, the XFL should have no impediment to TV airtime in the spring. They’d be able to recruit players whose conferences elected not to play in the fall. While many first-round talents would likely forego the XFL and train on their own for a pro career, there are many potential mid-round draft picks who may look to improve their standing by trying their hand at the XFL. Remember too that players will be one-and-a-half years removed from their most recent game tape for pro scouts and personnel evaluators to look at; by playing in the XFL, they’d have more recent tape that would be a better reflection of where their on-field talent lies. Plus, they’d be competing against other professionals and making money doing so.

It’s worth pointing out that whatever decision the XFL makes, whether they play in 2021 or not, should be made with the long-term in mind. It may be attractive to rush into the 2021 season for many reasons listed above, but the short-term play should not be taken at the expense of the long-term survival of the league.

XFL quick win: Out-plan the NFL and NCAA

XFL in a Bubble
XFL in a Bubble. If the XFL can lead all football leagues in health and safety protocols, fans get their best chance to watch football and the league its best chance at success.

In the week since the new star-studded XFL ownership was announced, speculation has started to swirl about when the league may return and what it might look like. 

COVID-19 will once again play a pivotal role in an XFL season. After the virus led to the cancellation of the 2020 season, subsequent bankruptcy, and sale, COVID-19 still looms large in the XFL’s future.

But, what once led to the XFL’s demise could turn into the biggest leverage point for future success. 

Learn From Other Professional Sports Leagues

Six league’s seasons precede an XFL season potentially kicking off in February 2021. Leagues in a bubble include the NBA, WNBA, NHL, and MLS. Non-bubble leagues include the MLB, NFL, and NCAA football. 

The XFL benefits from being able to observe best practices from each league. We have reached the stage of seeing what works and doesn’t work for leagues. This is where the XFL can differentiate itself from other leagues to ensure a season happens safely, in its entirety, and as scheduled.

Other football leagues are playing checkers leaving the chessboard open for the XFL.

The return of the NBA has largely been successful. They established a bubble at Disney resorts and are isolated from society. There are strict rules about who is allowed in the bubble, along with an entry quarantine process. Zero x2: zero positive test results for two weeks leading up the play, and zero canceled games over the first two weeks of the season. 

This NBA Disney bubble is largely seen as a success at the cost of $150 million.

The return of the MLB has hit some major road bumps. Within the first week, the Miami Marlins had an outbreak of at least 20 positive cases resulting in seven games being postponed. A second separate outbreak also hit the St. Louis Cardinals with at least 16 positive cases of COVID-19, resulting in 15 postponements for the time being. 

Major League Baseball does not have a bubble. Both outbreaks are alleged to be from community exposure due to player trips to clubs and casinos. There is no required isolation, and players are using this liberty and putting the season at risk. The coronavirus has also led to over 750 minor league players being released.

Using the MLB as an example is important. They are an example of what not to do and where rules can go wrong. 

NFL training camps have opened and players have begun showing up to team facilities. There is no bubble, and the health and well being of the league are dependent on the actions of over 2,000 players, coaches, and other team personnel. The Super Bowl is still six months away. There are a lot of variables and dependencies needed for the NFL season to go on without a hitch. 

College football is at risk to not taking place whatsoever. Players are practicing without fully established health and safety protocols. UCLA players demanded third-party oversight to follow what rules do exist almost two months ago to ensure their safety; at least eight players have contracted coronavirus since returning to training camp. Players want to play, but the NCAA is caught in business decisions and logistics about how to make it safe. 

The multiple D-I conferences have already canceled their fall season, most notably the BIG10. Other major conferences are in active discussions evaluating the feasibility of the upcoming season. 

Getting it Right

Here lies where the XFL can come out ahead of the NFL and college football for the upcoming season. A well thought out plan for the next XFL season is the key to success, which does not necessarily mean a February 2021 kickoff is the correct or even incorrect answer.

With the core structure of the league already established with proven success, the XFL has time and bandwidth to establish the gold-standard of health and safety protocols. For 2021, it likely means a bubble. If that is the route the league decides to go, this may mean the new ownership group has to hedge their bet now on the league’s immediate success. As seen with the NBA, bubbles are expensive. While the XFL won’t be going to Disney, and will likely be much smaller, accommodations and facilities for players, families and team personnel are expensive. 

If the NCAA fails to protect player best interests they also risk tainting the already fragile student-athlete relationship. Unhappy college players may be willing to forgo a college career to play in the XFL where their safety is of concern, they are compensated, and still maintain a stage to display their talents for prospective NFL careers. 

If a 2021 season takes place, it must demonstrate health and safety protocols with the best interest of the community a team plays in. It must be able to keep all team personnel safe to play a full season from start to finish, XFL 2.0 couldn’t survive a shutdown and it’s likely not something worth risking for XFL 3.0.

The XFL has a significant challenge to reintroduce the league amid the pandemic. With a tactful humanistic approach they can carve out a strong path to once again establishing a secondary professional football league. The answer lies in a well thought out strategy that accounts for what coronavirus has thrown their way, and more.

Five things we learned in the first week of the XFL under new ownership

Dany Garcia and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, new owners of the XFL
Dany Garcia and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, new owners of the XFL

It’s now been a week since news broke that a group led by Dany Garcia, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and RedBird Capital would be taking over the XFL. In that time, it’s been clear Garcia will be the voice of the partnership, having already done numerous print interviews with media outlets (ESPN, The Athletic (subscription required), Sports Illustrated, and of all places, People Magazine). Looking at her comments and other reporting over the last several days (via The Athletic (subscription required), Front Office Sports, and Sportico), we’ve already learned a little about the future of the XFL. Here’s what we’ve been able to glean so far:

(1) XFL 3.0 will look a lot like XFL 2.0

In almost all of her interviews, Garcia had high praise for the on-field changes brought on by Oliver Luck and his team, as well as the quality of play. She was a big fan of the more recent XFL incarnation, so it’s no surprise most if not all of the on-field innovations will be kept. Garcia did tell ESPN that she’d like to make the broadcast access more “elegant,” so that’s where you could end up seeing the most change, though I doubt it would be drastic. For those worried the new buyer would come in and make wholesale changes to an on-field product that largely worked in 2020, it seems for now those worries are unfounded.

(2) Former XFL employees will be strongly considered for positions within the rebooted league

Sportico spoke to former league employees that are yearning to still help make spring football work, and ESPN noted an estimate of fewer than 10% of those fired in the XFL’s shutdown have found permanent work elsewhere. Garcia told ESPN she’d be open to rehiring some people, and it sounds like COO Jeffrey Pollack and his team are safe. It’s been heavily speculated, however, that Oliver Luck will not return. There are many staffs at the team level that did a good job marketing locally, so it would be nice to have many of them back as well if for nothing else than the sake of continuity.

(3) The league is eyeing a 2021 return, but hasn’t committed to that

Garcia’s stance in these interviews when asked is that while their preference is to have the league up and running in 2021 (in a bubble if necessary), she hasn’t committed to it. A source close to the ownership group told The Athletic’s Daniel Kaplan that he doubts the league will be able to return as soon as 2021, but left open that possibility. With the sale of the XFL not officially closing until August 21, that doesn’t leave the group a lot of time to hire staffs, find coaches and players, secure TV deals, etc. needed for play less than six months from then. It’s also difficult to know what the landscape of sports will look like amid the pandemic early next year. One of the first big decisions Garcia, Johnson and others will have to make will be whether or not to start back again in 2021.

(4) Despite the powerhouse pairing of Garcia and Johnson, the league may struggle to get a good TV deal

FOX and ESPN have filed court documents to prevent their contracts with the league from being a part of the bankruptcy purchase. The Athletic and Front Office Sports both make it sound as if FOX is willing to play ball, but ESPN still may be on the outside looking in. Much of this will depend on the status of college football and what conferences opt to play in the spring and the XFL’s willingness to restart play in 2021. The two articles cited above also mention that representatives of the league are already holding informal talks with potential TV partners, but industry sources cited in those stories doubt the league will get any kind of paying deal, even to the level of the previous contracts which only included the networks doling out production costs. The pandemic may cause the sports TV rights bubble to finally burst, leaving behind the potential financial windfall the league was originally resurrected by Vince McMahon to cash in on.

(5) Expansion is on the menu…whatever that might mean

When asked by SI what’s next for the league, Garcia’s first response was “expansion.” She didn’t go much deeper than that, and expansion was always likely down the road had the league found success in 2020. It should tell you how much money the group is willing to spend on the league because expanding will not be cheap no matter when it occurs. The fact that the question was so open-ended and the first place Garcia’s mind went was to expansion should tell you that’s high on the list of priorities for the new ownership group. However, could Garcia have meant something other than expanding the number of teams? She followed up by saying “expansion and more storytelling,” citing the desire for the league to be in the consciousness of the fan year-round; could she mean expansion in terms of expanding marketing, social media, and engagement?

There are various major hurdles for the new ownership group to clear, more so than even perhaps Vince McMahon had when he initially brought the XFL back into existence. There were many news dry spells for fans of the league over the two year period between McMahon’s announced XFL resurrection and its kickoff; I don’t think fans will have to wait as long between news bites over the next few months, especially if things trend toward playing again in 2021.

The future of the New York Guardians in XFL 3.0

LA Wildcats At NY Guardians 29 Feb 2020 – Credit Adam McCullough

“We love eight teams. We love eventually having more than eight teams. I think we’ll be reviewing some of the markets as we should. There was a lot of great work that was done and was succeeding. But I think whenever you have time to reset, I think it’s an important time to just reassess.”
– New XFL Part-Owner Dany Garcia- Per The Athletic

REVIEW, RESET & REASSESS

The XFL is coming back. The when, where, and how are yet to be determined. The answers to those questions could help shape the future of the XFL’s existing eight teams. 

One of the biggest questions moving forward is: Do big-market teams like New York and Los Angeles still have a place in the new XFL? Will they be a part of the review, reset and reassess process described by Dany Garcia?

The New York Guardians and Los Angeles Wildcats did a tremendous job building up their franchises on and off the field. The XFL’s two biggest markets were run by extremely talented executives like Janet Duch and Heather Karatz. On the field, both teams were in strong contention for the playoffs when the plug was pulled out due to the pandemic. New York and L.A. may not have produced the most massive crowds in the league, but the fanbases were excellent.

That being stated, except for perhaps Tampa, no two teams faced more of an uphill struggle to succeed than New York and L.A.

Under Vince McMahon’s vision and Oliver Luck’s leadership. The XFL took the approach of tackling the big markets. With McMahon’s background and history, in particular, there was never any doubt that New York would be in his league.

Some pundits and observers questioned the XFL’s strategy of placing teams in over-saturated sports towns with existing NFL teams.

Why do you rob a bank? Because that’s where all the money is was one of Oliver Luck’s go-to answers to why the XFL chose big cities like New York. The league’s business strategy boasted eight of the nation’s top 21 T.V. markets. Something that was a significant selling point when the league locked down T.V. deals with Disney and Fox to air its games. 

Despite the success of the undefeated Houston Roughnecks in a city with an existing NFL team. Many who were opposed to the XFL’s choice of cities will point to the league’s best success, which came in St. Louis with the BattleHawks. A market starving for pro football with an ax to grind for being overlooked. 

For some, a perfect alternate universe pro football league would consist of eight St. Louis like franchises. Cities like New York and L.A. wouldn’t fit in it into that model. 

THE BUBBLE

One of the saving graces for the continuation of New York and L.A. in the XFL is the likelihood that if a 2021 season happens, the traditional individual market model won’t be needed if the league operates in a bubble.

Unknowingly, this past January, during the league’s centralized training camp in Houston, the XFL provided the template for a COVID-19 sports bubble model. The league stationed eight franchises in one city and played their slate of games at one specific location (TDECU). The entire league operated as a single entity in a confined setting. 

Before the XFL shut down their season for good earlier this year, contingency plans for a 2021 season in a COVID world were forming. XFL Director of Football Operations Sam Schwartzstein submitted a proposal for the league to play as a single-site entity. The plan would save millions of dollars from the budget and plan for the likelihood that fans would not be allowed into games. Leagues like the NBA and NHL are operating under similar quarantined style operations right now.

If the XFL is to play in 2021, something similar to what Sam Schwartzstein set forth will need to be implemented. The XFL’s new ownership group has bought their way into a league at the worst possible time to do so. It’s part of the reason that despite having so many inquiries into buying the league, that only one substantial bidder emerged. Any owner of the XFL is inheriting a league in a pandemic sports landscape.

What the new ownership did inherit is eight ready-made teams with equity built up. If a bubble exists in 2021, the eight existing teams will be playing as their city representatives without actually having to conduct any business in their local cities, until the 2021 season has ended. Domestic ticket sales would be non-existent and thus not up for scrutiny until the league revs up for a 2022 season back in their markets. The setup may buy New York some time before the new owners decide on its future.

STADIUM

If the New York Guardians are to remain as a part of the XFL, then the apparent alteration with the franchise is moving the team away from MetLife Stadium. The Guardians averaged nearly 15,000 fans per home game in a stadium that seats 82,000. The prevailing thought is that New York would be better served playing at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., where the venue has a seating capacity of 25,000.

While many would love to see, a New York franchise play in its home state, like perhaps in Long Island or Queens, Red Bull Arena is a suitable happy medium. It’s accessible, being only 7 miles west of Lower Manhattan, and spectator friendly.

THE TEAM

The New York Guardians may be under new leadership moving forward. Does Kevin Gilbride still have one more run left in him? With the Guardians, Gilbride stepped out of self-imposed retirement to get back into coaching. The New York job for Gilbride was ideal; the ability to be close to home played a factor in his return.  Control also played a significant role. As G.M. and coach, Gilbride had to line up facilities and did all the hiring.

“My imprint was on everything. I liked that challenge. As a coach sometimes over a quarter-century of professional football, you get some frustrating experiences where personnel people are making decisions and as a coaching staff, you were not in agreement. I was in a position to bridge that.”
– Kevin Gilbride to the Middletown Press in late April.

Some of the XFL’s head coaches have publicly stated their desire to return, like Winston Moss and June Jones. By all accounts, the experience in the XFL was a positive one for Coach Gilbride, but the end of the season was abrupt, and a lot has changed since the spring.

The XFL is going to be a different league than the one Gilbride worked in earlier this year. Gone is the previous owner, Vince McMahon, who was in direct contact with Gilbride up until the very day, the league suspended play back in March.

CEO/Commissioner Oliver Luck was largely instrumental in Gilbride coming out of retirement. Luck is currently entangled in a lawsuit with Vince McMahon over his termination. It remains to be seen if he will return under the new ownership group.

When the XFL suspended play, Kevin Gilbride reached out to Luck out of concern for the members of his staff. When Gilbride asked Luck if his staff members should stay patient and wait things out, Luck’s advice to Gilbride was that they should start looking for new jobs.

Many of the great members of the Guardians front office and coaching staff are still available for hire. Whether or not they want to put their time, effort, and faith in the XFL again remains to be seen. A big part of the future will be the new ownership’s view of Kevin Gilbride, and whether he is willing to take another leap of faith. The Guardians being back in the tri-state area could be the deciding factor, although they may not be, at least until 2022.

Football fans celebrate the sale of the XFL, but is reality now setting in?

XFL Stadium with logo

On Friday, after a quick 35-minute hearing, a U.S. bankruptcy court approved the sale of the XFL for $15 million to Alpha Acquico, the holding company represented by Dany Garcia and her business partners Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and RedBird Capital. The approval of the sale cleared the way for the new ownership group to attempt to bring the XFL back from the graveyard.

There had been an objection from an unsecured creditors’ committee that had objected to claims against parties like Vince McMahon and his company WWE transferring to Acquico, which the creditors would have no redress against. WWE provided back-office services for the XFL, and the creditors contended the wrestling company overcharged. After the sale agreement was renegotiated, the creditors held onto some of the right to seek past payments owed.

It is interesting that the XFL only attracted four buyers, and at the July 30 bid deadline only two came in.  Of those, only Acquico’s was valid.

The rumors that there were dozens of interested parties may have been true. The lack of genuine interest in the league probably does not reflect on the league itself, but rather the sports business landscape in current times.

It was reported in The Athletic that the incoming owners plan a round of talks with prospective media partners in the coming weeks. There is also mounting evidence that the ESPN and Fox Sports’ broadcast contracts would not be carried over to the new ownership group, although informal discussions have already begun, and will ramp up over the next few weeks. Fox is in talks with the XFL about letting its contract carry over to Acquico, and ESPN has objected to its deal passing through.

A broadcasting deal is vital, since the league’s success in early 2020 was mainly due to their robust television exposure.

Fans, players, and especially laid-off staff, are excited by the recent developments. However, it is becoming clearer that the league may not rush back to play due to the unknown situation regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. The new ownership group is talking big about getting back into the game of football, and that may be their job to do so, especially when they are trying to lobby for new broadcasting agreements. However, the revival of the league may be delayed past the spring of 2021.

Reported by The Athletic, an insider claimed, “These guys won’t move a muscle until they have a lucrative media rights deal.” The same source said Fox Sports had already denied the first offer of a new proposal.

Still, Acquico claimed that this was false, and that media talks were just getting rolling.

Meanwhile, there is the matter of monies owed. As part of the purchase agreement, Acquico agreed to pay $9.2 million in cure amounts, which is money owed to vendors whose contracts are carrying over to the new buyer. In the XFL bankruptcy filing, court documents listed $31.4 million of liabilities. Earlier this week, unsecured creditors continue to file claims, adding to the tens of millions of dollars owed by the league.

On August 4, the St. Louis Visitors and Convention Commission, the leaseholders of The Dome at America’s Center where the St. Louis BattleHawks played, filed a $1 million claim. On August 3, Jonathan Hayes, the head coach and general manager of the BattleHawks filed a $633,333.33 claim, and June Jones, the Houston Roughnecks head coach, filed a $540,000 claim.  More claims are probably rolling in as this article is written.

Although we’d like to see the XFL rush back onto the field, COVID-19 and business realities may be setting in for a longer stay. 

XFL 3.0: The Return of the Players League

XFL- LA Wildcats At NY Guardians 29 Feb 2020 - Credit Adam McCullough
“For the Love of Football.” XFL- LA Wildcats At NY Guardians 29 Feb 2020 – Credit Adam McCullough

On March 11, Utah Jazz all-star center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. Although through no fault of his own, the positive test set in motion a domino effect which led to the XFL cancelling play for the remainder of their season on March 12.

On April 13, the XFL officially declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Most assumed that the league was over and mourned the loss of what was shaping up to be such a promising start-up football league. 

On May 26, fans of the league found out that the XFL would likely go up for sale, which was intended for July 23rd. 

On June 5, the sale was delayed to August 3rd, which would end up being the most important day in the history of the league. 

Media members, fans and players were awaiting the time of the XFL auction which was slated for the afternoon of August 3rd. However, in a stunning move, the XFL was bought before the auction and sold to Dwayne Johnson, Dany Garcia and the RedBird Capital Group for $15 million. 

The move is being praised by everyone involved in the league. With Johnson’s history in sports and entertainment, he should be able to follow the vision of the XFL and their slogan “For the love of football” which took the world by storm with the return of the league in 2020. 

Garcia and Johnson reportedly have hopes of playing in 2020. The new ownership group will likely stick with the eight team format for the time being, although the locations of the teams are negotiable for now. 

With the XFL being a smaller league, a bubble situation may work for a full season or at least a round robin style tournament to maintain fan interest in the league. 

But the best part about the XFL was always the novelty of the league, the access to the players, and the opportunity for talented football players to get national exposure. With that framework in mind, let’s take a look at the return of the XFL from the perspective of the players themselves. 

I interviewed six XFL players from 2020, one un-drafted NFL free agent and one XFL coach. Asking everyone three questions, I wanted to get a scope of how the people directly involved in this situation were reacting and most importantly how they felt about possibly returning to the XFL in 2021. 

Question 1: How did you react when you saw that “The Rock” bought the XFL for $15 million?

Jordan McCray: OL, Tampa Bay Vipers

“I was happy to see it was bought just in general, but to see it bought by the Rock was amazing. Him playing in other leagues before, the CFL and being so involved in entertainment, I was very excited.” 

Derek Dennis: OL, NY Guardians

“I kind of already knew that the XFL would be coming back, but seeing that the Rock bought it was exciting but not surprising. His story and his football background is something that you cannot put a price tag on.” 

Ray Rychleski: DB coach, NY Guardians

“Very excited. I don’t think it could have gone to a better group. It seems like they want to get football back as soon as they can. With a woman pro owner and a gentleman who loves football and a group in RedBird Capital that loves sports, this is super exciting.” 

Cole Boozer: OL, DC Defenders

“I woke up to a bunch of texts from XFL people saying ‘hey the XFL is back!’ and I think that The Rock buying the league is huge for the XFL. Everything he has done in his career, the Ballers and all that, he has also been on the other side of being cut. I think this group will create a league that can thrive.” 

Ernesto Lacayo: K, Seattle Dragons

“Definitely shocked. We had heard the rumors of Disney buying the XFL, but hearing that the Rock bought it, I am very excited and it seems very promising. 

Desmond Sturdivant: Undrafted NFL Free Agent

“It is huge because it gives athletes like myself another opportunity to play the game. For someone like The Rock to even consider but actually buy the XFL is huge. I really liked what they had going this past season and I hope they can get a full season this year. 

Quentin Gause: LB, LA Wildcats

“I was excited. It is an opportunity for more guys to get to play professionally. The Rock played in the CFL for a while, never got to the NFL so he is the perfect guy for it. He understands the player side and the business side.” 

Tre Watson: LB, Dallas Renegades

“This is the Rock’s time. Him being a former athlete and with the quality of play the XFL already had, his sports and entertainment knowledge will be huge.” 

Question 2: Would you play in an XFL 2021 season if called upon?

Jordan McCray: OL, Tampa Bay Vipers

“100 percent. We had a great time and it was fun to play with guys who wanted to play football at a high level.”

Derek Dennis: OL, NY Guardians

“If I am still a free agent, absolutely. I had a lot of fun in New York and it was amazing to be back home playing in NFL stadiums. To come back from Canada and play US football was awesome.”

Ray Rychleski: DB coach, NY Guardians

“100 percent. I would love the opportunity and am excited for that to happen.” 

Cole Boozer: OL, DC Defenders

“I would for sure be interested in coming back. I love the fans there (DC) and they were awesome to me.” 

Ernesto Lacayo: K, Seattle Dragons

“ I would definitely play. If the NFL does not come calling, I will absolutely play. I would like to know that now so we can get some work in before training camp starts.”

Desmond Sturdivant: Un-drafted NFL Free Agent

“Of course, no hesitation whatsoever.” 

Quentin Gause: LB, LA Wildcats

“I definitely would yes. I think the leadership will be a lot better, make some great changes. I will keep playing till I can’t anymore.” 

Tre Watson: LB, Dallas Renegades

“Call me immediately!” 

Question 3: What was your favorite memory from your time in the XFL?

Jordan McCray: OL, Tampa Bay Vipers

“Our first win. Having that seltzer shower and celebrating with my guys, as well as earning a little extra money, that was a good day.” 

Derek Dennis: OL, NY Guardians

“Getting into the game in Dallas. Even after everything that went down (ejections) it was exciting to get thrown into the fire, be a veteran leader and show what I was about.” 

Ray Rychleski: TE/DB coach, NY Guardians

“When we won our first game, the Seltzer bash was awesome. After the game, no matter who won or who scored, all that mattered was that we won. That was my favorite moment, watching my guys celebrate after a good win.” 

Cole Boozer: OL, DC Defenders

“Either the time in New York when we beat them 27-0 and I had a lot of fan interaction or when we beat St. Louis. We were on top of the conference and controlled our own destiny at that point.” 

Ernesto Lacayo: K, Seattle Dragons

“The first home game we had and the first kickoff. I was lucky enough to do the first kickoff there and the roar of the crowd was incredible. I could not even hear my own thoughts, the crowd was so loud, I will never forget that moment.” 

Quentin Gause: LB, LA Wildcats

“I did an in-game speech before we played Tampa and DC. It goes,‘As God as our witness they shall fall to our feet. They shall not rise, no pain no gain. No pain no gain’ When I did that in both games, we won both games.” 

Tre Watson: LB, Dallas Renegades

“That would have to be our wins against LA and Seattle. It is always good to get a win and when you are out there trying to prove yourself every day, a win on the resume always helps.” 

Conclusion

In case you haven’t noticed already, everyone involved in the XFL in 2020 absolutely loved the league. From the friendships to the rule changes to the pure competition on the field, the XFL has what it takes to be a legitimate football league. 

Something that was floated on social media, which had apparently been discussed by Garcia and Johnson, was the idea of a bubble like the NBA and NHL are currently doing. There was not a single player I talked to who had an issue with a bubble. 

In a time where we are struggling with health and safety protocols, the XFL has an advantage with a smaller league, and players who are willing and able to commit to some sort of action in 2021. 

With Dwayne Johnson and Dany Garcia in charge, and backed by RedBird Capital Group, the XFL has a unique opportunity to return to a “bubble” in 2021 with willing participants. Not only that, but they will be able to establish themselves for a run at a full season in 2021 with the fanbase and media support to expand past the eight teams we saw in 2020. 

The XFL is nowhere near what it was in 2001 under Vince McMahon. The growth we have seen from the league in just a five week stint is nothing compared to what Johnson and Garcia will be able to do in the next two years. 

So, XFL fans, football fans, and those of you desperate for sports. Buckle up, grab some popcorn and prepare for the journey of a lifetime. 

Three Potential Coaches Who Could Replace Pep Hamilton

Steve Spurrier, Mike Martz, and Kris Richard.
Steve Spurrier, Mike Martz, and Kris Richard.

The XFL returning only means that people like Dany Garcia, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and XFL President Jeffrey Pollack have a lot of work to do on filling out a staff. All eyes will be on who the commissioner will be in place of Oliver Luck, and how many of the head coaches will return.

Multiple coaches like Jim Zorn, June Jones, and Winston Moss have publicly stated they would like to return to the league. The XFL will focus on bringing back as many of their players, coaches, and staff as possible to make the transition easier. They will have to find a new coach to replace Pep Hamilton with the DC Defenders.

Hamilton took the quarterbacks coach job with the Los Angeles Chargers in the NFL, which leaves him out as an option for next season. With his departure, the league will have to fill at least one vacancy before playing in 2021 or 2022. The good news is they will have plenty of options to choose from.

Here is a list of three coaches the XFL could potentially bring in to replace Hamilton.

Steve Spurrier

This one makes the most sense to bring in. Steve Spurrier has plenty of experience in coaching in professional spring football leagues. He coached the Tampa Bay Bandits of the USFL from 1983 until 1985 and coached the Orlando Apollos of the AAF in 2019. Let’s not forget the fact that he won a college football national championship with the Florida Gators in 1996, and won seven total conference titles as a head coach in college.

The track record is there for Spurrier, but the desire to coach in the XFL is there as well. Back in May, he told The Athletic’s Josh Kendall, “If that XFL cranks back up, and they want me to take a team down in Florida, I would probably do it.”

There’s a simple solution to make this happen: Spurrier could coach the Tampa Bay Vipers. If Vipers coach Marc Trestman wants to coach in the XFL again, the league could move him to the DC Defenders to coach there. It’s the simplest way to fix a small problem and the league has another big name college coach in the mix.

Mike Martz

Mike Martz had the pleasure of coaching one of the greatest offenses in NFL history with the St. Louis Rams from 2000 until 2005. Martz compiled a 53-32 record during that time as he was a big reason the team’s offense was so dominant. After the Rams, he jumped around as an offensive coordinator for the Lions, 49ers, and Bears.

This is what makes him a good candidate for the XFL. His last job was being the head coach of the San Diego Fleet of the AAF in 2019. Despite the team having just a 3-5 record before the league folded, Martz found a way to make the offense click in the passing game and running game. Seattle Dragons running back Ja’Quan Gardner found early success, and Dallas Renegades quarterback Philip Nelson became popular after replacing Mike Bercovici during the season. Not to mention Martz had one of the best receivers in the AAF with LA Wildcats receiver Nelson Spruce.

Martz would have a lot of talent on the DC Defenders offense to work with. Cardale Jones and Tyree Jackson both had good and bad moments last season, but some development with an offensive genius could help. The rushing attack is deep with Jhurell Pressley, Donnel Pumphrey, and Khalid Abdullah leading the way. DC’s receiving core was among the best with Eli Rogers and Rashad Ross being the big names on the team. With a team like that, Martz would have no trouble constructing a top offense.

Kris Richard

Not as big of a name as the other two on the list, but still someone that deserves a shot at being a coach somewhere. Just a year or two ago, Kris Richard was highly regarded as one of the top potential first-time head coaches in the NFL.

Richard saw success as the defensive backs coach with the Seattle Seahawks. He’s regarded as being one of the key pieces to the creation of the Legion of Boom secondary. Richard was able to hold a defensive coordinator job with Seattle before joining the Dallas Cowboys. He was not retained after last season with the Cowboys, making him a free agent.

It’s a surprise to many that he has not been picked up by someone after Richard was interviewing for NFL head coaching jobs not too long ago. This is a chance for the XFL to bring in an assistant coach like they did with Winston Moss and Jonathan Hayes, and give him a chance to be a head coach. DC’s defense was stacked last year and could get even better with Richard as a coach.

New XFL ownership after $15M sale: starring Dany Garcia and The Rock

Dany Garcia and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson
Rock, paper, for sale, sold! Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Dany Garcia look to continue building their empire as part of the new XFL ownership group.

Almost four months after the XFL shut its doors in mid-April, there is, once again, new life in the XFL. 2020 put the biggest blindside hit on the world, sports were no exception, and as quick as the XFL came to life it seemed to be down for the count.

The season started and the enthusiasm built with each passing week. Fan bases grew, national TV audiences tuned in, players like PJ Walker put on dazzling shows week in and week out, and BattleHawk Nation kawed their loudest kakaw.

But just like that, on March 12, the XFL saw its inaugural season come to a heartbreaking end with the emergence of the novel coronavirus.

Former XFL owner Vince McMahon watched as his redemption efforts for a second professional football league once again came crashing down. McMahon was the primary financier of the XFL’s return in 2020, losing the league mid-season, and all the growing momentum was too much for the famed WWE businessman to endure.

McMahon’s XFL filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on April 13th.

In only a 5-week season, the XFL began to show its potential as an alternate NFL. The value from the strong start carried forward to the auction of the company.

Big Names in the Big Sale

Enough value to sell for $15 million at auction on August 3rd to the star-powered partnership of Dany Garcia, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and RedBird Capital.

Garcia and Johnson are co-founders of Seven Bucks Productions. Seven Bucks is known for the production of movie box-office hits with the likes of Hobbs and Shaw, Jumanji, and Rampage; all starring Johnson in a lead role.

The name of their production company stems from Johnson’s stint in the Canadian Football League. After being cut, Johnson had only seven bucks to his name. The XFL is the group’s latest challenge to take from rags to riches.

Garcia is now the first woman to own an entire sports league independent from a team, and was cited as being the instrumental piece in pulling the deal together for the group.

Johnson took to Twitter to share his excitement on the deal writing:

“With gratitude & passion I’ve built a career with my own two hands and will apply these callouses to our @xfl2020 brand. Excited to create something special for the fans!”

The deal is expected to be confirmed in a hearing on August 7th and close on August 21st.

Third Times a Charm

In what will be the leagues now third attempt at establishing a secondary football league, the new ownership group will look to put all the pieces (back) together to establish and sustain the XFL one more time.

The XFL seen early in 2020 was successful though short-lived. The front office had established and respected football personnel leading the charge. A competitive product was put on the field, and arguably an even better product put on TV.

Garcia has already shown early agreement at the potential to bring back operational talent that supported the XFL earlier this year. This emphasizes that this comeback is not tearing the league down by any means but will look to build on the momentum that was once taking the industry by storm.

The success seen in the 2020 season is the new baseline for the league. The game that returns by no means can be less polished than the previous. To re-engage the XFL fan base and have any shot at bringing more to the league an even better, more refined, and more game pioneering innovation needs to hit the field.

Surely discussed as part of the purchase, is the status of the TV deal the XFL had with Fox and ABC/ESPN. Last week, it was reported by Daniel Kaplan of TheAthletic.com that the TV partners were trying to get out of the TV deal citing the looming sale. Fox/ABC/ESPN gave the XFL legitimacy through their familiar football broadcasting. National coverage on these stations brought the XFL into homes, and gave the league more exposure than previous alternate NFL leagues.

As more details around the deal and future league proceedings come to light, the broadcasting deal will be a significant development to watch .

There is plenty to look forward to with the new rebirth of the XFL. The league has retained its potential as an alternate football league and excitement should be back in the air.

Press Release: Dany Garcia, Dwayne Johnson and RedBird Capital Partners Acquire the XFL

LOS ANGELES & NEW YORK – August 3, 2020 – Dany Garcia, Dwayne Johnson and RedBird Capital Partners have been selected as the winning bidder for substantially all of the assets of Alpha Entertainment LLC, the parent company of the XFL.  The XFL assets will be sold to Garcia, Johnson and RedBird for approximately $15 million, in accordance with the terms and conditions of the asset purchase agreement. The transaction is subject to bankruptcy court approval at a hearing this Friday, August 7 and, assuming that closing conditions are satisfied, is expected to close on or shortly after August 21. The sale auction previously scheduled for today will not occur.

Through this acquisition, the group secures the ability to option live entertainment intellectual property for further expansion across sports, live events and original entertainment programming.

“For Dwayne, Gerry and myself, this property represents an incredible opportunity. It is the confluence of great passion, tradition and possibility” said Dany Garcia. “Sports and entertainment are the foundations of the businesses I have built. Melding our expertise combined with our commitment  to deliver exciting and inspiring unique content, has us all focused on developing the XFL brand into a multi-media experience that our athletes, partners and fans will proudly embrace and love.”

“The acquisition of the XFL with my talented partners, Dany Garcia and Gerry Cardinale, is an investment for me that’s rooted deeply in two things – my passion for the game and my desire to always take care of the fans,” said Dwayne Johnson. “With pride and gratitude for all that I’ve built with my own two hands, I plan to apply these callouses to the XFL, and look forward to creating something special for the players, fans, and everyone involved for the love of football.”

“It is a privilege to partner with Dany and Dwayne on the acquisition of the XFL,” said Gerry Cardinale, Founder and Managing Partner of RedBird Capital Partners. “Their track record in building dynamic businesses speaks for itself, and their vision and passion for developing the XFL as a world class sports and entertainment property will enable a new future for this organization.  As their partner in acquiring and relaunching the XFL, RedBird will bring its own track record and experience in building world class companies in sports and live entertainment to help realize their vision.”

“We are grateful for today’s outcome,” said Jeffrey Pollack, XFL President and COO. “This is a Hollywood ending to our sale process and it is an exciting new chapter for the league. Dwayne, Dany and Gerry are a dream team ownership group and the XFL is in the best possible hands going forward.”

Garcia and Johnson are co-founders of Seven Bucks Companies, a multi-platform enterprise pioneering original content for television, film, emerging technologies and digital networks, and have been behind some of the most successful platforms in global entertainment.  Through their joint enterprise, Garcia and Johnson’s work spans all entertainment and creative verticals involving investments, brand integrations, philanthropic endeavors, marketing, and film and television projects that are rooted in authenticity, passion and strong storytelling with a mission of promoting equality and inclusion.

Over the last twenty years, Cardinale has been responsible for the creation of several multi-billion dollar sports and entertainment companies in partnership with some of the most iconic rights holders in the world, including the YES Network with the New York Yankees; Legends Hospitality with the Yankees and Dallas Cowboys; On Location Experiences with the National Football League (NFL); and OneTeam Partners with the Players’ Associations of the NFL, Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, United States Women’s National Soccer Team and Women’s National Basketball Association.

About Dany Garcia:

As Founder, Chairwoman and CEO of The Garcia Companies and TGC Management and Co-Founder of Seven Bucks Companies, Dany Garcia is the visionary architect of some of the most successful enterprises, brands and talent. Her immersive global approach within ever-changing landscapes paired with precise instincts have led to unprecedented box office success and innovative business partnerships across verticals. With unbridled athleticism as a professional bodybuilder, Garcia also flawlessly pioneers her expansive enterprise while competing at the highest level. Her global audience can expect trailblazing initiatives throughout 2020 and beyond, as Garcia continues to keep human needs and experience at the forefront of her endeavors across the spaces of mental and physical wellness, athletics, entertainment, spirits, finance and more. In 2019, Garcia, in partnership with Dwayne Johnson, announced one of their most ambitious endeavors to date – Athleticon, a first-of-its-kind community-driven virtual experience. The inaugural, eponymous counterpart, an immersive event experience celebrating the very best in athletics, wellness and entertainment will take place in October 2021 in Atlanta. Garcia’s passion for bettering the world through socially responsible decisions is consistently reflected in the culture of her teams and the businesses she builds.

 About Dwayne Johnson:

As CEO of Seven Bucks Companies, Dwayne Johnson is a global entertainment and entrepreneurial force who continues to grow his groundbreaking success while managing his ever-expanding and diverse entertainment portfolio. In 1995, Johnson had just been cut from the Canadian Football League and famously had just $7 in his pocket. Today, Johnson produces and stars in Seven Bucks’ tent-pole films and television events with box office revenues exceeding $10 billion worldwide. A cultural leader with audiences across the globe, Johnson’s expertise is invaluable not just in entertainment, but for first-class brands as well, including his strategic partnership and investment in VOSS Water, his trailblazing Project Rock collection with Under Armour and new investment in Acorns. In 2020, Johnson launched, TEREMANA, a tequila brand rooted from his passion for spirits as well as Athleticon, a one-of-a-kind virtual experience and inaugural live event with the ultimate combination of athletics, wellness and entertainment, created in partnership with Dany Garcia. Johnson’s mission is to continue using his platform to inspire kindness, humility, and hard work, while entertaining global audiences with unique storytelling and authenticity.

 About RedBird Capital Partners:

RedBird Capital Partners is a private investment firm focused on building high-growth companies with flexible, long-term capital in partnership with its Entrepreneur & Family Office Network.  Founded by former Goldman Sachs Partner Gerry Cardinale, RedBird today manages $4 billion of capital principally across its core industry verticals in Sports, TMT, Financial Services and Consumer.  RedBird invests with an entrepreneurial, company-building mentality, with an emphasis on capital appreciation and compounding equity returns over longer holding periods.  RedBird’s network of business founders and entrepreneurs is central to its investment sourcing strategy, and its highly curated group of investors are active co-investors who provide scaleable capital support.  For more information, please go to www.redbirdcap.com.