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?

How changing the game again is the XFL’s best bet for success

The innovative SkyCam, as seen at a 2001 XFL game, is a technological advance other leagues use extensively today. When speaking of the 2020 version of the league, Commissioner Oliver Luck has gone on record stating they will be using and implementing about twelve new innovations.

For better or worse, the original XFL changed the way football is broadcasted forever. There are some football fans who don’t even realize it, as they are not old enough to remember the original XFL nearly two decades ago in a pre-HD era. Everyone who watches a college football or pro football game now, is seeing the innovations that the original XFL introduced. From the sky-cam to the on-field cameras, sideline reporters, and audio access with players and coaches. For all its obvious warts and failings, and much deserved ridicule in some instances, the XFL was way ahead of its time from a production/presentation standpoint. For this we thank the vision of Vince McMahon and Dick Ebersol, and the execution of their teams at WWE and NBC.

Being ahead of the game is very important. There’s a famous quote that goes, “The person who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The person who walks alone is likely to find himself in places no one has ever seen before.” In many circles, this quote has been incorrectly attributed to Albert Einstein. After all, anything in relation to brilliance can be attributed to him. The quote however belongs to Francis Phillip Wernig, who used the pseudonym Alan Ashley-Pitt. Thus, proving that someone can come along with a great idea or thought, and have it transported to someone with more notoriety or acclaim. Over time a great idea or thought can lose its author. This has happened in many fields, football being one of them.

The benefit that non-NFL leagues have is the luxury to take chances. They can try new things to innovate the game, and enhance the way it is presented. In 1974, the short-lived World Football League moved the goal posts from the front of the end zone to the back. The NFL followed suit immediately. The WFL also introduced what would become the modern day 5-yard bump zone. The USFL used 2-point conversions and introduced the coaches replay challenge system, two things the NFL would adopt years later.

The original XFL eliminated the extra point kick, because it was deemed too easy. The NFL and CFL have since both moved back their extra point kicks to make them more difficult. The AAF has adopted the XFL’s elimination of the extra point. As well as the shorter 35 second play clock and the sky-cam. The United Football League decided to have all their major replays reviewed by a video official up in the booth. The current XFL announced that idea, with XFL CEO Oliver Luck stating that the league would be borrowing Dan Rooney’s suggestion from many years ago. The AAF is currently implementing the “sky judge” in their games. After the NFC Championship fiasco, and some of its other failings, the NFL is currently reviewing making several changes to their review system, overtime rules, onside kicks and even potentially eliminating the extra point.

In order to stand out from the crowd and succeed, the 2020 version of the XFL needs to be innovative in how they present the game of football, on the field and off. There’s a fine line, where the league needs to tread carefully and wisely. The XFL wants to innovate and evolve the game of football, without getting away from what football is.

The first mission statement and company line of the current XFL, is they are going to stay away from gimmicks and put the game of football first. On the field, the original XFL was all about old school football. It was designed to be an in-your-face, smashmouth league. All the teams had to play on natural grass fields. Physical play was encouraged. Very few if any of the league’s quarterbacks started and finished the season in one piece. The “bump and run” was allowed all the way down the field. There were no touchbacks. Returners had to run out of the end zone. No fair catches, and the ball was live after being punted more than 25 yards. Then there was the infamous scramble, which replaced the coin toss. The league favored defensive play and hard hitting so much, that the rules needed to be tweaked as the inaugural season went on.

The new XFL figures to be the exact opposite. The league is more about the safety of the players. The rules that are going to be tested with the Spring League later this month, and that have been tested already, figure to be more offensive friendly than the original XFL. It works out to be a more wide-open game. The 2020 version of the XFL wants to play a faster up-tempo game with potentially 25 second play clocks, even going to the length of hiring an extra official for ball spotting just to get teams set up quicker after a play is over.

This past week on Tampa Bay radio, XFL CEO Oliver Luck mentioned that the league would be experimenting with a new communication system, that could eliminate the need for an actual huddle. The head coach would have audio access to all eleven of his offensive players on the field. Every player would hear the call directly from the head coach/play caller immediately, without the QB having to tell his teammates the call.

In the NFL and college football, after a head coach communicates his play to the QB, the audio communication is cut off. As Oliver Luck stated, the league is thinking of not cutting off the audio communication until the ball is snapped. It sounds radical but imagine using this technology with not only all the offensive players, but with all the defensive players as well. It’s like Tony Romo telling you where the ball should go right before the snap happens. Will the viewers at home and in the stands be able to hear this communication as well? Spectators to live games of the XFL in 2001, had audio access broadcast live through the speakers of the stadium. That might return yet again, but with new technology being implemented. The new XFL needs to make going to a game, something fresh and new, and not just another football game. Despite ratings being up in the NFL, attendance went down in 2018. The AAF is drawing poorly at the gate. You have to make the games affordable and give fans a reason to want to come and experience the games live.

Oliver Luck has gone on record stating that the XFL will be using and implementing about twelve new innovations. This is a part of the league’s goal of reimagining the game of football for the year 2020 and beyond. There’s already been talk and testing of a new kickoff, new overtimes and even bringing back the XFL original idea of a 3-point conversion after a touchdown. The league might be a little gun shy about letting their ideas get out there before they have an opportunity to test and then brand them as their own. Especially now with a competing spring pro football league on the horizon.

The reimagining of the game of football could extend to the way fans interact with the games and teams as well. The XFL has a loose partnership right now with “Your Call Football.” YCF is currently running their second series of games. The technology-based company allows fans to pick one out of three plays that the head coach chooses before every snap. Oliver Luck has also hinted at potentially letting the fans pick a play in the XFL. It may not be for an entire game, the way YCF implements, but it could be for a play or two each game. Luck has even hinted at the fans potentially making other choices like choosing a home team’s uniform before a game. It’s just another potential way of making the game more immersive for fans. The XFL’s app needs to be state of the art, it has to fully engage the fans in fantasy football, the game itself and potentially in gambling. With three of the league’s eight teams already in legalized gambling states, New Jersey, Washington D.C., and Missouri, the league is in position to generate interest in their games through that resource as well.

The 2020 version of the XFL needs to be different and unique, just like the original… but in a totally different way. In order for the league to get attention and keep it. They are going to have to be revolutionary in how they present the game, in how they make the fans a part of the game, and how they build their league through their players and coaches. They can’t present just another league. It will not be enough to obtain, sustain or grow an audience.

Spring Football Making Headlines

As a football fan for over three and a half decades, I can’t recall another time where non-NFL leagues have been in the news, as much as they have been in the last few weeks. There are actually two Spring pro-football Leagues, both making news at the same time. One in the AAF, that has started their inaugural season, and the other in the XFL, which is building towards theirs. These two leagues have been all over the landscape making news, and sometimes sharing in the actual headlines. Not only are both these leagues in the headlines, but they are in every conversation together. Look no further than the recent Johnny Manziel story.

Perhaps it has something to do with the times that we are living in. In 2019, it’s easier to carve out a piece of the headlines, even if it’s just a small piece on social media sites. Unfortunately, the usual headlines surrounding these types of leagues are not always very kind.

The AAF

The AAF is finishing up their 4th week of play and they have already had their fair share of turmoil and critique. It started before their season even began. They lost three offensive coordinators and a head coach in Brad Childress. Their highly marketed Atlanta Offensive Coordinator Mike Vick then left his job just before the season started because he had other things to do.

The season started for the Alliance with decent fanfare and some mainstream sports media support. Almost immediately following week one, news came that the AAF’s main investor bailed on the league after week one, a story that was confirmed by Orlando coach Steve Spurrier in the Orlando Sentinel, only days after widespread denial. The league’s main investor took his money and went home. The reports of the league nearly missing week 2’s payroll are disputed. No definitive word on who the initial money man was, but it’s worth noting that Peter Thiel is no longer listed as one of the AAF’s financial investors.

Billionaire NHL Owner Tom Dundon came in to make the buy in, or bail out, depending on which way you want to look at it. What follows this, is a myriad of reports over how invested Dundon actually is, and whether or not, he is going to fully commit to the league. The AAF struggled at the gate in some of their markets, and their financial model started to take some criticism. Critique starts flying at the AAF in several different directions. From the bare boned app to the lack of TV coverage and marketing. Even a potentially non-related joke by Rod Woodson during a game telecast came off poorly, when he said no one is watching or listening.

This past week, reports came out that Businessman Robert Vanech is now suing the league, because of a claim that his idea of the AAF was stolen from him by Charlie Ebersol, and passed on to Bill Polian. To further cloud things, It’s revealed that the AAF was originally supposed to be XFL 2.0, with an offer of 50 million dollars to buy the XFL, being turned down by Vince McMahon. The idea that these two leagues exist because of the original XFL, has already been documented in previous articles on this site, like The Alliance Between Dick Ebersol and Vince McMahon. A league being sued for controlling interest is not a good thing, but you could argue that there must be value in the league if someone is trying to fight to gain control or profit from it.

Fighting is also what has been taking place on certain corners of the internet. The battle is among AAF loyalists and anyone who isn’t one of them. Despite the silliness of it all, it’s actually refreshing to see an upstart league have some passionate supporters who really want to see the AAF succeed. There is an appetite for spring pro-football. The ratings for the AAF started out as 3 million viewers on their lone network game, and have since settled in at about half a million viewers in prime-time on cable. In today’s television landscape, this is respectable. The public having an appetite for spring football is there, being able to retain it in the future will be key.

Changing the perception of the XFL

The league that is actually the XFL, has also been all over the news of late. They have been sneaking their way into the conversation, despite not having any games to play. The league still hasn’t announced its TV deal or team names/identities, but they are halfway home in hiring all eight of their GM/Head Coaches, with Marc Trestman set to be named as the league’s 4th GM/Head Coach of the XFL’s pro football team in Tampa.

The XFL has been a nuisance for some die-hard supporters of the AAF, and other sports fans and media members every time the league makes news or announces a new head coach. The response has mostly been something to the likes of, “Is that really still a thing?” You get the sense that some people just want the XFL to just go away. There’s still a great amount of ridicule and disbelief in its existence. An issue that I touched upon greatly in the article Changing the perception of the XFL.

It’s worth noting that even in the XFL’s press conferences, their coaches have commented on how strange it initially felt to actually consider joining the XFL. Bob Stoops made mention of dismissing the idea initially, and most recently Jim Zorn admitted that the idea of being in the XFL felt strange to him because of the league’s first run in 2001.

Eyebrows are being raised all over the place, and it has nothing to do with Duane Johnson’s “Rock” character. More eyebrows were raised when the XFL’s pay scale for premiere players was revealed this week of being 400 to 600 thousand per season. The significance of this news was matched by the recent knowledge of the XFL meeting with player agents at the NFL combine, to present a potential package to the players who do not get drafted onto NFL teams in late April.

One of the biggest drawbacks of being an upstart football league in the past, has always been the lack of attention and exposure that they receive. Any attention given has always been of the negative variety. Any non-NFL football league has started out with a decent amount of attention from the mainstream sports media, only to fade away into being relatively invisible on the sports landscape. The leagues end up being treated as if they don’t exist, and they only enter the conversation when there is turmoil or struggles that are fairly commonplace with any upstart business. The conversations are usually about everything but the actual games, or the players/coaches that are involved in them.

The famous poet Oscar Wilde once said, “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” Getting attention for these leagues is half the battle. Being a part of the conversation is important, but there will be a moment that will be the deciding factor, as to whether or not these leagues are really going to make it… when the conversations become about the players and the games themselves. As soon as sports fans and the media start talking about the chances of Seattle beating Dallas on the road to make the playoffs, or how Houston’s offensive line matches up with New York upfront. That’s when you will officially know that the leagues have officially made it and are a real part of the sports landscape.

Where will the XFL get their players?

The XFL’s football operations department has direct knowledge of the entire pool of college players that are looking to become pros. This will help them in the process of finding the hidden gems that may be overlooked.

One of the biggest and most valid points of contention against the XFL is the uncertainty over where their pool of football talent is going to come from.

Despite a $500 million dollar investment from Vince McMahon, and the announced pay tiers of $250 thousand (plus) per year for top players, and $150 thousand for their second tier players, which would put the XFL as the second highest paying football league, next to the NFL there are still legitimate questions about where the league’s talent pool is going to come from.

With the recent growth in salaries for the CFL and the existence of the AAF, and their three-year 250k total player contracts, the pickings would appear to be very slim. So, that begs the question being asked yet again, “Where will the league get its players, if it’s not from those leagues.”

The NFL

The XFL can’t and won’t compete for players with the NFL However, the largest bulk of the XFL’s 2020 rosters will come from the NFL’s roster cuts in September, the time period where the XFL will be having a league wide draft. On September 1st, all 32 NFL teams will cut down from 90 players to 53. That number becomes 63 when the 10 player practice squads are finalized. That brings the total of players without NFL jobs after cut down day to 864.  That’s 27 players cut per team who won’t land on an NFL roster. Multiply this by 32 and you got 864 players. There will be competition for some of these players from other leagues, but the advantage of starting a new league is the other leagues already have hundreds of players under contract. They are not going to cut 300 players to sign 300 new players. Even still, their leagues are not big enough to field 800 players.

The XFL will be fielding 8 teams with 45-man rosters and 7-player practice squads. That means that their league’s eight active rosters will have a maximum of 416 total players. Certainly not all of them will be from this crop of 864. Oliver Luck mentioned in a recent interview that the league plans on signing 450 players overall. Those who are not drafted into the XFL will remain under league contract. They will be available to be signed when injuries occur.

Some of the players that don’t make NFL rosters will be veterans. There will be veterans cut, who don’t make it to their second or in most cases, third contracts. There was an interesting study from the NFL last season, reported by long-time NFL reporter John Clayton. In 2018, The average NFL player experience level went down from 5 years to 4.3,meaning the league continues to get younger. The NFL went from 860 players in 2017, who had three-years or more experience in the league, to just a little over 600 in 2018.

There are several unsigned veteran NFL players who are on the outside looking in right now with no jobs in any league. Names like Terrelle Pryor, Landry Jones, Chad Kelly, EJ Manuel, Christine Michael, Matt Jones, etc. There are over 200 of these types of players, still looking for a way back into the NFL. The problem is that every year the NFL adds over 300 rookies to their roster through the draft and undrafted free agents. That’s 300 new rookies coming into the league, which means that over 300 current players lose their jobs. Excluding the likes of players like Colin Kaepernick, Tim Tebow and Johnny Manziel, there are hundreds of unsigned NFL vets in that 27-30 year-old range that could end up being targets for the XFL. Usually not the type of players that developmental leagues look towards signing.

The real challenge for the XFL will be trying to convince a player like Cardale Jones or Braxton Miller, to forgo any practice squad spot to play in their league. It would take a serious sell job to pull this off. While the maximum contract for a 16-week  NFL practice squad player is 120K a season, which would be less than The XFL’s 250K a year salary. The mere possibility of making it back onto an NFL roster, could sway players to ride the season out, in the hopes that they carry a clipboard on Sundays. It would take some influence from the XFL’s coaches and the league’s CEO in Oliver Luck to convince a player that getting game reps will make them a better player in the long haul and more money.

College Football

A portion of the XFL’s rosters figure to be made up of players who do not make it into an NFL camp. On average every year, there are over 12,000 draft eligible college football players, and only 256 of them get drafted. Up to 100 undrafted free agents or so, end up cycling into the league or making rosters. So, that leaves a good number of college football players without anywhere to go.

The XFL has an “in” with this department because of their scouting department in Optimum Scouting, and with XFL Vice President Doug Whaley. Optimum and Whaley have both been in charge of putting together rosters for college football all-star games in recent years. Whaley has been the director of the NFL PA Collegiate Bowl the last two years. Eric Galko and Optimum Scouting has not only scouted all of the primary college all-star games like the Senior Bowl and East-West Shrine Games, but Eric Galko has been in charge of compiling rosters for games like The Dream Bowl, a collegiate all-star game featuring players from small schools.

The XFL’s football operations department has direct knowledge of the entire pool of college players that are looking to become pros. This will help them in the process of finding the hidden gems that may be overlooked. It’s worth noting that Eric Galko also works with “Your Call Football,” a tech based company that allows fans to choose from a select group of plays on each snap. Two teams comprised of former NFL players and hopefuls play a series of games, starting this coming Monday. The XFL is expected to do their next round of game and rules testing with these players. In fact, several of these players wound up in NFL camps, and in the CFL, after last year’s series of games. This March, the XFL’s football department will also be working with the Spring League, a series of games and teams that feature former NFL players and hopefuls. Players from both the TSL and YCF rosters could end up in the XFL.

There is yet another element that could potentially benefit the XFL in their quest to recruit college football talent. Coaches like Bob Stoops and Pep Hamilton have direct knowledge and experience in recruiting. Players that ended up with their program and players that didn’t. Both XFL Head Coach/General Managers have recent knowledge of players in big schools and big conferences, that they have coached,  and coached against. Their recruiting knowledge will help them pinpoint and acquire talent.

There is a taboo area of College Football, that hasn’t been touched upon yet here. As many know, the XFL has left open the possibility of signing college football players who are not yet eligible to be drafted into the NFL. The group of players from college could be one or two-year players, or even players who do not want to transfer or sit out a year. This could also extend to players who are on the Junior College Level. Players that may have big time program talent, but not the grades, or that may have some character issues. There likely won’t be a large number of players from this group, but the door is open for this possibility. If a big named player were to sign, that could open up the possibility for more prominent college players taking the plunge. This leads to the next potential pool of players.

High School

Probably more controversial than a 2-year college player deciding to turn pro in the XFL, is the possibility of a high school football player forgoing college to become a pro-football player. The arguments against this are valid. From a physical maturity standpoint, it’s easy to understand why people would object to this. For a football player to be able to turn pro immediately after high school, he would have to be a rare physical specimen along the likes of a Herschel Walker or Adrian Peterson. The odds are against this happening, and if it does it will be on a very small scale. I don’t see more than a handful even trying out for the league, but once this door is opened, there’s no closing it. The idea is not so crazy for Tom Brady’s agent Don Yee, who is starting the Pacific Pro League, specifically to sign high school football players. I don’t see the XFL entertaining this at a grand scale. Perhaps a player or two at most could come from this pool.

Conclusion

There are so many unanswered questions about the XFL, like their still unannounced TV deal, to their league plans of presentation and talent. There are so many doubters of the league, and rightfully so, based on the league’s past, the history of upstart leagues and the current landscape of pro football.

There’s a quote by famous American Poet, Author and Philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson that goes, “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” This is the approach the XFL will be taking. Perhaps some of it by choice, and some if it out of necessity.

 

Will the success or failure of the AAF help or hurt the XFL?

The XFL and AAF will be attached at the hip, and compared to one another for as long as they exist, or co-exist.

A spring pro-football league debuts to good fanfare and support from the NFL. Designed as a developmental/feeder system, this league fields teams in non-NFL markets like Birmingham, San Antonio and Orlando. The upstart league opens on network television with NFL announcers and good crowds at some of their opening games. Sound familiar? The last two letters in the league name also match up. Except in this case, I am referring to the debut of the WLAF in 1991, and not the AAF in 2019.

It’s easy to be cynical when it comes to upstart football leagues that are not the NFL, when all of them have failed. That includes the World League of American Football. By no means, do I consider the WLAF, which would eventually become NFL Europe, a failure. The idea was ahead of its time… field pro-football teams in non-NFL markets and try to expand the NFL game globally. Careers were made in that league. American Football has become more popular in Europe since 1991. Like the original XFL, which innovated and changed the way football is broadcasted forever, NFL Europe left a positive mark, despite being a colossal financial failure. The NFL’s money couldn’t save it. The novelty wore off quickly in the States, and the cost of running a football league, even back in 1991, was a losing proposition. The WLAF had a network and cable TV deal, netting them 48 million dollars, which translates to roughly 90 million in 2019.  The league employed the single entity model and was fiscally responsible, but over time, you have to be profitable to run and continue a league. The NFL kept the league afloat and on life support with their deep pockets for as long as it could, before eventually pulling the plug in 2007.

The Alliance of American Football debuted last weekend. The birth of this league is traced back to the brainchild of Vince McMahon and Dick Ebersol. It was the failure and success of the XFL that led Dick’s son Charlie to attempt to try and succeed where McMahon and his father hadn’t.  ESPN’s “This Was The XFL” special, directed by Charlie Ebersol, gave birth to the Alliance and the returning XFL. Vince McMahon announced the relaunch of the XFL, and a few months later Ebersol introduced the AAF. Both parties cited the original XFL’s failings as a driving force, in getting it right this time. The XFL decided not to rush into launch, as they did the first time. The AAF decided to rush to the front of the line and launch only months after announcing. These two leagues are going to be attached at the hip, and compared to one another for as long as they exist, or co-exist.

The AAF’s opening weekend has to be considered a success. Despite some of the uneven and sloppy play, which had to be expected, given the poor original XFL idea of having only a 30-day camp, the AAF proved that there is an appetite for football when the NFL and college seasons have ended. The AAF’s only regular season game on Network TV did fairly well. Much like the original XFL, curiosity helped spike the opening week’s number. The TV ratings world is much different than it was back in 2001. In 2019, drawing a 2.1 national rating on network tv is a positive. That same number matched up with the XFL’s championship game back in April of 2001, when the last Los Angeles pro-football team won the championship, as the LA Xtreme hoisted the league’s trophy. At that time, the XFL was on its deathbed and an afterthought. Having nearly 3-million viewers was considered a failure 18-years ago. In today’s TV landscape, networks are pleased to have that kind of audience.

It’s rather telling that the most critically acclaimed moment for the AAF last Saturday night was a missed roughing the passer penalty. Fans were rejoicing when San Antonio’s Shaan Washington took off quarterback Mike Bercovici’s helmet with a massive hit. Football fans expecting a penalty flag were pleasantly surprised. A mistake turned into a rallying cry of fans praising the league, however the hit was reminiscent of the original XFL and a now dead era where hits like that were commonplace in football. For better or worse, there are many fans of football, who watch and love the game because of the physicality involved. The sport has been neutered to some extent in this regard. Still, player safety is important and the sport still wants to remain applicable to the future generations of kids who decide to play it, and the parents who will allow them to.

It might be fleeting but there’s no denying that at this moment in time. the AAF is on the map. For an upstart league, that’s all you can ask for. You want exposure and you want to be noticed. You want the public to give you a chance, and to follow you. The AAF has succeeded in getting positive attention for their league. A large part of that, has to do with the mainstream sports media, giving them a fair shake. Something other pro-football leagues did not receive in the past. Having the NFL loosely associated with the league helps. The Alliance is not seen as adversarial to the NFL and the NFL’s media partners are welcoming the AAF with open arms. Reports are already out there of the NFL possibly taking a financial stake in the AAF, and the potential of the league expanding into more markets. It’s only week one, but the vibes around the league are positive.

Charlie Ebersol, shown here in a promotional photo for his documentary, “This Was the XFL.”

So where does this leave the XFL? To paraphrase a quote from Charlie Ebersol, during his promotional run up to his league debut, “If we can’t do it, no one else will be able to.”  Initially seen as an egotistical dig at the XFL and any other leagues that attempt to follow, the bold statement has some truth to it. The argument can be made that if the AAF succeeds in proving that there is a market for spring pro-football, that it will become fertile ground for all the leagues that attempt to follow. For a very long time now, any non-NFL league was brushed aside, dismissed and ignored completely. The AAF succeeding in what was deemed a “valley of the dead,” would breathe new life into the idea of football in the spring or summer. If the AAF fails, it will appear that there is no market place for any pro football that isn’t the NFL. Something that has held true for a very long time. Being a minor league isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Everyone loves the idea of them existing, but minor league sports are not treated like major sporting events, and in order to make money. That’s what you need the public to do. They have to treat your league as if it’s important to watch every single week.

Being first to a market, doesn’t necessarily mean that you will be the best in that market.  The Betamax format was on its way to becoming the industry standard until the appearance of JVC’s VHS a year later.  While Betamax was revolutionary, by the time VHS rolled around and produced a better product, it faded away in popularity and eventually became obsolete. The Betamax proved that the public wanted a new and different way to watch movies and tv shows. They opened up the door, then VHS walked in and created a whole new universe.  The AAF can set the market and appear to have it on their own, this will force the XFL to be better than them. The XFL is going to be forced to produce a better product. In terms of the quality of play, the broadcast innovations, the branding/marketing and the overall style of their entire league. The key to a lot of this is money. The financial backing and profitability. The TV rights deal that the XFL announces, will be the first telltale sign. TV money is how you survive and thrive. Leagues have died in the past because the money ran out. You have to be able to draw at the gates and be able to have strong advertisers and sponsorships. The AAF may need NFL money to survive, much like the WLAF/NFL Europe. That’s their end goal to begin with, to become the NFL’s minor league. Like the Gatorade league is for the NBA. The XFL has designs of being what the USFL should have been. A viable pro football sports property in the spring. Both leagues have clear missions.

The only non-NFL league to survive was the American Football League. They merged with the NFL over a half a century ago, and the rest is history. Since then, the graveyards are filled with the head stones of football leagues. There is an ancient Italian proverb that translates in some circles to, “Success has many fathers but failure is an orphan.” Recent history suggests the reverse has held true in upstart football leagues.  Failure has had many fathers and sons. Success hasn’t been born yet in this field, or has it?