Imagining a reimagined game of football

The XFL’s goal is to make a great game even greater.  An ambitious mindset for sure, but everything about the league’s mission thus far has been just that.

The average amount of actual action in an entire NFL game has been calculated to be anywhere from eleven to fifteen minutes. This is what the viewer at home, and in the stadium, experiences over a three-hour span of watching an NFL game. Fifteen minutes or less of actual football.  A sixty-minute game that only produces a quarter of actual gameplay. More than three quarters of an actual NFL game clock is spent on camera shots, commentary and players huddling and regrouping before the next play from scrimmage. The average three-hours plus of an NFL game is dedicated to advertisements, replays, multiple breaks in the action, and then more advertisements. Fifteen minutes, at best, of actual football plays, and nearly three-hours of everything else. In defense of the NFL, after all these studies came out, in recent years they have to attempted reduce all the dead spots in their telecasts.

People will often point to advertisements eating up the three-hours plus of a football game. The NFL has taken steps, in recent years, to increase their in-game advertising through picture-in-picture technology, with quicker commercial breaks and on-field advertising.  The real issue is that it’s not just about how long a game or broadcast takes. It’s about what happens during the actual game. It’s about the amount of in-game action, and the lack of it, or the delays between plays.  It’s not just about the fans at home watching. It’s about the people watching live at the games. Oftentimes, the home viewer has a better experience than the fan seated in a stadium. TV Ratings have been up for the NFL, but attendance is down; simply because people would rather watch the games at home. Part of that is a financial decision, but a large part of it has to do with being able to better enjoy the game at home. The breaks in action and momentum throughout the course of a football game are way more noticeable when experiencing a game live in person, than they are from the comfort of your own home. The breaks in momentum also effect the players and the play on the field.

The XFL’s mantra of “less stall and more ball” is less about fitting a football game into a three-hour window, and more about increasing the importance of the action on the field.  It’s about minimizing the dead play time and meaningless plays, and maximizing the meaningful plays.  So, the number of plays and the overall time of the telecast is important, but not the main focus. It’s only part of the overall picture.  Actions speak louder than words, and for these words to matter they need to be put into action.  How exactly does the XFL plan on doing that?  The experimenting of this is still on-going, and will continue later this month with the league’s broadcast partners, ABC, Fox and ESPN, when the league partners again with the Spring League to continue their research, development, and testing of game rules and in-game technologies.

One way of speeding up and increasing the action is to shorten the play clock. Rather than the current 40-second play clock used in the NFL, the XFL is working towards having a 25-second play clock.  With a 40-second clock, two offensive plays can potentially take up to a minute and twenty seconds of game clock. The 25-second play clock will, in theory, add an extra play for every minute played on the field.  However, it doesn’t stop there. The XFL’s goal is to quickly run another play once a play has ended. The league is planning to speed up the process by having a designated official, whose sole job will be to line up the football immediately after a play has ended. The quicker the ball is spotted, the quicker the next play happens. In theory, a shorter play clock with a system in place to set and reset for the next play will help speed things up, but there is a reliance on human execution.  This is where modern technology comes into play to help boost the operation further.

The XFL is planning on using an “all-11” audio communication system, for both offense and defense. In modern day football, a play call is relayed from a coach to his quarterback, who then relays the play to his teammates before the next play can be run. Some NFL and college teams that implement a faster style of offense will often use signals and even drawings to speed up the process.  With an all-11 audio system,  every offensive player will immediately know the next play call. Once again, time is being saved before the next play happens. This will extend to the defense as well. What’s unknown at this point is if there will be a cut off time in the audio transmission to players.  In the NFL, the audio is cut off before the team is at the line of scrimmage. Will the XFL decide to keep the audio transmission going right up until the snap? It would be the equivalent of Tom Brady hearing Josh McDaniels instruct him at the line of scrimmage, while Brady is scanning the defense. Imagine if that audio exchange was also available to the audience. During NFL telecasts, Tony Romo has expertly surmised where the play should, and could go, right before the snap. Imagine a scenario where he was actually telling Jared Goff, where to throw the ball based on the defensive look.  An “all-11” audio system not only helps players know the play and line up quicker, but it can also help them execute their designed plays better. Using this type of technology will almost make the need for a huddle unnecessary.

Technology can also be a useful tool in other areas. Some of the dead spots in football telecasts are unavoidable, like injuries for example.  The one area where games do get dragged down, and the action gets slowed down to a halt, is with officiating delays and replays. The XFL plans on implementing a modified officiating protocol. They are looking to speed up the process in which penalties are called, and in how quickly replays and challenges are resolved. One of the nine game officials is going to be in the booth, with access to all angles and replays. This official’s job will not only to be to correct a call, but to communicate it quickly to the head referee on the field.

Simplifying the rules will also help cut down on penalties and game stoppages. The XFL’s proposed “multiple forward passes behind the line of scrimmage” rule, not only adds an extra layer to the offensive strategy, but it makes the referee’s job easier when it comes to determining where the ball is. The XFL’s proposed one foot in bounds catch rule also helps officials as well. So much time is spent on stoppages and replays determining what is, and what isn’t a catch. One foot in-bounds as a catch eliminates the referee conferences after a catch and the potential challenges that usually follow these types of plays.

Meaningful versus meaningless plays. Since taking multiple safety measures, the NFL has seen a big increase in touch-backs and fair catches over the last few seasons. Kickoff and punt returns, to a lesser extent have been reduced significantly. One of the bigger dead spots and lulls in action in the NFL, comes after a team scores. A break in the action is then followed by the next play, being yet another break in the action. No time is taken off the clock during this operation, but usually nothing happens. This really hurts the live in-game experience and the momentum and flow of the game, not to mention eliminating the excitement that was attached to kickoffs in the past. The now defunct AAF eliminated the kickoff altogether, and an offensive play followed a score. However, what that effectively did was to guarantee that no offensive team would have the ability to start a drive in good field position. Every team started their drives at the 25-yard line. Eliminating the kickoff also eliminated the excitement and shift in momentum that comes from big plays on kick returns.

The XFL is bringing the kickoff and kick return back, keeping safety in mind with a new alignment that reduces collisions but brings back the exciting aspect of a big return. This is one of the original “reimagine” concepts that the XFL has been tinkering with and testing for quite some time. This concept was heavily aided by the league’s health advisory committee members. One of the most recent proposals was for touch-backs to result in teams starting on offense at their own 35-yard line. An incentive to not kick the ball deep into the end zone and to ensure that a return happens. The punt return will also be different, but familiar to football fans. A 5-yard halo will be in place that allows the returner to set up and return the football. This is borrowed from the Canadian game. One of the more exciting plays in the CFL is the punt return, and CFL special teams coaches have a field day designing plays with reverses and all kinds of gadget plays stemming from the point of the return. Another reimagining that has safety and the big play in mind at the same time.

There is no play that goes against the competitive nature of pro sports, and is more meaningless, than the kneel-down in football.  The NHL has its own form of clock killing during penalties, and it comes when a team is trying to run out the clock when they are facing the disadvantage of having one less player on the ice. However, this form of action requires skill and risk. It’s the boxing equivalent of being up against the ropes and trying to avoid being knocked out until the round ends. The kneel-down in football has no such skill involved. It’s always been a way of retreating and copping out. An extremely boring end to first halves and the end of games. Although things are still being ironed out, the XFL plans on reducing or eliminating the kneel down altogether by enforcing that teams have to attempt to gain yardage by moving forward. To further this rule, the clock automatically stops within two minutes. This forces teams to have to try and get first downs rather than attempt a series of quarterback sneaks and then punt. You are essentially waving the white flag and giving the ball back to your opponent inside of 15-20 seconds if you don’t try to maintain possession. To keep the ball, you have to keep moving it forward. The competitive action continues, and it doesn’t come to a screeching halt.  One of the sequences that almost always gets booed by a home team crowd is when a team decides to take a knee before a half, simply because they don’t have enough time or timeouts and don’t want to risk trying to advance the football.  Increasing the amount of meaningful plays and action actually extends to a few other different aspects as well. The first ties into the kneel-down and the final two minutes of each half, and what is being loosely referred to as the “comeback period”. The game clock is supposed to stop after every play within two minutes. This has been, and is still being tested by the XFL. If implemented, it will no doubt increase the amount of plays run in the game’s most crucial moments, but this type of “reimagining” may dramatically change the whole time honored aspect of game and clock management as we know it.

In the original and in the current XFL, the extra point kick is no more. This is another untimed play that is virtually meaningless. In recent years, it has been moved back to create drama but it’s still one of the more automatic and boring plays in football.  Replacing the extra-point kicks in the XFL are three tiered conversions: a one-point conversion from the 2-yard line, a two-point conversion from the 5-yard line, and a three-point conversion from the 10-yard line. After a team scores a touchdown, they will have one of these three options to choose from. What they choose will be based on strategy, and if they are ahead or trailing in the game. Teams that attempt a three-point conversion will be in desperation mode. Converting one play from the ten-yard line will be very difficult to pull off.  The premise of this concept is to create more scoring related plays that add drama to a game, and create the possibility of a late comeback.

Then there’s the XFL’s proposed overtime concept. This has safety and fairness in mind.  The safety aspect is to avoid having players play multiple series and quarters. Doing so increases the likelihood of injuries.  The fairness aspect is allowing both teams the opportunity to win the game on offense and defense, with no coin flips or kickers determining the outcome. A tie is broken when both teams get the opportunity to score in what has been loosely labeled as a “shootout”.  As presently proposed, both teams’ offenses get five scoring opportunities at the opposing teams five-yard line. Although similar “shootout” concepts exist in hockey and soccer, those shootouts come down to a version of their games that is not played during regulation. The XFL’s shootout is traditional 11-on-11, offense versus defense. No field goal kicks, “Oklahoma drills,” or 40-yard dashes. The concept is trying to resolve a tie quickly and fairly with the players health and safety in mind. Trying to accomplish all of this and still make it an exciting sequence for football fans to watch. The XFL is still working out the kinks and rules on this concept. The truth is that overtime games are very rare, especially in an 8-team league. The original XFL had 43 regular season and playoff games. Only one of those games resulted in overtime. The AAF played 8-weeks of play, resulting in 32 overall games. Only one of those games ended up in overtime. So, the likelihood is that the XFL could only have one or two games that would result in this overtime concept seeing the light of day.

The XFL is trying to walk a fine line of being different enough to get noticed, but still appear to be familiar. The idea is appealing to college and NFL fans, by trying to resemble the game of football that those groups love, while also trying to improve upon aspects of football that can be upgraded for the year 2020 and beyond, all the while using advanced technology to be the driving force behind all of it.  Change always produces resistance.  There was a time when people didn’t want 2-point conversions.  Many rule and presentation changes over the years were first met with skepticism and scrutiny.  While the XFL will be adopting ninety-percent of NFL rules, it’s the other ten-percent that could create hesitation for those who may consider following the league.

A lot of these concepts seem very exciting. When imagining the possibilities of what’s being reimagined, can the league pull it off? The attempt to increase action and plays and to make the game more exciting and evolved than it already is. The XFL’s goal is to make a great game even greater.  An ambitious mindset for sure, but everything about the league’s mission thus far has been just that.

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.

New York XFL Summer Showcase Recap

Originally unwanted and undrafted by the NFL, Sam Mills became a star in the USFL and eventually became a star in the NFL from 1986 to 1997,

Since last year, there have been several steps taken to set the XFL on course for 2020. From the financial commitment of hundreds of millions of dollars, to the brilliant hire of Oliver Luck, to all the credible coaching and front office hires, to the league’s breakthrough TV deal with ABC, Fox and ESPN, but it wasn’t until these player showcases began, that the XFL starting feeling like a real football league. The league is being built brick by brick. That’s the feeling I got as I was standing on the sidelines of Sprague Field, at Montclair State University. There are still some kinks to iron out, and it’s not quite the well-oiled machine, that it can become, but the foundation has been set up very nicely so far.

As I was watching the players and coaches work together, through several different drills. It was hard not to notice, a huge banner facing the end zone, honoring perhaps Montclair State’s greatest football alum, the late great Sam Mills. It’s rather fitting that on a day, where talented players, who are NFL caliber, but for varying reasons haven’t made it, that the epitome of that type of player would be hovering over the field, in name and in spirit. Sam Mills was a 5’9″ linebacker from Montclair State who ended up becoming a five-time pro bowler in the NFL, had his number retired by the Carolina Panthers, and is in the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame. Where he ended up was legendary, but the journey is what made him a legend. No major colleges wanted him because of his size. He went undrafted, signed by the Cleveland Browns, and then cut. Off to the CFL, then cut again. Sam Mills ends up trying out for the Philadelphia Stars of the USFL. The rest is history. He ends up not only making the team, but winning two championships and becoming one of the greatest players in the history of the United States Football League.  If not for the USFL, a great player like Sam Mills, may have never become a legend and inspiration, for so many players that followed, and the many who played with and against him. The USFL may not have lasted, but it helped the game of football and its players.  Leagues like this are made for the greater good of football. It’s the thing that XFL CEO Oliver Luck reiterated yet again on Friday, how he is most excited about the fact that the XFL will produce 1,000 football jobs for players, coaches, referees and others.

It was an extremely eventful day in Montclair. There’s so much to digest and go over. A big thanks to Stephanie Rudnick, Lou D’Ermilio, Scott Parker,  Brentan Debysingh, and some many others associated with the XFL, for being so hospitable and friendly. The league rolled out the red carpet for not only the players, but the fans and media members as well. Thanks for letting me annoy Oliver Luck and others with so many questions. It was also a pleasure to meet up with other media members. I had a chance to go down memory lane with longtime sports reporter and broadcaster Peter Schwartz. Peter called XFL games for NY/NJ back in 2001, while I covered the team. We both shared in the differences between the XFL, that was and the XFL that is being realized today. As we watched the great athletes on the field.  Schwartz pointed out the stark differences between what the XFL looks like now, and what it was. He brought up a funny story, about an unnamed Hitmen offensive lineman, that was near death and severely out of shape, in halftime of game one on NBC.  Oh by the way… Darren Rovell is a good guy, and thanks to his 6.41 sec 40 yard dash, I won a side bet. I took the 6.0 over.

It was also great meeting up with other members of the XFL community. Like Alan from the ‘This is The XFL Show’ podcast. The show itself has become a huge hit in XFL circles. So much so that, people in the league office listen to the show at home, while watching their kids. The community is very important. It’s one of the things that really hurt so much about the demise of the AAF, the USFL, and the original XFL. Fans get attached and take real ownership of these types of leagues. They become so deeply invested in it, and end up living and dying with these leagues, similar to how a fan would with his favorite sports team.

There are several different items to go over, from Friday’s Showcase. Let’s start with the players;

There were several standouts on Friday. The league’s football operations department has their work cut out for them, deciding which of these players to sign to XFL contracts. One thing’s for certain, in my view, Hakeem Nicks is going to be a premium player in the XFL Draft come October. That’s if he doesn’t sign on with an NFL team. He showed that, he could still be playing in the NFL. Injuries forced him out, and once a veteran is slotted as a #4 or #5 WR, if he doesn’t bring value on specials. He doesn’t make the team.  I must admit, that I was skeptical when I saw his name on the list of Showcase participants. It’s been a few years since he stepped on a football field, and a few before that, where he produced at a high level. Through no fault of his own. Hakeem was an elite and clutch receiver, when he was healthy. He’s always had a tremendous catch radius and great body control in the air. That was on display on Friday. He looked like a new man. Hakeem was smiling from ear to ear, he was genuinely happy to be on the field working out. He ran all the drills. Hakeem didn’t play the veteran card, and just skip certain drills. He decided to go all in. Where Nicks really shined, was in 1 on 1 drills. It was an overcast day with plenty of wind, and Nicks made some highlight receptions on throws that were off the mark because of it.

While the QB group didn’t have great cache to them. They all performed fairly well. Chattanooga’s Alejandro Bennefield made some great throws. Alek Torgersen looked great.

Joe Callahan also really stood out. The former Division III superstar, who won the Gagliardi trophy at Wesley college, which is the equivalent of the Heisman trophy at that level, Callahan showed great accuracy and ability to throw on the run. He made some big time throws in small windows. It was a very good showing for him.

The best action came in 1 on 1 drills. Several standouts during these sessions. On the receiving side, it was  former AAF star Mekale McKay, Texas Tech receiver De’Quan Bowman, Stony Brook Tight End Connor Davis, Temple Tight End Colin Thompson, amongst others. As far as defensive backs, the speedster Kendall James from Maine looked very good, as did DB’s Max Redfield, Titus Howard and Dante Redwood. In the trenches, some players who stood out were offensive lineman Kirk Barron from Purdue and Andrew Tiller from Syracuse. On the defensive line, Kristjan Sokoli, the former Seahawks draft pick, looked very good coming off an ACL tear, that cost him the 2018 season. You have quite a few players like Sokoli, who are on a mission to salvage their careers.

Andre Williams had a really good showing for himself. The former Doak Walker and Jim Brown award winner, was similar to Hakeem Nicks. He’s been out of the NFL for a couple of years, and had a little extra pep in his step. Missing in action was Dexter McCluster. He was originally advertised for the showcase, I received no official explanation for his absence.

Now let’s get to some news and info. I was able to get 1 on 1 time with XFL Commissioner Oliver Luck, on two separate occasions. and several other top figures within the league. On a side note, here’s hoping that the XFL’s chalk talk session makes it way to social media. It’s a great vehicle for the league to create awareness for what they are attempting to do, to enhance the awareness of the product. It’s sort of like XFL 101, for those who are not up on the league. A lot of what the league is doing, in terms of research and development, is still a work in progress, and will be completed at the Spring League by the end of July. Oliver Luck and Kevin Gilbride were very engaging during the day’s outdoor Chalk Talk session.

In reference to that, expect the league’s official game rules to be released in August. Some of the concepts are nearing the finish line. Specifically, the tiered point system after touchdowns, and the overtime aspect. On that note, one thing that Oliver Luck mentioned was that the league was actually discussing aspects of the tiered extra points, in relation to gambling. You could see how a game could be affected, in terms of the spread, and over/unders with 3-point conversions potentially in play.

On team names. It is a topic every fan wants to know, and that every media member dances around when talking with someone in the league. Everyone in the league is fully aware of how it is the most pressing issue for followers of the XFL. It sounds like team names will be coming in July, and the plan is to unveil them all at once. Nothing finalized yet, but there could be some type of press conference/media event to make the announcement.

I asked Oliver Luck about an official uniform outfitter for the league. There’s nothing close on that front yet. It’s important to note, that while team names and logos will come first. It might take some time for the actual uniforms to be released. The real need for uniforms, will come once the teams are formed and begin practicing. So that could be a hint of a timetable. The league has had preliminary talks with companies about the design for their helmets. Nothing has been finalized on that end either. The footballs that have been displayed thus far, are not the final versions. Most of the players had positive reviews about the prototypes, that have been used at the showcases.

On the back burner, for now, is team schedules. While the entire TV schedule has been released ahead of time. The actual team schedules may take some time to formulate. Depending on the schedule of the league’s 8 venues. Individual ticket sales would most likely coincide with the team schedule release. Also, the XFL also doesn’t anticipate any delays in the retrofitted Globe Life Park for XFL Dallas.

There are two team president hires left for Jeffrey Pollack, the league’s president and COO to make. Pollack has been playing catch up. He came on board with the XFL fairly recently.  He’s the lead on all of these hires. The St. Louis team president hire seems imminent and could be revealed this coming week. The Dallas hire may be the final one. Negotiations are still on-going. On a side note, I met with XFL NY Team President Janet Duch. She was very engaging and seems genuinely excited about the team’s prospects of finding an audience in New York. The original XFL fan in me, pointed out to her that the team that was second in the league in attendance back in 2001, was in fact New York with over 28,000 fans per game. I asked Janet, if the league was close on naming a training facility for XFL NY. She said that they are narrowing down the list to a few choices right now.

The league does plan on having exhibition games in January, as sort of a dress rehearsal for the season. These scrimmages will most likely not be available to the public. The purpose of them is to act as almost a dress rehearsal for the players, coaches, broadcasters and referees.

Just some housekeeping on some items, that most diehard XFL followers know. The eight teams will have 45 player rosters with 7 player practice squads. Team 9 will be formed prior to the start of the XFL season, and it will be a group of players under league contract, that train with a select group of coaches in Arlington Texas, and that stay prepared for when there are injuries or a need from the league’s eight teams. Player contracts will include base salary, pay during training camp, incentives in the form of victory bonuses, and full health benefits. The XFL will begin offering contracts to players in July.

All in all, it was a great experience. I am most excited for the players during this process. Who knows, maybe someday, one of these players will have their banner at the stadium of their alma mater, just like Sam Mills.

Showing up for the XFL’s Summer Showcases

De’Vante Kincade and the other 799 players that participate in the XFL’s Summer Showcases, are an example of why everyone who loves football, should be rooting for the XFL to succeed.

The drive starts for a young quarterback, who is trying to score big. The sweltering heat in Texas is upon him. His blood is boiling, nerves are jumping and his heart is racing at an all-time high. He’s been waiting for this opportunity his whole life. This might be his last chance to finally prove himself…. then all of a sudden, the drive comes to an abrupt halt. His car breaks down on his way to TDECU Stadium in Houston.

With time running out on the clock, the young quarterback is forced to call an audible. His car engine has overheated. It’s time to abandon the game plan, call roadside assistance, and immediately head to the stadium on foot. He makes it just in time to check in, and hit the field to showcase his ability.

This is the story of Grambling State Quarterback De’Vante Kincade, the former 4-star recruit out of Skyline High School in Dallas. De’Vante was invited to the XFL’s first showcase in Dallas on Friday. With six quarterbacks at the showcase, Kincade was told that the Showcase was full, and was asked to return to another Showcase, taking place the next day in Houston.

From day one, it’s been that kind of journey for De’Vante Kincade. He has had so many twists and turns, that it’s no surprise his car would break down on the way to this moment. As a 4-star recruit, Kincade was recruited heavily by several schools coming out of High School. One of the coaches that recruited him was current XFL Houston Head Coach June Jones. Kincade was offered a scholarship by Jones and SMU. De’Vante and June would cross paths one more time before Kincade ended up throwing passes at TDECU on Saturday morning. More on that in a bit… Out of high school, De’Vante would end up signing with Ole Miss. He never got the opportunity to lead that program. He ended up mostly on the sidelines for three years. Kincade then transferred to Grambling State, where he ended up being the two-time Offensive Player of the year in the SWAC. In two seasons as a starting quarterback, Kincade led the Tigers to a 22-2 record, including a 16-0 mark in conference play. Kincade won two straight SWAC championships, and won a national championship. De’Vante amassed 5,297 yards through the air with 54 touchdowns to just eight interceptions.

After the 2017 Collegiate season ended, Kincade hoped that his last two years would earn him a shot at being a pro quarterback. He was anxious to prove himself as a quarterback, and didn’t want to switch positions. Measuring in at only 5’11 and 198 pounds. Kincade ended up not being selected in the 2018 NFL Draft. He did however, receive a post draft workout with his hometown Dallas Cowboys, but again nothing panned out. Looking for an opportunity and anywhere to prove himself, Kincade signed with the Maine Mammoths of the National Arena League in May of last year. De’Vante ended up not playing a single game for them. Two months later, up north in Canada, less than a week after the Hamilton Tiger-Cats traded Johnny Manziel to the Montreal Alouettes. Kincade was brought in to work out for then Hamilton Head Coach June Jones. Kincade ended up impressing enough to sign a contract with the Tiger-Cats. He would end up on the Ticats practice squad for the 2018 season. There were quality QB’s ahead of him that had already earned their spots on the roster, like former Oregon QB Jeremiah Masoli, who has become a star in Canada. There wasn’t an opportunity for De’Vante to get on the field. This past May, Kincade was released by Hamilton. Once again, being sent back to square one. The XFL came calling with an invite. One in which, he almost missed out on twice.

Kincade and the other 799 players that participate in the XFL’s Summer Showcases, are an example of why everyone who loves football, should be rooting for the XFL to succeed. There is no guarantee that De’Vante earns himself a contract, but there’s no question that his heart and drive are good enough for one.

The XFL opened up their doors officially this past week to football players, with two Showcases taking place in the heart of Dallas and Houston. The league began its first phase of working out and potentially signing players. All the players that participated in these showcase workouts have unique stories.

There’s former NFL Running Back Christine Michael, a 5-star recruit, former Walter Payton award winner coming out of high school and then bounced around the NFL, making only nine starts, and only carried the ball 254 times in the pros for 1,080 yards and seven touchdowns. There’s 25 year old rookie, the undrafted BYU Quarterback Tanner Mangum. A 4-star recruit who shined when given the chance, but who ultimately ended up splitting time at QB with the likes of, Saints jack of all trades Taysom Hill. There’s also former Air Force Wide Receiver Jalen Rowell. The 6’3 220 pound wideout led the nation in yards per catch. On his way to being drafted into the NFL, his draft eligibility was denied, and Rowell had to finish two years of service before being able to play pro football now. There are also former high end NFL draft picks like Kony Ealy. There are so many unique stories and players that took part, and that will take part in the XFL’s Showcases.

Making an NFL roster is extremely difficult. As documented here in the past, a recent NCAA study showed that only 1.6 percent of all college football players make the NFL. There are thousands of draft eligible players every year that do not get to continue on their pro careers in the states. A simplified look at an NFL roster composition can be seen like this: Every team has 22 starters, 11 on offense and 11 on defense. If you factor in 22 backups to those starters. That brings you to 44 players. You then add three starting specialists per team, a kicker, punter and a long snapper. The total is now 47. That leaves only six spots remaining. All NFL teams carry more than just two running backs, usually four or five. All NFL teams carry more than just four receivers, it can be as many as seven or even eight. This extends to the defensive side as well. Most teams carry more than ten defensive backs. So teams mix and match, doing a little give and take at certain positions to get to their final 53. In what has become a growing roster trend in the NFL, some teams will carry only two quarterbacks, just so that they can fill out their rosters. Sometimes a player, who doesn’t have front line starter ability, will make a roster based on the roles that they fill on special teams. This will come at the expense of players who can be starters, but that don’t fill specific roles as backups or on special teams. A fifth WR has to be able to either bring value as a returner or on special teams coverage, or he will not make the team. There’s no reason to even dress the player if he doesn’t bring game day value. Veterans lose jobs every year in the NFL, at the rate of a few hundred every year. Why? It’s simple. 300 to 400 new rookies make the league every year, and take their spots. The average NFL career is four years. Two reasons for that, one is injuries, the other is that a good number of NFL players don’t see their second or third contracts. Players are constantly being replaced. They come into the league at 21 or 22 years old and by the time, they are in their late 20’s. They are out. The rosters are constantly turning over every year. A lot of quality college players are not getting into the league, and a lot of quality players that did make it into the league, don’t end up lasting long.

The XFL’s goal, as stated by its Director of Player Personnel Eric Galko, is to sign players they feel are NFL players that, for varying circumstances, are not in the league. Players that should be playing in the NFL, or are NFL caliber players. A lofty goal perhaps, but the right mindset to have when trying to put together a pro football league. There are valid arguments for or against a second pro football league existing. Usually the most valid points against one existing like the XFL, is the financial viability of it. Whether or not, the quality of it can get the backing of the viewing public. However, those who are opposed to it, because they see a second league as a “place for rejects”, are out of touch with the realities of how many quality football players are out there. Even if a narrow minded football fan were to dismiss the thousands of draft eligible college football players every year that don’t make the NFL, and just stick with Division 1 football. There are close to a thousand draft eligible players from that group alone every year. The percentage of those elite college players from elite college programs that make the NFL every year is very small. Only 254 players get drafted every year. Then there’s the thousands who are undrafted. For those who question the quality of the undrafted. Take a good long look at NFL rosters. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, there are more undrafted players in the NFL right now than there are first and second-rounders combined. That means there is value in the players that are overlooked. The real argument against a spring football league, is really, Can it survive and thrive? In my mind, there’s no doubt that it should exist. The players and the football ecosystem needs it.

Will the XFL’s big time from the beginning strategy pay off?

Vince McMahon and the XFL are clearly swinging for the fences right out the gate.

Big time money is being invested into the XFL. Hundreds of millions of dollars. ABC, FOX, ESPN and FS1 will be airing the league’s games. Two big time networks that produce NCAA Football and the NFL on a grand scale, have signed multi-year deals to be the broadcast homes/partners of the XFL. The league will debut in eight of the top twenty-one TV markets in the country. New York, LA, Dallas, Houston, Seattle, DC, Tampa and St. Louis. Big time money in big time cities on big time networks.

It’s becoming quite clear what the vision and design of XFL2020 is at this point, despite being labeled as such by most detractors. The XFL has no intention of being a minor league. They want to be what the USFL could have been , and they want to be what MLS has become. They are trying to be a powerful standalone sports league in the spring. The league’s partnerships and big-league football hires are evidence of just that.

Back in January 2018, when Vince McMahon announced the relaunch of the XFL, his announcement was met with great ridicule and skepticism. Why bring back a league that failed in such a spectacular fashion? Was there even a market for it, and who would support or be a part of it?

The latter question is being answered on a daily basis. This past week alone, saw XFL Dallas Head Coach/General Manager Bob Stoops hire Daryl Johnston as his Director of Pro Player Personnel, as well as hiring, Air Raid Inventor Hal Mumme as his offensive coordinator. Big time moves in Big D. This coming Monday, June Jones will be announced as the HC/GM of the XFL’s franchise in Houston. A big name in those parts, Jones is a great part of Houston pro-football history, especially from his time with the Houston Oilers and Gamblers.

The current XFL’s eight teams will now have five coaches with Head Coaching experience. The original XFL only had one coach with NFL Head Coaching experience in the late Ron Meyer. The eight original XFL Head Coaches were all quality coaches with backgrounds in NFL Europe and the NCAA, but for the most part, it was what you would expect from a “secondary league.” No one expected the current version of the XFL to attract Bill Belichick and Nick Saban, but it’s fair to state that the current group of coaches, collectively, are a very solid group, one that consists of a college football champion, Super Bowl champions and a multiple time CFL champion. In an upstart pro football league, this is a strong positive… getting accomplished coaches to buy in. It’s not an easy task in today’s world to get these types of coaches to believe and commit to a new league. Especially after what just happened with the AAF, and what has happened to countless other non-NFL football leagues.

When it comes to the XFL’s TV deal, most people assumed that the XFL would have a hard time getting any networks to air their games. With the new age of streaming, the feeling was that if all else failed, Vince McMahon would just put his games on his successful WWE Network. Some thought that perhaps, one of his cable partners like NBC Universal, would perhaps, as a favor, allow the league to air some games on USA network.

The last time Vince McMahon attempted to bring a football league onto the sports landscape. He wasn’t a billionaire three times over. NBC backed him and bought fifty-percent of the league. NBC parted ways with the NFL, and saw the original XFL as a cheaper and potentially rewarding alternative. By now, everyone knows how that story ended. NBC took their contractually obligated fifty-million dollars away from the XFL and went home after one season. McMahon’s other fledgling broadcast partners (UPN/TNN), tried to leverage a second season of the XFL against McMahon’s other property, the WWE. McMahon begrudgingly was forced to choose, and ended up shutting down the XFL.

Upstart leagues have a very hard time getting any exposure or TV time. The defunct United Football League tried desperately to get any network to air their games. They landed/settled on HD Net as their main TV home. There was always talk of the UFL ending up with a cable deal or even on the NFL Network. The UFL hoped to expand to more than just 4 or 5 teams. The thought was that it would happen, once the league got their long-awaited TV deal. It never came, and the league eventually folded, ending in what was the sports version of “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

Upstart leagues have to beg for TV time, or in the case of the AAF, pay for it. These types of leagues are desperate for any type of attention and exposure. Credit to the Alliance, they found a way onto television by hook or by crook (Reggie Fowler). As admitted on ESPN Radio by Bill Polian, the AAF rushed into the marketplace to get ahead of the XFL. When it came to exposure for their league, the AAF knew that they wouldn’t be able to hit a home run, so they settled for just getting on base. The problem was that they never drove those runners home. The entire league was left stranded on base, unable to finish their season. The AAF still owes CBS and the NFL Network millions of dollars. They paid to be on CBS, which ended up airing only one game all season. They also paid NFL Network to be on their network. It was a neat way of creating the appearance/perception that the NFL was backing them by airing their games. Sort of like paying Marshawn Lynch thousands in quarters, to pretend that he was a backer of the AAF on TV. The Alliance was not only paying for production costs and air time, they were paying the on-air talents like former NFL Head Coach Steve Mariucci. As reported by Sports Business Journal’s Daniel Kaplan, Mariucci was being paid 20k per game, plus air fare.

The XFL having their games on ABC and Fox every single week is a big deal. Just being associated with those networks, gives the league a great rub. Having all four weekly games on Fox, ABC, ESPN and FS1 is the kind of exposure/coverage that sports leagues crave. Particularly an upstart sports league, that doesn’t have an established fan base or track record. Despite it being a new remodeled version, the XFL comes to the game with some blemishes on its image and record. The league still has a lot to prove.

There are some drawbacks to the XFL’s television deal, and the positives and negatives go hand in hand. Being on big networks ups the stakes. One of the things that killed the original XFL, was their failing ratings by 2001 standards in Network Primetime. The league’s championship game was a low point and had just over 3 million viewers. Ironically, this was the same number of viewers the AAF had in their premiere game on CBS. Being on a big network like NBC was great for the original XFL, but the expectation level of producing weekly primetime ratings hurt the XFL greatly. The league was setting historic weekly primetime lows in the ratings back then. However, the TV ratings landscape was vastly different two decades ago than it is now.

The current XFL will still have pressure to produce good numbers on Fox and ABC. The lone positive, however, is that the league’s games will not be on in primetime. Save for two games late in the season in weeks 9 and 10, that will be on primetime on Fox, the XFL will be airing early afternoon games in most of their markets. The “late” games are scheduled for 5pm Eastern, which would be 2pm on the west coast and 4pm Central Time. The ratings will still be judged, but on a different scale than if the league was in primetime on ABC and Fox. Instead the XFL is going to be in the position of being a lead in for other network sports and programming. Instead of being those networks feature presentations. Having to work and schedule around ABC and Fox’s many sports leagues, may have benefitted the XFL in the short run. The truth is that prime time games might not have been available on a weekly basis, even if the league wanted it. If the XFL was a weekly primetime entity on network TV, they would be expected to produce big numbers.

The other drawback to the TV deal is that the XFL is not being paid a rights fee by the networks. TV money helps keep leagues afloat. The XFL doesn’t have that luxury in this case, nor should it have been expected coming off the heels of the AAF’s demise, and other leagues like it. Besides the exposure and potential weekly coverage, and endorsement of being partnered with Fox and ABC, what the XFL is getting is their production costs covered by the networks. This could amount to 400 thousand dollars or more per game. Production costs for season one can range anywhere from 17 to up to and over 20 million dollars. The XFL is not paying to be on the air and won’t have to pay for the on-air talent. The presentation and production will be top notch, with premiere production and on-air talent from Fox and ABC’s deep broadcasting talent pool. Talents who have great knowledge and experience calling college and NFL games like Tim Brando and Joel Klatt for example. The networks will treat the games and players like they are important. This is the type of respect that upstart football leagues have really struggled getting in the past. All of this outweighs the negative of not commanding a typical sports league rights fee.

Ultimately, the XFL could have attempted to play in smaller markets and venues, and avoid paying expensive leases, or high salaries to coaches, office/football personnel or players. The XFL also could have looked to secure a rights deal with a cable network or a streaming service. There are so many networks out there looking desperately to add live content. The league could have gone small, limited their risks and costs, and the goal could have been to survive until they can potentially grow over time. That’s clearly not the strategy here. Perhaps there is an argument for that type of approach.

The XFL is clearly swinging for the fences right out the gate. The league might strike out and is guaranteed to lose a significant amount of money in the early going, as all startups do when they are trying to get off the ground. From the sounds and looks of it, Vince McMahon is prepared to take those lumps early on. Lose big early and then win late. The game to them is 9-innings, and the plan is to keep swinging for the fences until they start scoring big.

Investing in the XFL

Vince McMahon has already invested millions, but veteran players like Charles James may be called upon to invest their talents in the XFL. So will coaches, business partners and fans. Will they invest in the XFL?

There’s no question at this point about XFL owner Vince McMahon’s financial investment in XFL 2020. In 2018 alone, McMahon invested 123 million dollars to start up and fund the reborn league, by selling off shares of his company, the WWE. McMahon also laid the foundation of the league by investing huge money into insurance and workers compensation. This was done before the league’s relaunch was announced in January of 2018. A huge hurdle, and a must for any sports league.

On March 28th of this year, Vince McMahon sold 272 million dollars of WWE stock to fund the XFL even further. A fact that many mainstream sports outlets picked up on after the AAF folded on April 2nd. It made for a fun narrative, the idea that McMahon saw the AAF folding and then decided to cash out a large sum of money. The funder of the XFL is the league’s founder, a big factor in any league’s chance for survival and success. Vince McMahon is fully invested in a league that was his original idea, a league that folded against his wishes, and a league that he has thought of bringing back for years. Think of XFL2020 as the final item on Vince McMahon’s bucket list. The 73-year-old, who is worth over 3 billion dollars, is taking one last giant gamble. McMahon is emotionally and financially invested in what could very well be his last big project. The capital investment can’t be questioned. It’s the investment of other entities that will help decide the reborn XFL’s long term viability.

THE FANS

Getting fans and the sports viewing public to invest in the XFL, will be extremely difficult, for various reasons. It starts with changing the perception of the league, which is tainted by its 2001 existence. That’s an uphill battle, in and of itself. The folding of the AAF hasn’t helped matters at all. While many will point to the demise of that league, as being a positive for the XFL’s chances, simply because the league is now positioned to have the marketplace all to itself. The AAF’s existence and disintegration has poisoned the waters. The marketplace for spring pro football leagues has proven to not be fertile ground in the past. The sad tale of the AAF reinforced that notion. They have made the market an absolute wasteland. After what just transpired with the Alliance, how can the sports viewing public trust another league? There are a lot of sports fans who don’t believe in the idea of spring pro football to begin with, let alone the fans who actually do or in this case… did.

There are a lot of fans who truly believed in the Alliance. Many bought into the notion that the AAF would finally be the league that made it. The league positioned themselves as potential partners of the NFL. It was sold as a league that wasn’t trying to pollute the football ecosystem, but to enhance it. While the naysayers will mock the AAF’s level of popularity, based on poor attendance or the followings in small non-NFL cities like Salt Lake, Memphis etc.  An example of this would be, the last Salt Lake primetime game on the NFL Network didn’t even crack the top 150 rated shows on cable. Despite the failings of some of the weak markets, the AAF had a lot of believers. Not just the players, coaches and football people who bought in, but most importantly the fans.

The fans can make or break any sports league or entertainment property. You could strongly argue that the AAF hurt the chances of another spring league earning the trust and faith of football fans. The Alliance’s founder Charlie Ebersol wrote a lot of checks with his grand promises that the league couldn’t cash.  How can you trust another football league, when the AAF couldn’t even finish one season? Why should football fans invest all their time and energy on a non-NFL league?  The Alliance burned a lot of its supporters faith. The now bankrupt league let them down. It’s only fair to assume that it will be that much harder for any new league to earn these fans trust again. Why buy in to the XFL or waste any time or energy on it, when the end result could end up being the same? The Alliance ended up being a league with false promises that will forever leave their supporters feeling cheated. An incomplete season from a league that was born from an incomplete idea, and operated with an incomplete business model.

The XFL is going to have its work cut out for it, to undo the damage done by the AAF towards football fans and believers in the concept of an alternative pro-football league. The XFL has eight strong football and tv markets. This will help in their exposure and in their upcoming TV rights deal with their broadcast partners. While spring pro-football is designed to fill the void of no NCAA or NFL football. There will still be competition to gain the interest and attention of football fans and the viewing public.

This past week, the XFL announced two more coaching hires. One in New York with former two-time Superbowl Champion Kevin Gilbride, and one in St. Louis, with virtually unknown but respected long time NFL player and assistant coach Jonathan Hayes. While New York has always been a tough town to earn respect, it’s the hiring of Hayes in STL that has raised eyebrows and drawn some criticism. To this point, the XFL following in Saint Louis has been its strongest. The league’s decision to hire Hayes rather than someone with ties to STL football past, has not exactly lit a fire or moved the needle in that market. Of all the potential fan bases and team locations in the reborn XFL. St. Louis has the most to prove to the football world. It appears that the XFL and Hayes were in talks long before the AAF folded, which negated the possibility of a familiar face from Saint Louis past like Mike Martz strolling in to run the franchise. Winning is a cure all, but the league getting St. Louis to make a larger investment in the league didn’t soar after this week’s hire. The market has a chance to be the XFL’s strongest. Will STL buy in? Will the XFL’s other markets and fans invest their time and energy into the league, like AAF supporters did? Time will tell. It’s up to the league to earn their trust and support.

THE COACHES

Lost in the criticism of some of the XFL’s coaching hires, is how difficult it is to even get football coaches to commit to an upstart football league. Signing on to be the Head Coach/GM of the XFL is a risk, and anyone that signs on with the XFL is taking a gamble. In their most honest of moments, employees of the XFL will admit that they don’t know if the league is going to work or last. The odds and history are against it. This level of risk and feeling is multiplied by the coaches that buy into the XFL. Uprooting families is a part of being a coach. As a head coach, you have to convince at least a dozen other coaches to do the same and take the plunge along with you.

Kevin Gilbride is going to ask people he knows and that he has worked with in the past, to take a leap of faith and move their families to New York, to join his staff. All the while, he has to be thinking “I really hope this league doesn’t fold.” If you listen to all the top executives in the AAF, talk about that league folding. Their biggest regret is how many people they convinced to take on a job that only lasted a few months. Many of the top execs will land on their feet or have already had fruitful careers. It’s the people who took risks and left stable jobs to join the AAF operations teams and staffs, that were hit the hardest. CBS Sports writer Ben Kercheval recently revealed on Twitter, that a potential lawsuit could be coming on behalf of the AAF’s assistant coaches, many of whom are struggling to find jobs because this time period isn’t traditionally hiring season for football coaches. Hundreds of coaches left in a lurch, because they were sold a bill of goods.

Getting coaches to invest in an upstart league will be tough after what happened with the AAF. These coaches won’t be easy to convince. Credit to the current group of XFL coaches, who have decided to buy in and invest themselves in the league and what it aims to be.

BUSINESS PARTNERS

This covers a lot of ground. From the league’s broadcast partners to local vendors, venues and businesses. After what just happened with the AAF, as revealed in their recent bankruptcy filing, some vendors and businesses are going to expect the XFL to pay them upfront. Can you really blame them?

If you are looking to open up a nightclub on Main Street, and the last nightclub that was there, had crime issues and burned down the neighborhood, you are going to have a hard time convincing the land owners and community that your nightclub can be trusted. The XFL is going to need sponsors far and wide to invest their time and energy into partnering with them. They have to be sold that it’s a solid long-term investment and that it will be beneficial to all parties.

The XFL’s broadcast partners also need to be fully invested in the long game. The original XFL got burned by its broadcast partners. NBC bailed on the league and took it’s contractually obligated 50 million dollars in year two with them. Vince McMahon did not pursue the funding that was legally owed to him and his league. He very easily could have fought it and won, but his relationship with Dick Ebersol played a factor in McMahon not pushing the issue. When NBC bailed on the original XFL, the league’s remaining broadcast partners UPN and TNN tried to leverage their broadcast deals with the WWE in exchange for a second season of the XFL. McMahon was forced to choose, and with no major funding or national exposure, Vince had to begrudgingly close up shop. It’s extremely important that the XFL’s current broadcast partners are fully on board with the vision of the league, and they have bought into the concept of building the league from the ground up, rather than expecting a quick return on all the time and money invested. The league in return, has to prove that they are viable for the long haul. The business and football infrastructure has to run like a well-oiled machine from day one.

THE PLAYERS

This is always the easiest and most dependable area to get an investment from. Especially when it comes to the greater good of pro-football in the United States. As chronicled here last week in my “Keeping the dream alive for all football players” article, football players need a pro-league like the XFL to exist. There will be thousands upon thousands of draft eligible college football players that will not be drafted this coming Thursday by the NFL. Ninety-eight percent of the over 16,000 draft eligible players won’t even make it to the NFL or have the opportunity to become pro football players.

There will be some veteran players that will be skeptical about signing on with the XFL. Some will hold out hope for another shot in the NFL, and some will debate whether the XFL is worth all their time, energy and focus, despite what the league will be paying. For example, twenty-eight-year-old veterans like defensive back Charles James, who has been with seven NFL teams, and has been cut seven times. He took a chance to continue playing pro-football in the states with the AAF, only to see that league fold eight games in. Veterans like James have to be convinced that investing themselves in the XFL will be worth it.

Warren Buffett, the business magnate, is considered to be one of the best and most successful investors in the world. He has a funny quote when it comes to investing: “If past history was all there was to the game, the richest people would be librarians.” In short, this quote warns us that things change with time. It warns us that caution is an important part of success. It also implies a lot of other things, mostly that everything changes, and only what has happened in the past is written in stone. This may very well be so, but in order for a stock or a business to grow, it all starts with the investment of faith and trust. Something the XFL has to earn.

Keeping the dream alive for all football players

The NFL Draft is less than two weeks away. Over a three-day period, players will achieve their dreams by graduating into the pros. Lost in the celebration is how the vast majority of college football players are having their dreams crushed at the same time.

The leap from playing college football to the pros crushes the dreams of so many players. On April 3rd, The NCAA released its research report on the estimated probability of their athletes competing in pro sports. In regards to football, using data from 2018, only 1.6 percent of the 16,346 draft-eligible NCAA football participants made it into the NFL. 256 of these players were drafted, and a few hundred were signed onto NFL teams as undrafted free agents, with the potential of making an NFL roster in the summer.  Other players were brought into NFL rookie camps with an opportunity to latch on, but the overwhelming majority of these players didn’t make those teams.

We are talking about talented young football players, many of whom have dedicated their entire youth to the game. Thousands of them every year that made the journey from high school football into college. For many, that journey ends when their college playing days are over. More than ninety-eight percent end up seeing their dreams of becoming a pro-football player die.

Football fans are excited that the NFL Draft is less than two weeks away. It’s one of the most exciting periods for College football programs, for all thirty-two NFL teams, and the fans that follow them. It’s a week that celebrates college and pro football. Over a three-day period, these entities combine for a celebration, where players achieve their dreams by graduating into the pros. If you take a step back and take a 30,000 foot view, lost in the celebration is how the vast majority of college football players are having their dreams crushed at the same time.

It’s the reality of sports and the numbers game. On the flip side, and at the same time that 254 players are being drafted into the NFL, current NFL veterans on the NFL 90-player rosters have to worry about losing their jobs and careers because a whole new group of young players are coming into the league. There are only so many spots available. The average NFL career went down last year to a shade under four years. This is a combination of injuries involved with the sport, but also the constant turnover with rosters. There are so many players in their mid to late twenties that don’t get to see their second contracts, let alone their third. Getting into the NFL is extremely difficult, and then staying in is just as hard.

All these factors are why anyone that loves football and the players, should be rooting for non-NFL pro-football leagues to exist and thrive. With the AAF’s demise, in what now feels like a really slow and miserable death, one of the avenues to continue on as a pro-football player is no more. With each day, the stories get exceedingly worse. Over a thousand employees lost their jobs, not to mention all the people who benefitted from the league’s existence, like workers at venues and local businesses. The biggest victims however are the players. For many of the executives and office workers, their careers are not over. The path is difficult, but there’s still a chance for their professional careers to continue. The football players themselves, are the true human capital for all these leagues. Without them, these leagues don’t exist or thrive. Football players have always been the human capital for NCAA football and for the NFL. There is a very small window for pro-football players to have careers. For some it ends in their twenties, and for others who are extremely lucky, in their thirties. You can be a sports executive or work in a front office until you are in your sixties, but that’s not the case for any football player who wants to continue their professional career. Time is not their friend. The countdown clock on their careers starts ticking immediately once they step on the field.

On the bright side of the AAF’s demise, as of press time, forty-nine AAF players have signed on to be a part of 90-player rosters in the NFL. That’s more than ten percent of the league’s players. It’s evidence as to why there should be more than one pro league in the United States. Not all of these players will make it onto NFL rosters or practice squads, come September’s huge 864 player cut down day, but getting game time in the AAF helped them get another chance. Some were talented enough to potentially get another shot without the AAF, but there’s no question that playing in that league helped them. 416 players all put their faith into the AAF by signing three-year non-guaranteed contracts. These contracts only allowed them to leave the league for an NFL opportunity. Unfortunately, over 300 of them are currently being prohibited from pursuing their pro playing careers outside of the NFL. Great leagues like the CFL, which has carved out its own niche and stood the test of time, are not being allowed to open the door for players to continue their pro-playing careers. Over 80 plus percent of the AAF’s 416 players will not even have a chance to play in the NFL this year. Some of the current 49 players that latched on to NFL squads, will make the league. Some won’t. These leagues exist for the betterment of football and its players.

Even the original XFL back in 2001, had several players go on to have NFL careers. Names like Tommy Maddox, Rod ‘He Hate Me’ Smart, Paris Lenon, Kevin Swayne, Bennie Anderson, Kelly Herndon, Mike Furrey, Corey Ivy, Steve Gleason, Kevin Kaesviharn, Jose Cortez, and over a dozen more all made NFL rosters, and had extended pro-playing careers, as a result of playing in the XFL. A good number of the XFL’s players that didn’t make NFL rosters after the league folded, ended up in the CFL and the Arena League. Players like Bobby Singh ended up having the distinction of winning an NFL Championship, a Grey Cup championship and an XFL Championship. There are several other success stories from the league. Players that are currently coaches in the NFL, and two starting XFL Quarterbacks are now in the college ranks: Jeff Brohm with Purdue and Tim Lester with Western Michigan. These leagues provide a gateway and an avenue for football careers to continue and survive.

Is the current XFL our final hope for a non-NFL pro league? For a long time, it appeared as if the winners of a spring pro football battle between the XFL and AAF would be the players, with both leagues employing nearly a thousand of them at the same time. With that possibility gone. the XFL, for now, is left standing. So many of these leagues have died. The odds are heavily against the XFL standing the test of time and defeating history, despite the immense amount of capital invested by the founder, who is also the funder. This is a key point that ultimately killed the AAF. Over 80 percent of all startup businesses fail. One of the central themes for them failing is that the founders aren’t the funder. They scramble for investors to buy in to something that they are not emotionally invested in. The founder may be emotionally and spiritually invested, but without the proper funding, the founders company dies.

Make no mistake about it, and while most don’t want to admit it, the XFL existing is great for the sport of football, but more importantly for the players. While the league continues to add to its football operations side, with the upcoming Team President and Head Coach hire in New York this Tuesday, it’s the players that will ultimately decide whether the league is viable. When most of the detractors of these types of leagues take shots at the talent level. We should just shrug it off and forgive them for their ignorance. The 1.6 percent of all college football players that make the NFL is what makes that league the greatest level of football talent on the planet. While there is no denying that the NFL is the absolute pinnacle of football talent and players, that doesn’t mean there are not any more players who are capable of playing good pro-football. It just means that there isn’t enough room for all of them.

A Death In the Football Family

The AAF showed there can be a market for an alternative football league. Will any league be able to make it work or will they all just suffer the same fate.

I am still in a state of disbelief. The AAF is no more. They have suspended operations and cancelled their inaugural season just days after completing week 8, and just weeks before their league playoffs were set to begin and end with a championship. Even as I type this, I am still hoping there will be some type of last second save made. I’m in denial. This is a sad day for all true football fans. One that has become all too familiar to anyone who has followed or supported any non-NFL league in the last four decades. Fans of these types of leagues are die-hard football fans. True fans of the sport who follow and root for all football players, coaches and teams on any level. When an entire league dies, so many dreams, hopes and careers end up dying along with it.  In one fell swoop, thousands of football people lost their jobs.

Long time football fans have seen this story before. It always ends the same way. It’s like watching the end of The Sopranos series. As the late great James Gandolfini is listening to Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believing’, he looks up and the screen fades to black. No matter how many times you re-watch the ending. It never changes. Die-hard football fans have never stopped believing in the possibility of a non-NFL league making it in the states, and yet the dream of just that always fades away to nothing.

It’s a sad day for all the fans, players, coaches and team employees that invested so much time and energy to the AAF. For many of them, this felt like the real thing. Like the AAF was going to finally be the one league that made it.

With the writing on the wall, the legendary Steve Spurrier held court with the Orlando media and answered questions. As I listened, my eyes were transfixed on the young man standing next to him. He appeared to be an assistant. He was wearing an Apollos hat and shirt. Not sure the identity of this young man, but there he was waiting on the “Old Ball Coach” to wrap up his interview, so that he can assist him. Waiting to do a job that wouldn’t be waiting for him tomorrow.

The death of the AAF reminds all future leagues of the fate that may eventually be waiting for them. These leagues have the odds and history heavily against them. Over the last several months on this site, I have chronicled the life and death of several upstart football leagues. From the World Football League to the USFL, the original XFL, NFL Europe, the United Football League and several others. The graveyards are filled with the corpses of now defunct football leagues, who dreamed big and failed in spectacular fashion. Almost all of their deaths related to mismanagement and a lack of funds. Too much money going in, not enough coming back. Even the almighty NFL lost tens of millions on the World League of American Football and then NFL Europe, before pulling the plug over a decade ago.

There are several leagues that failed to even launch because of financial issues. So many leagues that have long since been forgotten. The ones that did succeed in launching barely resembled a true league. The FXFL tried out a fall feeder league for the NFL. It flopped miserably. They played in small venues with tiny crowds and with only a handful of teams. They wound up playing only two seasons and only 13 games. The FXFL has now become The Spring League, which is basically a four-team, two-game a year showcase set of games. It wasn’t a real league when it was the FXFL, and it’s called one now but that’s only in name. My family, friends and I get together to play a series of games during Thanksgiving weekend. It’s four teams, and we play for a couple of days but we don’t call ourselves “The Fall League.” Ten years and running. If we had a joint twitter account, we’d brag about it…

A league like the United Football League was funded by a billionaire in William Hambrecht. They actually made it to four seasons, kind of… They could never expand beyond five teams and ended up relocating some of them. Costs were too high. They never got their TV rights deal. They flopped at the gate with hundreds of fans sitting in large college and NFL stadiums. By the time, that league ended they were drowning in debt. They couldn’t even afford to feed their employees or equip their players. Employees are still owed money by that league. The UFL even had owners like Speaker of The House Nancy Pelosi’s husband Paul, failing to pay his employees. Reports are now coming out about the AAF skimping on costs and short-changing employees because of a lack of funds. From not covering travel costs to not allowing their doctors, trainers and equipment people to eat.

Should we all have seen this coming with The Alliance of American Football? Some of its supporters and fair-minded critics did see and point out the warning signs. The league rushed into play, with barely a year to form. Like the elimination of the kickoff, the AAF started their drive on the 25-yard line with no real return to get started. The ball was immediately placed on the field. The league rushed to find any markets or venues that would take them on short notice. They had to pass on St. Louis because of a scheduling conflict. As a result of the league rushing, they ended up in several small market cities like Salt Lake, which could barely draw 8,000 fans. The AAF bragged about utilizing fantasy and gambling but had no teams in legalized gambling states. The league’s highly touted App launched just days before kickoff. The fantasy of gambling and the gambling of fantasy were simply not there in their bare-boned app. The AAF had only a month-long training camp before the season started. During this time, several coaches left the league. Brad Childress stepped down as Atlanta’s coach. Michael Vick never assumed his highly promoted duties as offensive coordinator of the Legends. Other coaches like Hugh Freeze, Hal Mumme, Cadillac Williams, Jon Kitna and others all left before the league even launched.

Then the season began. The AAF managed to launch and get itself some decent exposure but it was all done at the last second. Only two major network games on CBS were slotted. A third was added later. NFL Network stepped up, as did TNT to help the league, but the AAF did not have a traditional TV rights package. The networks helped cover some of the costs, but the league itself wasn’t getting a significant amount of money that leagues like the WNBA or MLS normally get. That TV money is used by these leagues to help fund their teams and cover costs. The AAF’s TV deal, despite looking great on paper because of their network names and NFL association, was pretty close to being an infomercial type deal.

Week One produced so much promise and hope for the AAF. Yet, behind the scenes, things unraveled quickly. Despite the league’s critical acclaim and success in week one, their main investor Reggie Fowler decided that the league wasn’t worth any further investment, and bailed. He had already sunk a reported 28 million in the league. Carolina Hurricanes owner and Dallas Billionaire Tom Dundon came in to the make the save, but his financial save comes at a big cost. The league founded by Charlie Ebersol and Bill Polian became Dundon’s league. Ebersol and Polian relinquished all control in order to save the league. Once Tom Dundon got inside the door, he got to see exactly what he was inheriting. The league’s promotion and marketing were minimal and it showed at the gate. With the majority of the league’s teams doing poorly in attendance, specifically in the league’s small markets like Salt Lake, the league ended up only averaging a little over 15,000 fans per game. San Antonio, Orlando and San Diego all did well, but the remaining markets all under-performed. The league had no real profitability in the short term, and in the end, Tom Dundon didn’t see the long game being profitable either, and decided to not bleed any more of his money into the league. I strongly contend that the Dundon’s grandstand on forcing the NFLPA to allow their players to play in the AAF, was just a red herring and an excuse to get out now. The future contract player excuse was just a life preserver used to get off what he deemed as a sinking ship.

Who knows what the future holds? In their final email/address to their employees, the AAF told their soon to be terminated employees, that there will be a small group of employees retained, to help the company seek new investment capital and to restructure the business. There’s a tease of a potential season two if they are able to be successful in those efforts.

So where does this leave the 2020 version of the XFL? With the marketplace presumably left all to themselves. For a time it appeared like there would be a legit and unique spring football competition between the AAF and XFL, two leagues that were born and re-born because of the original XFL. The XFL did release a statement about the suspension of the AAF. They were asked by several media parties for comment. Daniel Kaplan of Sports Business Journal got a response.

XFL Statement on suspension of AAF: 
“We have said all along the success or failure of other leagues will have no impact on our ability to deliver high-quality, fast-paced, professional football. The XFL is well-funded, we have time before kick-off to execute our business plan, and we will soon announce a national broadcast and cable TV schedule that makes it easy for fans to find our games consistently every weekend when we launch next February. There is no doubt that avid football fans want more and we’re excited to get going in 2020.”

There’s a key line in there, that can be interpreted as a compliment to the AAF: “There is no doubt that football fans want more and we’re excited to get going in 2020.” The AAF showed there can be a market for an alternative football league. Will any league be able to make it work or will they all just suffer the same fate.

The 20/20 vision of the XFL

Many football fans still think fondly of the USFL and what it represented, mainly because it stood out from the crowd and built a strong identity. No other non-NFL football league has been able to do this.

Oliver Luck and others associated with the 2020 version of the XFL have gone out of their way to tell anyone who will listen, that they are not going to be like the original league. It’s been the league’s biggest selling point to all their naysayers and critics. Oliver Luck has let everyone know what he thought of the original XFL, and his opinion of the league is not very favorable. Most importantly, he let league owner Vince McMahon know what he thought when he was interviewed for the CEO/Commissioner job this past summer. His straight forward take on the league helped him land the job.

Gone from the new version of the XFL is the wrestling themed theatrics, the sexed-up cheerleaders, the glorified violence, and the politically incorrect themed team and player names. The emphasis this go around is all about football. That’s Oliver Luck and his team’s vision. Vince McMahon’s vision for the league is to be ahead of the curve and innovative, without insulting the intelligence of football fans. McMahon has a history of being a risk taker. He’s gambling hundreds of millions of dollars on Oliver Luck’s vision for the league. In fact, it was reported that Vince McMahon just recently cashed out another 270-million dollars to help further support that vision.

Actions speak louder than words. The league is working double overtime to try and shake the perception of what the XFL represented back in 2001. The XFL’s friendly stance towards the NFL and NCAA, and it’s working relationship with The Spring League, show that the XFL is not trying to be an enemy of the state like the first go around. Instead they are trying to be a respected part of the football and sports community.

Oliver Luck’s vision for the league is still a work in progress, but it is starting to take shape. The XFL wants to be a hybrid of pro and college football, with a little touch of the CFL. It also aims to emulate what made the USFL great many moons ago. The new XFL has the feel of Major League Soccer. This is not by accident. Make no mistake, Oliver Luck is borrowing from the MLS model, in league structure and in its connection to communities. Luck was on the ground floor when he helped turn the Houston Dynamo into a championship franchise. He saw MLS grow and find its own niche and market place.

The XFL is clearly following the MLS model. Look no further than the XFL’s three most recent team president hires in Los Angeles, Seattle and Washington D.C. With the hiring of Heather Brooks Karatz, Ryan Gustafson and Eric Moses, the new XFL has hired three legitimate sports executives with strong local ties to their respective markets. All three have MLS backgrounds and have had success in promoting, marketing, obtaining sponsorships, and connecting with local communities.

While all this forward thinking and progression into the year 2020 is promising, there is an argument to be made that the future XFL should not completely abandon the original version of the league. For all its failings and faults, there are certain aspects of the original XFL that the 2020 version would be wise to embrace.

One of the major things the original XFL had going for itself was brand identity. You want to be a true standalone entity, and not a league that is just following along to get along. The original XFL didn’t try to be the NFL or paint itself as a minor league. It had its own personality and vibe. The league was innovative and fan-friendly. It made fans feel like they were a part of the games.

It’s one of things that attached a great writer like Jeff Pearlman to the USFL. There are so many football fans to this day, that still think so fondly of that league and what it represented. Ultimately, they failed for several reasons, but as far as standing out from the crowd and building a strong identity, they were a success. It’s why that league has such lasting power after all this time. Credit to the CFL for marking and carving out their own identity in Canada, but in the states, no football league has been able to match what the USFL represented and embodied.

Even the failed 2001 version of the XFL has fans who still look back fondly on the renegade league that was. The evidence of that is this very website, which has been a shrine to the original XFL for almost 2 decades. Way before Vince McMahon decided to bring the league back from the dead, XFLBoard has been standing over the league’s grave site, reading its eulogy for nearly two decades.

In past articles on this site. I have borrowed quotes from historic figures to help frame a story or topic. In this case, I am going to borrow from one of the great fans on XFLBoard.com’s message board, “Tank55.”  He summed up what the new XFL should be in 3 simple sentences:

“Most importantly, tell your story. The end game for the AAF was an NFL roster. The end game for the XFL needs to be the XFL Championship”

Well stated! It’s why a certain segment of football fans have rooted for non-NFL leagues to make it for years. They want a league that has its own identity and that feels special and important.  Accomplishing this end game will not be easy, but it’s what the new XFL needs to strive for. Carving out its own identity will help it stand out from the crowded sports landscape. The teams, players and the outcomes of the games have to matter to the fans who follow the league. The league’s vision has to be about making fans feel attached and connected. Be your own league, not a means to an end for another league.

The XFL can realize this vision by taking what the NFL and NCAA does well and try to make it better. You take what they don’t do well and improve upon it. You present an exciting new brand of football that innovates on the field and on the broadcast level. Present the league as being something major, exciting, and on the cutting edge.

Getting the average football fan to buy into a non-NFL league by just presenting football won’t be enough to maintain and sustain an audience. You certainly won’t win people over by trying to be the NFL, or a lesser version of it. Like the USFL, the XFL needs to “tell its own story.”

How far outside the box is the XFL willing to go?

It may be Vince McMahon who is funding 500 million dollars for the new XFL, but make no mistake, this is Oliver Luck’s league. How innovative will he take the 2020 version of the XFL?

XFL CEO Oliver Luck has made the media rounds for several months now. He’s done hundreds of interviews where he has stated that the 2020 version of the XFL will lean more towards being a conventional pro sports league than the 2001 version. It may be Vince McMahon who is funding 500 million dollars for the new XFL, but make no mistake, this is Oliver Luck’s league. As an executive, you can’t get someone who is more by the book than he is. His reputation is impeccable and he has all the makings and resume of a potential future NFL commissioner.

Since the original XFL folded in 2001, every football league that has followed has used the mantra “Real Football,” almost as a way of saying, “We are not going to do what the XFL did.” Oliver Luck’s selling point for the league has been that the new XFL is going to do what the original didn’t, and that’s to be all about football.

As illustrated here on XFLBoard in the past few months, the new XFL has an uphill battle in changing their image and negative perception. The original XFL was an outlaw league that didn’t play by the rules of traditional sports. The game rules were radically different. A big part of the league’s focus was sex and violence. The league bucked the system and strayed from tradition. From the team names to the player nicknames, the XFL was a proud enemy of the NFL, and they bragged about it.

Oliver Luck’s intention is to not repeat the same mistake twice. For starters, the XFL has been playing nice with the NFL. Oliver Luck has bent over backwards complimenting the NFL. He has many friends and associates within the league. Luck played in the league. He worked for the NFL as an executive, running NFL Europe for 10 years. His son Andrew is one of the most respected players in the NFL. Oliver Luck has stated on several occasions that the XFL can’t and won’t compete with the NFL. This is a 180-degree turn from what the original XFL’s mission statement was. The league plans on having no cheerleaders this time around, no “Death Blow” nicknames on the back of the jerseys, and no wrestling elements in the presentation whatsoever.

Despite all of this, the 2020 version of the XFL may still try to buck the system, but in a totally different way, with an entirely different approach. Despite Oliver Luck’s statements and the league’s new branding, there are hints that suggest the league is going to try and be different rather than just fit in to the sports landscape. As covered here last week, the league will have to be innovative yet again from a broadcasting standpoint. The league is also testing out new rules, but it doesn’t figure to stop there.

How far is the XFL willing to go outside the box? Let’s start with high school football players. Are they going to dip their toes in the water, or completely dive in and start recruiting 4 and 5 star recruits, in an effort to try and get them to skip college and turn pro in the XFL? Would Oliver Luck, a man whose previous job was as an executive for the NCAA, start to ruffle some feathers with his old bosses, and starting signing away potential college football players? Like an episode of HBO’s “Ballers,” does the league decide to take the stance that these young athletes need to start being paid?

Make no mistake about it. Once the XFL signs a top high school or college football recruit, there’s no turning back. The XFL will become an enemy of the state, whether that’s their intention or not. It will be seen as firing a shot against the system, the NCAA, and it could disrupt the NFL’s current 3-year eligibility rule.

Does the XFL target college football players in the transfer portal? The CFL has signed one recently in former Auburn/FAU WR Kyle Davis. He signed with Saskatchewan of the CFL rather than transfer to another college. This could clearly be another area that the XFL’s scouting department targets. Led by Oliver Luck, Doug Whaley, and Optimum Scouting, the XFL’s football brain-trust are leaving no stones unturned. XFL management even held court with player agents at the NFL Combine to try and sell them on the possibilities of their players signing with the XFL as undrafted free agents.

Allowing fans to call plays? On the surface, this sounds like another radical idea. The XFL’s brain-trust was in Jacksonville Florida this past week testing league rules with Your Call Football, a tech company which is finishing up their 2nd series of games this Monday night. Your Call Football allows fans to choose from one of 3 coach selected plays through their App. The clickbait and misleading nature of sports sites, is to suggest that the XFL is going to have fans be the coordinators rather than actual football coaches. On hand for the XFL’s partnership with YCF, was the league’s four hired GM/Head Coaches: Bob Stoops, Jim Zorn, Marc Trestman, and Pep Hamilton. The players in YCF playing in these games, and testing out XFL concepts/rules, were all signed up and scouted by the XFL’s Director of Player Personnel Eric Galko.

Hiring coaches

Thus far, the XFL has gone by the book when it comes to football hires… specifically, the league’s Head Coach/General Managers. The first four hires consist of two former NFL head coaches, a former NFL and College Football Coordinator, and a major college program head coach. Between the four of them, they bring many years of coaching experience, a national championship, and three Grey Cup championships in Canada. Will the league’s final four HC/GM hires all have the same type of pedigrees? Rather than go along the same formula, the XFL could decide to go in a different direction for their last four hires.

Former NFL player and future hall of famer Isaac Bruce has expressed an interest in joining the XFL as the HC/GM of the St. Louis franchise. Would the league consider someone who has no coaching experience? Could the last group of GM/Head Coach hires consist of coaches who have never held those roles? XFL VP Doug Whaley’s NFL PA collegiate bowl had two charismatic former NFL players coordinating defenses in Ed Reed and Bryan Cox. Both men do have coaching experience, but would the league think outside the box and hire one of them to run one of their teams? Your Call Football‘s two head coaches, Merril Hoge and Solomon Wilcots, are former players and NFL analysts. These types of hires would go against the grain of standard sports league hires.

Retread is an ugly word, and there are dozens of former NFL and College Head Coaches available that would fall into that category. Instead of sticking with the status quo, could the league look for someone as innovative and outside the box as a Kevin Kelley? The “mad scientist” head coach of the Pulaski Academy Bruins in Arkansas has won several state titles. His claim to fame is never punting, always going for onside kicks, and running several trick plays every game. If the XFL is looking to be innovative and re-imagine the game, would Kevin Kelley be someone they would target?

The truth is in order to stand out and get attention, the XFL is going to have to take a uniquely different approach than other upstart sports leagues have in the past. It’s a fine line of trying to figure out where the line is, and when it’s okay to cross it. You want to give sports fans a reason to watch, while at the same time, not giving them a reason not to watch. It’s going to be a delicate balancing act from now until next February. It’s pretty clear at this point that the XFL is not looking to be a developmental league. They have no interest in being a minor league, and they want to be a legitimate pro sports league. The goal is to start their own path and not follow the path of others. How does the XFL do that and still find a way to fit into the standard sports landscape?