The challenges that await the XFL

Will the XFL be able to survive and thrive in the long run, when so many other football leagues haven’t?

The biggest question surrounding the XFL, is will the league be able to survive and thrive in the long run, when so many other football leagues haven’t? A lot of that will hinge on what transpires from now until the start of it’s season in February.

In 2017, unbeknownst to many, a team of employees were hired in preparation for the relaunch of the XFL, before any announcement could be made of the XFL’s return. Vince McMahon needed to work extremely hard to secure risk insurance for his players and the league. Without it, the league wouldn’t be able to proceed. McMahon succeeded by obtaining the services of two of the countries leading sports risk and insurance companies in, The Berkley Group, as well as The Fairly Group. For over two decades, Berkley has insured more pro sports leagues, teams, and professional athletes than any other U.S. insurer. The Fairly group is also an industry leader in the field of risk consulting and management. It was this very action that helped Vince McMahon make his sales pitch to Oliver Luck, to become the CEO and Commissioner of the XFL. This showed Luck, how serious Vince McMahon was.

The first seeds planted in the growth of the XFL was a proactive plan to have the league prepared for adversity, something  most startup business don’t take account of in their early stages. Ninety percent of all startups fail, and they almost all fail in their first year, because they do not effectively factor in all the challenges and pitfalls that are guaranteed to come their way. Start-up companies need to be able to cover all their bases, have proper planning, and be resilient enough to recover from all the blows.

One need not look any further than what happened to the Alliance of American Football. Any business, particularly a start-up business, needs to have contingency plans for the challenges and problems that will inevitably come their way. The Alliance’s plan A was a disaster, and Plan B was an equal catastrophe. The glitch wasn’t in the payroll system, but in the entire plan. While the league presented a good front to the public, the AAF was dead on arrival. Its just that no one knew it publicly. Everything went wrong before the season even started. It makes most wonder how could the AAF could not have seen this coming, and why weren’t they prepared for all the adversity. There’s a reason for that. The concept of a football league has always been fun to imagine and plan, but not as fun once it is realized and set in motion.

Right now, the XFL is in the fun part of league building. Cities and stadiums have been announced, the coaching staffs and front offices are being put together. A TV deal has been announced with two of the very best sports networks, ABC and Fox. The XFL has actually started it’s first run of league events, by working out prospective players in all eight of their markets. They are testing innovative game rules and in-game technologies with the Spring League and their broadcast partners. Team identities will be revealed, players will be signed, teams will draft those players, and then off to training camp and eventually the season.

For all the fun in building a football league from scratch entails, the XFL is going to face many challenges in the lead up to year one. The league is going to have its fair share of doubters and naysayers. Everyone associated with the league needs to embody their founder and have thick skin. Start-ups tend to fail when there is the lack of a dedicated team, and when there is fear of being responsible or being blamed for failure.

Read any article or commentary about the XFL and you will see the same old arguments. The biggest being, whether there is really a market for another pro football league. The question is valid, but has been beaten to death. There are two areas where there really should be very little concern. The first is what ails most startups, a lack of financing. As documented, that’s not an issue with the XFL. The other area, that can be argued is the talent level of the players. This is where I depart from popular opinion. There’s no question in my mind, that there is so much football talent out there in 2019, that a second pro football league is necessary. This is really a result of the quality and evolution of college football programs. There are so many good football players out there,that can’t be fit into just one league.

There are some key areas where I do feel that the XFL will face difficulties. Of course, the big concerns down the road  are attendance, ratings and profitability. How well the leagues does in those areas may be determined by what transpires in the lead up to the February launch. These are what I consider the potential pitfalls of the league leading into year one.

TEAM NAMES/BRANDING

I wouldn’t classify this as an extinction level event, but it has the potential to make or break the league. You could argue that this is the most important and the most difficult decision that the league will make. The XFL can’t afford to get this wrong. The people out there, who have a negative perception of the XFL, expect the team names to reflect the in your face style of the original league. There are people out there who expect the teams to be called the “Dallas Dirtbags” or the “Seattle Psychos.” Those same people probably think that ABC is going to hire OJ Simpson to call the games.

XFL 2020 is certainly not going in that direction. But poor branding could kill the league before it gets off and running. Great branding can really be a difference maker, in not only how the league is viewed, but in how popular the league becomes. Once the names are revealed there’s no going back. How well the names and logos are received will go a long way towards having the league build fan bases in all eight of their markets.

FIRST IMPRESSION

It can be argued that the most important time period for the entire league will be in the months of November and December. For all the talk of how much time the league has in preparing for kickoff in February on ABC and Fox, the area where things will really need to be amped up is teams forming and practicing together in the fall. The XFL’s team rosters won’t be in place until Mid-October. Players are expected to be signed during the summer, and then more predominately after NFL cuts in September. This will be followed by the league’s drafting process. There will be close to 700 players signed and then drafted by the league’s teams. The talent will be there, but the most crucial element towards the league achieving a high quality of play is the time that the league’s eight teams have together in preparing for the season.

All indications thus far are that the fall practices for the XFL’s eight teams will be sort of similar to OTA’s. This will all lead into a league wide training camp, January in Houston. Roughly ninety percent of the XFL’s rules are supposed to follow the NFL, but there are areas of difference. Specifically when it comes to a faster 25 second play clock, a potential all 11 communication system, and some other rule tweaks, like the 3-point conversion, the new kickoffs, among other elements.

The eight teams in the XFL need to spend as much time as possible working together in order for the league to present quality football. It takes time for players and coaches to gel with one another. Everyone in a new league is new to another. This doesn’t only extend to the football teams. Prep time will also be needed for the officiating and broadcast teams. There will be several innovations introduced in those areas as well. You want all these elements to go off without a hitch.

The league can’t afford to struggle early on, with what is presented on the field. As is always the case, with new leagues, there will be a curiosity factor in the early going. If the league struggles early on to work out the kinks, they may lose potential viewers who are not impressed with what should be a ready made product come week one. Lack of preparation and planning could hurt all aspects of the teams and ultimately the league’s potential for success and growth.

KEEPING COACHES

One of the things that can disrupt the quality of a football team is losing players to injury. The quality of a team suffers as a result. The same can be said for coaches. Losing quality coaches can hurt a football team, especially if you are very close to the start of your season. The XFL is in a unique spot on the football calendar. As the league prepares to play it’s season in February of 2020, the 2019 NFL and College football seasons start winding down. Late December/January is firing and hiring season for NFL teams and NCAA programs.

As the XFL began the process of hiring coaches in February, they benefited from the fact that most coaching positions in the NFL and NCAA had been filled. So they didn’t have to compete for coaches services with NFL or NCAA teams.

While the XFL has language in player contracts that prevents them from going to the NFL once they are drafted in October (according to agents that were spoken to, on the condition of anonymity), there is no such language in the league’s coaching contracts.

The AAF ran into this issue last winter. Atlanta Legends Head Coach Brad Childress, stepped down right before the Alliance’s season started. He ended up taking a position on the Bears offensive staff. Michael Vick, the Legends coordinator, walked away from the job. Vick’s replacement, Rich Bartel, abruptly resigned two days before the teams opener. San Diego Fleet Offensive Coordinator Jon Kitna, left before the AAF season started to become the QB coach for the Dallas Cowboys. Cadillac Williams left the Birmingham Iron for Auburn. Hal Mumme, the current XFL Dallas offensive coordinator, resigned his position as the offensive coordinator of The Memphis Express, after only two weeks on the job.

Now, in the case of some of the AAF coaches, like Mumme and Vick, some left without a job in waiting. Brad Childress took a while before taking a senior position with Chicago under Matt Nagy. Some AAF coaches saw the writing on the wall and jumped ship. So it was more about the league showing bad warning signs, than better opportunities being presented.

However, what’s to stop an NFL team, from reaching out to Bob Stoops before the XFL season begins. Stoops may not be interested in coaching an NFL team in the fall come the 2020 season, because of family considerations, but if the Cowboys have a poor season in 2019 Jerry Jones might be tempted to make a play for Big Game Bob. It’s a mini doomsday scenario that most XFL supporters do not want to even consider.

There may very well be some XFL assistants that receive offers from NFL and college teams before the XFL season starts in February. It comes with the territory, but it would hurt the league if they were to lose any quality coaches, so close to the season starting. There needs to be contingency plans, in case any of the teams do lose coaches.

FINAL SUMMARY

When it comes to the history of football leagues like the USFL, UFL and NFL Europe, the question of “Where did it all go wrong?” usually has several answers to it. In the case of the AAF and the original XFL, the answer usually leads to the period before their seasons even started. If the current XFL truly plans to learn from the mistakes of the AAF, and their very own past, then, unlike the Alliance, the XFL has to be prepared for the difficulties and pitfalls that await them. If they are, they will make it to year two and beyond.

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