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?

A Stroke of Oliver Luck

Oliver Luck signs Bob Stoops to Coach in the XFL.”That’s not something, I am going to be interested in,” Bob Stoops said when the XFL initially reached out to him over a month ago. Stoops was echoing the sentiments of millions of sports fans, when they first heard about the return of the XFL.

At this point, not being interested in the XFL is probably still the feeling of most sports fans, but there’s no denying that the improbable return of the league was matched or bettered by the shocking announcement that legendary coach Bob Stoops was buying in. Changing people’s perception of the league is not going to be an overnight accomplishment, but this is a big step forward in doing so. Call it a “Stroke of Oliver Luck.”

Eyebrows were raised with astonishment when it became official that Bob Stoops had signed a two-year deal, becoming the Head Coach and General Manager of the XFL’s Dallas pro-football team. Very few saw this coming. When NFL reporter Benjamin Allbright reported in January that Bob Stoops was contemplating a return to coaching, in the XFL, he was mocked and ridiculed. There were people on social media that were ripping news sources that finally confirmed the Bob Stoops rumor as a reality. One Twitter user even cursed out ESPN for “getting it wrong.” This person thought that Stoops was signing with the other league, and was angry that ESPN got the league name wrong. Almost as if to say, “How could this possibly be right?”

Regardless of the negative perception of the XFL, some of it was earned through sins of the league’s past. There’s no denying what a great hiring CEO and Commissioner Oliver Luck pulled off here with his football operations staff. This is a superb hire in any league, or for any college program, let alone an upstart spring pro-football league that has baggage. There was no one happier this past week than Oliver Luck. He was downright giddy. He deserves to pat himself on the back for this hire. If he was running the Cincinnati Bengals and made this hire, it would be worthy of praise. But this is not the NFL. Luck actually convinced Stoops to take the unlikely plunge of being an XFL head coach. At this point, it’s quite clear that the XFL’s best asset is their commissioner.

It was reported and highlighted through video by Mark Berman in Houston, that Oliver Luck, through his close associate and friend newly minted Houston Cougars coach Dana Holgorsen, reached out to Bob Stoops to gauge his interest. Holgorsen told Luck that Stoops was getting the itch to get back into coaching. Stoops dilemma was that he didn’t want to get back into the college ranks. He wanted to be near his three kids, who are attending Oklahoma. He wanted to see his son play college ball in the fall.

The XFL, as absurd of an option as it appeared to be initially, turned out to be an ideal fit for what Stoops was looking for. He had nothing left to accomplish in college. No interest in getting back on the recruiting grind, and no interest in being away from Oklahoma or his family. Then, in comes Oliver Luck with the ideal job. It was Luck, who convinced Stoops that the XFL was going to be a respectable and viable entity. This is something Oliver Luck has been working really hard at doing, especially in the last couple of weeks. After an interview with ‘The Professor” John Clayton on his ‘Schooled’ podcast in Seattle, Clayton commented on how his conversation with Luck, changed his viewpoint on the league. Even legendary sportscaster Tim Brando applauded Oliver Luck and their hiring of Bob Stoops, stating that the XFL had “more juice” than the AAF.” Brando even commented on social media that the hiring of Oliver Luck told him, “all he needed to know.” The television decisions they have in front of them will be fun to watch moving forward.” Brando currently works for Fox Sports, which coincidentally is the rumored broadcasting co-partner of the XFL. It’s not a stretch to think that Brando could be a part of the presentation.

Besides the obvious credibility and name recognition that Bob Stoops brings to the league, his expertise in college football and recruiting also greatly benefits the XFL. This is a football coach who has recent knowledge of the college football game, not someone who has been out of the loop for 10 to 15 years. Stoops is going to be recruiting and signing from a pool of players that he is extremely familiar with, something he mentioned on Dallas Radio Friday. Not only players that he successfully recruited and coached at Oklahoma University, but even players that he recruited but ended up landing at Texas, Texas A&M, or TCU, etc, and players and coaches he coached with and against. During an interview on “The Ticket,” in Dallas, Stoops stated that he is already fielding “millions” of calls from coaches and football players that are looking to join him in Dallas. Having “Optimum Scouting” as the league’s direct scouting department, and VP Doug Whaley’s scouting expertise, will also aid Stoops and the other seven head coach/gm’s that sign on.

Pep Hamilton may be the next XFL Head Coach/GM hiring. He is rumored to be taking on the challenge of finally getting to run his own pro-football team in Washington D.C. Hamilton has ties to Oliver Luck, coaching and coordinating offenses for his son Andrew at Stanford and Indianapolis. Hamilton also coached current XFL Director of Football Operations, Sam Schwartzstein. Beyond those connections to the league office. Hamilton went to school and started his coaching career in D.C. at Howard University. Like Stoops, Hamilton has experience in the college game, but also brings along pro-football experience as well. It’s clear at this point, that when Oliver Luck drops hints it’s not just noise or false hype. He revealed on Radio Row that a coach from a major college program had signed on. That turned out to be true. On Texas radio, he stated that a former coordinator that didn’t have head coaching experience, had signed on. That spells out Hamilton. His other hint on Houston Radio with Sean Salisbury, was that, “former NFL head coaches have left assistant jobs to sign on with the XFL.” Perhaps, with the heightened amount of attention towards the league with the Stoops hiring. credible reporters like Benjamin Allbright will out-scoop everyone again on the next group of names.

Legendary Chinese Philosopher Lau Tzu once said “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Oliver Luck and the XFL just took a giant-step forward in their journey towards credibility and redemption.

Changing the perception of The XFL

Oliver Luck spent Super-Bowl weekend on “Radio Row,” trying to gain a positive vibe for the XFL.”The XFL is going to be one and done again”… “The XFL is a Trumpian Nightmare”… “Is the XFL returning really still a thing?”… “No one wants to see that garbage again.”

The biggest hurdle that the current XFL faces is changing the perception of their league. Some of that perception is earned. The league is still paying for the sins of their past. They have so many things going against them, and the past provides proof, that isn’t very kind.

Current headlines like…”The XFL doesn’t want to be developmental league” are translated to mean, here they go again challenging and disrespecting the NFL. The old narrative won’t die. Even if in that very interview, Oliver Luck praised the NFL and college football. Luck talks fondly about the NFL and his son playing in it. He mentions reaching out to NFL execs, working for the league for 10 years and how the NFL is god and can never be challenged. However, because the old XFL took an adversarial approach towards the NFL, the perception is that the current XFL is going to do the same.

Changing the XFL’s perception is going to be an uphill battle. Not just with the mainstream media but with all football fans and the public in general. Everyone who works with the XFL currently knows this. Vince McMahon even considered changing the name of the league, because of the negative stigma that is still attached to it. Getting networks, sponsors, players, coaches, the media, and fans to buy into the XFL is a really tough sell for CEO Oliver Luck and his team.

So how does the XFL go about changing the perception and narrative attached to them. How does the league start to chip away at that negativity and build credibility?

THE TV RIGHTS DEAL

Despite all of Oliver Luck’s statements at Radio Row during this past week. The detractors and naysayers do not expect the XFL to be able to land a respectable broadcast deal. When the relaunch of the league was announced, the expectation level was very low. Most detractors and even some supporters, assumed that the league would be lucky to get any kind of real exposure. The thought going around was that the XFL would be on some type of streaming service, and that maybe it would land on some cable channel. If the league does in fact, land a rights deal with an ABC, FOX, or both. The doubters will immediately start to look at the league differently. Those who didn’t have an interest in joining or following the league, may change their tune if a respectable deal is announced. A deal with respectable TV partners, will also lead to better coverage of the league, as well as having credible broadcasters calling and covering the games. With all due respect to Jesse Ventura and Jim Ross. Their association with the league helped shape the perception, that the league was not legit. That it was a second-rate sports presentation.

HEAD COACHES

Despite the 500 million dollars invested by Vince McMahon. No one expects the XFL to take the USFL approach when it comes to signing players with name recognition from the NFL. In the past week, Oliver Luck has even mentioned advice he got from legendary NFL owner Lamar Hunt, of staying in your lane, knowing who you are and who you are not. This was advice, Luck received while running NFL Europe for 10 years. The one area where the league can get name value and recognition is their coaches. The expectation level here is low as well. The original XFL had some quality coaches, but most were seasoned coaches with no major NFL head coaching experience. There are some grand rumors out there now, with some big names as possibilities for the league. Oliver Luck teased this as well, that the league has former NFL and major college program coaches already signed up. If in fact, the XFL does announce head coaches with name value, this will give the league great credibility in the sports world. It would be a major selling point in attracting players to the league.

TEAM NAMES

The names of the league’s teams are expected to be revealed after the league announces their TV deal and coaches. For better or for worse, some of the negative perception, that the original XFL received was for their original 8 team names. There are still those who appreciated and enjoyed the unique and brash names like Rage, Maniax, Xtreme, Demons and Hitmen. These names were a sign of the times and fit the branding of the original XFL as a renegade league. However, there were many in the mainstream who saw the league’s names as a reflection of it being non-traditional and low-brow. One figures that the current XFL, is going to attempt to take the more traditional route of team names this time. It’s a fine line of being creative and edgy, without coming off as silly or gimmicky. The team names and logos will be a major factor in the perception of the league. The Seattle Psychos and New York Killers, just won’t fly this time around. The league wants to be taken seriously. At the same time, how a league brands it’s teams, will determine if the cities and fans will support them. Something as superficial as a logo, team colors or uniforms can sink a league if done wrong.

PLAYER SAFETY

This is also a divisive topic. There are some fans who don’t like what the NFL has become in recent years. They want to go back to the days when a Quarterback could be tackled and when there was more physicality in the sport. There is a major difference if you watch an NFL game 20 years ago compared to now. If you go back and watch an XFL game in 2001, you’ll think you are on a different planet. Hard hitting was not only allowed, it was glorified and encouraged. The sports world is changing and there’s no going back. How the current XFL handles player safety will aid them in gaining goodwill with the public and football community. The fact that they have hired famed Doctor Julian Bailes as their lead neurologist and have two of the nation’s leading insurance companies on board, are huge steps in the right direction. The league has to show that it cares about its players health and safety and that they are serious about running a respectful league.

POLITICS

This is going to be hard to avoid. Social issues and race seem to find their way into everything now. The last thing people want when watching entertainment or following sports is to have politics involved in any way. Sports and Entertainment are a form of escapism. Sports more than any other field unites people from all backgrounds. Politics ruin the enjoyment of sports. No one wants to hear about opposing viewpoints on abortion, when watching football. They just want to focus on the game. The current XFL has been painted by some in the media, as a right-wing organization with “Trump” values, partially because of the controversy surrounding players exercising their freedom of expression during national anthems. Some people have even suggested that Vince McMahon created this league to help the president in his never ending war with The NFL. The league needs to do everything in their power, to avoid politics and to avoid alienating people. It’s easier said than done, because every aspect of sports is scrutinized and viewed with a political bent nowadays. I’m all for the league and its players helping charities, families, and communities in their markets, but it would be wise for the league to avoid taking political stances in any way. It will get the league attention but the XFL should only be about the games and nothing else.

Some battles are lost before the war has even begun. That statement holds true in football. How a team prepares for battle, in the lead up to a game, can sometimes determine whether they will be able to obtain victory. In today’s world, your detractors will tell you, that you have already lost or failed in battle, before you even try to go to war. That’s precisely what is happening with the current incarnation of the XFL. The steps and moves that the XFL takes and makes in their journey to 2020, will help shape how their league is perceived when they eventually make it to the battle field.

The Alliance between Dick Ebersol and Vince McMahon

Vince McMahon and Dick Ebersol – Credit: ESPN Films.”Do you ever have any thoughts of trying again?” Dick Ebersol asked Vince McMahon on the This was the XFL special done for the ESPN 30 for 30 series. Vince McMahon without hesitation responded, “Yes I do.” Ebersol responded with, “We’ll have to do it with our own money because I don’t work at NBC anymore.”

To borrow a line from the critically acclaimed 30 for 30 series. “What if I told you… that in May of 2001 when the XFL folded, that both McMahon and the Ebersols would be back in the football league business 18 years later, but this time as competitors.”

TV and Sports Broadcasting Legend Dick Ebersol, once called Vince McMahon. “The greatest partner he has ever had.” The relationship went beyond just business and mutual respect. Dick Ebersol told his wife that if anything were to happen to him. He wanted Vince McMahon to be the legal guardian and watch over his three children, Teddy, Willie and Charlie. There’s no greater testament of love for someone than entrusting them with that honor.

On February 3rd of 2000, Vince McMahon announced the launch of the XFL. A bold move in a series of risk-taking moves throughout his legendary career. McMahon embarked upon creating a football league from scratch with no outside financial backing. He gave himself only a year to do it. Over a month later, Dick Ebersol and Vince McMahon called a joint press conference on March 31st 2000, to announce a 50-50 partnership with NBC as it’s broadcast machine. NBC was contracted to pay the XFL 50-million dollars per season.

From an innovation and broadcasting standpoint, this was a lethal combination. The XFL and NBC, through the vision of Vince McMahon and Dick Ebersol, changed the way football was broadcasted forever. From the overhead “X Cam”, to the on field “Bubba Cam”, to the on-field audio access of players and coaches. Dick Ebersol and Vince McMahon revolutionized the game. Unfortunately, while the presentation was way ahead of its time. The actual football was way behind. Everyone knows how the story ended for the original XFL.

While the original XFL started off great, selling millions of tickets, and drawing astronomical ratings that actually beat the World Series that year, the league fumbled the ball on the football side of things. By the end of season one, the league had become an afterthought and laughing stock in the sports and television industry. Vince McMahon still wanted to forge on to year two. NBC didn’t. The hardest decision, Dick Ebersol ever had to make was to sever ties with what was a failing operation. He needed to convince McMahon not to fight it.

Vince McMahon was left holding the bag. He could have very easily held NBC’s feet to the fire. NBC was morally and legally obligated to honor their contract with the XFL. They owed the league 50 million dollars for year two. If Vince McMahon and Dick Ebersol were just merely business partners, things could have gotten real ugly. McMahon could have and would have won any legal battles for what NBC owed him and his league.

To be fair, Ebersol and NBC weren’t alone in trying to end the XFL. The league’s top advertisers had bailed, and their other broadcasting partners like UPN/TNN, were hedging their bets and trying to leverage the XFL’s failings towards creating a stronger foothold on McMahon’s WWE. A singular grand vision that Vince McMahon planned to start and operate on his own, had been taken down by his broadcast marriages. McMahon reluctantly and begrudgingly waved the white flag.

Nearly 17 years after all of this, Vince McMahon decided that he was going to try it again, but this time. He would do it alone. No more 50-50 partners. He would be investing his own money, like Ebersol suggested, to the tune of half a billion dollars. It could be argued that this was an even bolder decision than the original XFL. McMahon was rebooting something that failed on a grand scale. The norm in entertainment is to reboot successful entities. Couple that with the fact that since May of 2001, other leagues had also come and gone, facing the same demise. Even the almighty NFL’s Europe league had died despite great financial backing. Other pro league hopefuls either failed to launch, or couldn’t survive like the United Football League.

McMahon was bringing back the XFL to a market place that had been deemed a dead zone. Why would anyone make another attempt at starting a pro football league? No one could have predicted that two months after McMahon’s January 25th relaunch announcement, that yet another spring pro football league would launch. The kicker? It was being founded by Dick Ebersol’s son Charlie. The league would be potentially going head to head with the XFL, with Dick’s son Charlie deciding to jump ahead and launch earlier than McMahon.

The XFL’s rise and fall had been documented by Charlie Ebersol, he often times would argue in defense of the league and would discuss how things could have worked, if handled differently. His admiration and the relationship between his father and Vince McMahon was a strong aspect of the 30 for 30 special. Many would argue and speculate that the XFL was reborn as a result of this special, but the special would also give birth to Charlie’s “Alliance of American Football.” A strange dynamic where Dick Ebersol would be a low-key advisor behind the scenes for his son’s league, that is now a direct competitor with Vince McMahon.

In two weeks, Charlie Ebersol is launching an 8-team spring pro-football league, with the help of NFL Hall of Fame Executive Bill Polian. The league like the original XFL, has been rushing into the market place. Giving themselves less than a year to launch. Despite taking a non-adversarial approach to the NFL, and suggesting that they could become a minor league for them. The AAF has taken a similar path to the original XFL. The league is finishing up a month-long joint training camp in San Antonio. One of the biggest failings of the original XFL, was how the quality of play suffered from teams having only 30 days to gel.

The AAF had a league wide QB draft in late November with designated quarterbacks switching teams just 2 months before game time. On their journey to opening, the league has lost a head coach in Brad Childress, three offensive coordinators in Jon Kitna, Hal Mumme and Hugh Freeze, and Birmingham assistant RB coach Cadillac Williams. Not a great start on the journey to providing quality football right out the gate. Like the original XFL, making a first impression will be key. Is Charlie’s league following the same exact flawed path that his father and Vince did?

The Alliance has some good business relationships. By comparison to the original XFL-NBC deal, the AAF has a scaled down network deal with CBS that sees just two of their games broadcast on network television. With all the other games on cable TV. Still a good deal for an upstart league. 2019 can provide so many more opportunities than 2001 did for an upstart league. From technology to gambling to fantasy football. As of this article, the AAF hasn’t launched any apps tied in to any of these aspects. The league website has not updated team or player bios but there is still time. There figures to be more promotion with the upcoming Superbowl on CBS, AAF’s current broadcast partner, with NFL Network rumored to be next on deck.

Both the AAF and XFL have stated that they are not direct competitors with the NFL, and that they’re just trying to present quality football for fans, when the college and NFL seasons have ended. Vince McMahon, learning through his mistakes of rushing into the league the first time, had decided to take a “slow and steady wins the race” approach, not launching until February of 2020. That strategy left the door open for someone to cut in front of him on the line. Little did he know that it would be his most trusted business partner’s son. Since Vince’s XFL relaunch announcement, leagues are coming out of the wood work and thin air to announce potential launches. The crazy idea of launching another pro football league is not so crazy anymore. Even Ricky Williams has emerged from a cloud of smoke to announce his own league.

The relationship between Dick Ebersol and Vince McMahon has led many to speculate, as to whether there could be yet another alliance between the Ebersols and McMahons. Despite Bill Polian’s desired goal of being a developmental league for the NFL, could the XFL and AAF eventually become partners in a joint league? Similar to the days of the 1960’s AFL/NFL merger. Supporting this theory is the fact that both leagues are in 16 different markets, with the AAF concentrated towards one side of the map, while the XFL is positioned strongly in big markets and on the east coast. The leagues aren’t competing with each other in the same markets. However, when it comes to players and coaches, the two leagues will end up competing directly with one another during the course of this year. The structure of the AAF’s 3-year contract is designed to directly prevent any of their players from playing in the XFL. Vince McMahon’s league will not have similar 3-year deals but they are offering their players more money to play in their league.

The pipe dream of a merger or joint partnership between the XFL and AAF remains a long shot, but it will exist until one or both leagues fold. The two leagues have to get to years two and three before any of these dreams can become a reality. In the meantime, the XFL is set to announce their own broadcast rights package in the coming week. They will be sitting on the sidelines, watching the AAF launch a week after the Superbowl. Will the AAF’s success or failure benefit the XFL?. There are arguments for either side. Regardless of what happens, the XFL is moving towards their 2020 launch. Where presumably, both leagues will be competing directly for attention in February of next year. Until then, Charlie Ebersol and the AAF has the game all to themselves.

As the original old saying goes, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Both the XFL and AAF are trying to learn from the mistakes of the original XFL’s past. The Ebersols and McMahon have a shared past, and now a shared future, but they are on opposite sides of the war…. for now.

One Last Look Back at the Original XFL

As XFL Representatives scout the future of pro football and their league, at this past weekend’s College All-Star games. I found myself thinking about the past and how surreal this whole XFL return thing really is. I keep having 2001 flashbacks.

Let’s jump back into Doc’s DeLorean one last time. The world was so different in 2001. Specifically, the online universe. Back then, if you were a fan, you only had chat rooms and message boards. There was no real coverage by sports media outlets. So, all the fans had was the league website, some newspaper articles, and some fan sites.

Sites like XFLBoard.com provided fans the opportunity to follow, interact and write about the league. No podcasts or internet shows. There weren’t even any weekly radio talk shows back then. The WWF at the time, was heading into the sports world and there was no real coverage of the league by the mainstream sports media. A sports franchise headed by a wrestling company didn’t really help create the impression of legitimacy. Alternative football leagues have a hard time, as it is, getting coverage by the mainstream media to begin with. Let alone a wrestling company. Any coverage of the original XFL was done so in a mocking fashion. After the first couple of weeks of the season, it was almost impossible finding any weekly highlights on ESPN or any serious recaps or analysis of the teams, players, or games on any sports media outlet.

An example of this was week one in the original XFL. As a sports fan for over three decades, I would be hard pressed to recall a more electrifying atmosphere for a season opener than the one that took place between LA and San Fran. When the San Francisco Demons defeated The LA Xtreme in their home opener at Pac Bell Park. San Fran won the game 15-13 with the clock running out. The over 38,000 fans that packed the stadium, were as loud as any group of fans, for any game I’ve ever witnessed. For a first-time league with mostly unknown players, to get that type of immersive response out the gate was unreal. The game wasn’t pretty but it was intense. A great back and forth game with tremendous drama. The presentation clicked on all levels. Some of it was over the top, but you actually felt like you were on the field and in the stands. If the XFL had opened their league on NBC with this game, the first impression of the league may have been different than the one created by the sloppy and one-sided Outlaws-Hitmen opener on NBC.

The league and The Demons-Xtreme game actually made the front cover of Sports Illustrated at the time. A great honor except that the XFL was blistered on the cover and inside the magazine. The headline read “Cheap Thrills”…. With the underneath caption reading “Will sleazy gimmicks and low-rent football work for the XFL?”…… It didn’t get much better inside the magazine. The drama, innovation and fun attached to the Demons-Xtreme game was mostly overlooked.

To be fair, some of the negative sentiment towards the XFL was warranted. The league puffed out it’s chest about being the big bad wolf and then got treated as such by the mainstream sports media. Nearly two decades ago, I actually got a chance to sort of become a part of that media, thanks to this very website, when I covered the New York/New Jersey Hitmen. Who knew back in 2001, that writing for a website that covered the league could get you access to games and a press pass to interview players and coaches?

Here I was barely in my 20’s, stepping inside a press box for the very first time, at what was then known as Giants Stadium. It was Week 7 of the XFL Season. Despite being 2 and 4, The Hitmen were still in contention for a playoff spot with 4 weeks to go in the regular season. The 3 and 3 Memphis Maniax were also involved in a playoff chase of their own in the western division. I was so excited and fully invested in the season. Despite the fact that the interest in the league was dying down even amongst its biggest supporters. I had been to every Hitmen home game and sat in the stands with the rest of my fellow tri-state football fans. The league may have been on its last legs heading towards it’s impending death but I was so caught up in the moment, that i wasn’t looking at the league as a gloom and doom operation.

With an XFL press credential in hand, I rode up the elevator into the press level at Giants Stadium. I had never experienced a game from this prospective. After proudly showing my press pass to a member of security, I headed into the press box. There was a decent number of local sporting press there. As is the custom, there is no cheering allowed in the press box. Hindsight being 20/20, I probably should have, but didn’t expect the lack of interest or enthusiasm from the press on hand. The scribes that were on hand, took more interest in the catered buffet than they did the actual game. It was a really nice layout but i was more interested in taking in the experience and following the game than getting second helpings of baked ziti.

The one league related conversation that I had with a reporter was how he had information on how the Chicago Enforcers were going to relocate to Milwaukee because of Soldier Field renovation later in the year. It turned out to be true. League reps were looking into different locations, had there been a second season. This reporter didn’t see year two even happening and had no real interest in this game or the XFL itself. I found out on this evening, first hand how unimportant and insignificant the XFL was to the local media.

The interest for me at that moment, while watching the field through a massive glass encasement in the press box was the actual game. The Hitmen had yet to win a home game. Despite that, NY/NJ could remarkably put their playoff hopes into their own hands by winning. The paid attendance for the game was 22,000 but the live attendance was only 15,781. The weather was bad but the crowd on hand was great. They were rewarded with a great last second victory, that saw the Hitmen score a touchdown late to win the game 16-15. The Memphis Maniax, despite having an up and down season, that eventually saw them finish at 5 and 5, came into this game with the league’s #1 ranked offense. They were kind of a Jekyll and Hyde type team. They would get off to great starts and then falter late in games. This would be the ammo, I needed when entering the team’s locker rooms after the game. I was so wrapped up in the league that when Birmingham lost to The Outlaws in the other Saturday night XFL game. I knew how that loss opened the door for the Hitmen to control their playoff destiny if they won out. A heartbreaking home loss to Chicago would eventually derail the teams hopes of making the playoffs by seasons end.

When the game ended, I headed to the team’s locker rooms. It was just me and a couple of other writers. They were looking to get it over with fast and for some quick sound bytes. I was looking for real reactions. The Hitmen were in good spirits after the game. When I informed New York Defensive Lineman Israel Raybon that the Bolts had lost. He enthusiastically responded, “We have it all in our hands now.”

When I headed into the visitor’s locker room. I knew that the other writers weren’t going to ask anything substantial. Here I was a 20 something year old kid, who was lucky to even have this type of access, getting ready to grill a seasoned and well-respected pro football veteran in Maniax Head Coach Kippy Brown. I was going to ask him why his teams had a tendency of collapsing late in games. In this particular game, Memphis led 15-3 before blowing the lead and losing. I had read in the buildup of the game, how Memphis players were talking about how hard Kippy was working them in practice. So, I attributed their late game collapses to it. It was probably not the greatest angle to take but at the time, it seemed plausible. Looking back, I was probably reaching a bit.

This is what I wrote on this very website back in 2001, of my exchange with Kippy Brown after the game. When asked if conditioning was a factor in his teams second half breakdowns, Brown took a defensive approach and stated, “These players aren’t working hard enough, ask them if they lost because they worked too much.” Boy, was Kippy Brown mad when I suggested his practices in pads may have been a reason for his team’s second half collapses.

Regardless, whether my analysis or questioning was off base or not, I was told by the players and coaches on that night, that they appreciated that a member of the “media” was taking their league and games seriously. Most of the players and football personnel that were involved in the original league were treated, as if what they were doing didn’t matter or wasn’t important. The old XFL is gone forever. While most see Version 1.0 as a failure, there are so many fans who see it differently, myself included.

With news coming out this week, that the XFL plans to unveil their television rights/digital streaming package in the next few weeks. Probably during Superbowl week. The league will be officially starting a new chapter. There are so many more ways for a product to get exposure in 2019, then there was back in 2001. It’s a vastly different media world. The league figures to be much different this go around. The coverage and treatment of it might still end up being the same, but it will be more accessible for fans to follow the league this time. No press pass needed.

Is the XFL really going to happen?

This is a question that I am sure that many followers of the XFL, have been asking themselves since Vince McMahon announced the XFL’s return on January 25th of last year. Personally, I still can’t believe that the XFL is returning. It still doesn’t seem real. The history of proposed launches and relaunches of leagues is not a good one.

The first quarter of this year is a crucial period that could help determine whether the XFL starts off on the right note. A lot of what transpires in these first three months will help determine whether or not, The XFL is going to have lasting power. There is even doubt by some that the league will be able to launch come February of 2020. Recent history shows that simply getting to the field and playing games is not a given.

As chronicled here at XFLBoard in recent articles. There are several hurdles for the XFL in building and launching their league. From the financial aspects to getting players, coaches and business partners to commit. Just starting up a pro football league is very challenging. Let alone having it be a success. Since version 1.0 of the XFL faded in 2001. There have been so many proposed leagues that failed to even take the field. Too many to mention but let’s look at a few.

On several occasions, the ‘new USFL’ was supposed to launch. Businessman and former NFL players were a part of the potential relaunch. They had a new league logo, proposed team locations and nothing ever came of it. The Spring League of American Football has pushed back their launch for several years now. Headed by TV executives, the SAFL has launched a website but nothing else. The North American Football League had team names and cities announced. Their owners didn’t even show up for open tryouts and they were arrested for allegedly defrauding potential investors. They were supposed to launch in 2016. Back in 2007, there was the All American Football League. Very few even remember it. This was a 6 team league with no team nicknames. Just teams labeled as “Team Texas” and “Team Florida.” The plan was to be a college like league with territorial designations. The league was started by former NCAA president Cedric Dempsey. The AAFL even got to the point of having their inaugural draft. Several former NFL players signed on like Peter Warrick. “He Hate Me” Rod Smart was slated to play for Team Tennessee at Neyland Stadium. Coaching staffs were established, as were all the teams playing locations. The AAFL never got their TV deal, the league was postponed for thre straight years before eventually fading into darkness and ceasing operations.

So much time is spent about these leagues getting to the finish line, when just getting to the field has been an issue. Even leagues like The UFL, that did get to the starting line, had to reshuffle and change their plans just to get there. 2009 was supposed to be that league’s big launch. An 8 team 20 million dollar cap with a lengthy schedule turned into a soft launch 4 team league with a shortened schedule. Credit to them for still pushing forward and trying to build as time went on, but that building started crumbling before the foundation was even laid.

Even as someone who has supported and covered the XFL in 2001 and now in 2019. I am cautiously optimistic but borderline skeptical. The XFL has great financial backing and a world class commissioner at the helm in Oliver Luck. Someone who has great experience in launching teams and running leagues. The XFL has hired a scouting department and they have staffed some key roles for the league. Cities have been announced in world class markets with top notch stadiums.

The league appears to be on the right path, but with a year until games presumably kick off on Saturday February 8th 2020. The heavy lifting starts now, in what has been labeled as the XFL’s 2019 Preseason. There is time but the clock is ticking. Certain things need to happen before this league can become a reality.

The first major sign of the XFL becoming a reality is their yet to be announced TV rights deal. When the league was officially announced as returning by Vince McMahon last January. The thought was that the XFL would struggle to find the type of TV partner, that they had back in 2001 when NBC became their 50-50 partner. The thought going around was that the relaunched XFL would follow the streaming model with a potential cable partner. The feeling amongst many was that the XFL wouldn’t be able to do better than that.

In recent interviews, XFL commissioner Oliver Luck has left the impression that the league is in negotiations with legacy carriers that broadcast NFL games. A rights package deal is supposed to be announced in the first quarter of 2019. Which means that there should be something announced in the next month, but until there is, the skepticism remains alive. A TV deal will not only net the league the necessary exposure it needs to survive, but it will be a selling point for fans, potential viewers, players, coaches, advertisers and potential business partners. If the league does not get a quality distribution deal, then it will struggle to get people to buy into their league.

There was some talk by Oliver Luck of a potential TV deal being announced before the end of 2018. Like the XFL City situation, the locations were slated to be announced in the fall and technically it was, they were announced in the fall on December 5th but a lot later than people anticipated. It took 11 months for the league to get to that point from the relaunch announcement to city reveals. It simply can’t take that long for the next wave of league goals, if it does, there will be delays that could halt the launch in 2020, or at the bare minimum affect the quality of the league’s play when they do eventually launch.

Can the XFL proceed to the other important hires before netting a TV rights deal? The league’s cities have been announced but there is still the matter of creating the infrastructure for each team. The league has yet to hire team presidents and employees for each XFL City. This will be crucial in establishing themselves in all eight XFL markets. Right now, fans can make season ticket deposits at XFL.com, but the league is a long way from setting schedules, marketing and advertising locally without actual team operations staffs.

The city offices are a boring subject but it’s vital for getting off the ground running. The XFL is not there yet. Then there is the matter of team branding. A crucial element towards building up anticipation and interest for the league. The new XFL has to get this right but it’s more of a superficial thing right now. It’s just as important as these other matters in the first quarter of 2019 but it won’t mean anything if the other goals are not met.

The sexy part of team building is hiring head coaches, putting together coaching staffs and then signing quarterbacks to league contracts. This is what has been earmarked as the first goals for the XFL in the 1st quarter of this year. That means that by the end of March, all of this should be completed.

As we approach mid-January, the coaching carousels are almost done spinning in the NFL and in college football. Staffs are being finalized. There will be a number of coaches out there looking for work. Getting these coaches to commit to your league will not be an easy sell. Depending on the quality of the coaches, retaining them will also be a challenge. As evidenced by the recent happenings in The Alliance of American Football. With just a few weeks before their season is set to begin. Atlanta Legends coach Brad Childress has stepped down, Arizona Hotshots Offensive Coordinator Hugh Freeze left for a head coaching job at Liberty and Memphis Express OC Hal Mumme bailed on his job. It’s not enough to get these coaches to sign on, you need them to make a serious commitment. In turn, coaches will only commit to the XFL if they see it as being serious.

Quarterback commitments will be tough as well. The biggest selling point of the league in terms of their quality of play mission statement, is their announced 300 thousand dollars a season salary for their premiere Quarterbacks. A far cry from their 45k a season salaries back in 2001. It sounds great in theory but which quarterbacks are going to commit to signing on with the XFL in 2019, and then hold off on going to any other league until after the 2020 XFL season ends. Like the issue with head coaches, a strong commitment will be needed. You are asking a potential star QB to sit out the 2019 NFL, CFL or AAF seasons and to stay under contract and wait till the XFL season starts in February and then ends in May, before potentially exploring other opportunities.

As of mid-January, there are so many questions that are left unanswered right now with the XFL. Hopefully as fans and supporters, the blanks will start getting filled in in the coming weeks.