“We love eight teams. We love eventually having more than eight teams. I think we’ll be reviewing some of the markets as we should. There was a lot of great work that was done and was succeeding. But I think whenever you have time to reset, I think it’s an important time to just reassess.”
– New XFL Part-Owner Dany Garcia- Per The Athletic
REVIEW, RESET & REASSESS
The XFL is coming back. The when, where, and how are yet to be determined. The answers to those questions could help shape the future of the XFL’s existing eight teams.
One of the biggest questions moving forward is: Do big-market teams like New York and Los Angeles still have a place in the new XFL? Will they be a part of the review, reset and reassess process described by Dany Garcia?
The New York Guardians and Los Angeles Wildcats did a tremendous job building up their franchises on and off the field. The XFL’s two biggest markets were run by extremely talented executives like Janet Duch and Heather Karatz. On the field, both teams were in strong contention for the playoffs when the plug was pulled out due to the pandemic. New York and L.A. may not have produced the most massive crowds in the league, but the fanbases were excellent.
That being stated, except for perhaps Tampa, no two teams faced more of an uphill struggle to succeed than New York and L.A.
Under Vince McMahon’s vision and Oliver Luck’s leadership. The XFL took the approach of tackling the big markets. With McMahon’s background and history, in particular, there was never any doubt that New York would be in his league.
Some pundits and observers questioned the XFL’s strategy of placing teams in over-saturated sports towns with existing NFL teams.
Why do you rob a bank? Because that’s where all the money is was one of Oliver Luck’s go-to answers to why the XFL chose big cities like New York. The league’s business strategy boasted eight of the nation’s top 21 T.V. markets. Something that was a significant selling point when the league locked down T.V. deals with Disney and Fox to air its games.
Despite the success of the undefeated Houston Roughnecks in a city with an existing NFL team. Many who were opposed to the XFL’s choice of cities will point to the league’s best success, which came in St. Louis with the BattleHawks. A market starving for pro football with an ax to grind for being overlooked.
For some, a perfect alternate universe pro football league would consist of eight St. Louis like franchises. Cities like New York and L.A. wouldn’t fit in it into that model.
One of the saving graces for the continuation of New York and L.A. in the XFL is the likelihood that if a 2021 season happens, the traditional individual market model won’t be needed if the league operates in a bubble.
Unknowingly, this past January, during the league’s centralized training camp in Houston, the XFL provided the template for a COVID-19 sports bubble model. The league stationed eight franchises in one city and played their slate of games at one specific location (TDECU). The entire league operated as a single entity in a confined setting.
Before the XFL shut down their season for good earlier this year, contingency plans for a 2021 season in a COVID world were forming. XFL Director of Football Operations Sam Schwartzstein submitted a proposal for the league to play as a single-site entity. The plan would save millions of dollars from the budget and plan for the likelihood that fans would not be allowed into games. Leagues like the NBA and NHL are operating under similar quarantined style operations right now.
If the XFL is to play in 2021, something similar to what Sam Schwartzstein set forth will need to be implemented. The XFL’s new ownership group has bought their way into a league at the worst possible time to do so. It’s part of the reason that despite having so many inquiries into buying the league, that only one substantial bidder emerged. Any owner of the XFL is inheriting a league in a pandemic sports landscape.
What the new ownership did inherit is eight ready-made teams with equity built up. If a bubble exists in 2021, the eight existing teams will be playing as their city representatives without actually having to conduct any business in their local cities, until the 2021 season has ended. Domestic ticket sales would be non-existent and thus not up for scrutiny until the league revs up for a 2022 season back in their markets. The setup may buy New York some time before the new owners decide on its future.
If the New York Guardians are to remain as a part of the XFL, then the apparent alteration with the franchise is moving the team away from MetLife Stadium. The Guardians averaged nearly 15,000 fans per home game in a stadium that seats 82,000. The prevailing thought is that New York would be better served playing at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., where the venue has a seating capacity of 25,000.
While many would love to see, a New York franchise play in its home state, like perhaps in Long Island or Queens, Red Bull Arena is a suitable happy medium. It’s accessible, being only 7 miles west of Lower Manhattan, and spectator friendly.
The New York Guardians may be under new leadership moving forward. Does Kevin Gilbride still have one more run left in him? With the Guardians, Gilbride stepped out of self-imposed retirement to get back into coaching. The New York job for Gilbride was ideal; the ability to be close to home played a factor in his return. Control also played a significant role. As G.M. and coach, Gilbride had to line up facilities and did all the hiring.
“My imprint was on everything. I liked that challenge. As a coach sometimes over a quarter-century of professional football, you get some frustrating experiences where personnel people are making decisions and as a coaching staff, you were not in agreement. I was in a position to bridge that.”
– Kevin Gilbride to the Middletown Press in late April.
Some of the XFL’s head coaches have publicly stated their desire to return, like Winston Moss and June Jones. By all accounts, the experience in the XFL was a positive one for Coach Gilbride, but the end of the season was abrupt, and a lot has changed since the spring.
The XFL is going to be a different league than the one Gilbride worked in earlier this year. Gone is the previous owner, Vince McMahon, who was in direct contact with Gilbride up until the very day, the league suspended play back in March.
CEO/Commissioner Oliver Luck was largely instrumental in Gilbride coming out of retirement. Luck is currently entangled in a lawsuit with Vince McMahon over his termination. It remains to be seen if he will return under the new ownership group.
When the XFL suspended play, Kevin Gilbride reached out to Luck out of concern for the members of his staff. When Gilbride asked Luck if his staff members should stay patient and wait things out, Luck’s advice to Gilbride was that they should start looking for new jobs.
Many of the great members of the Guardians front office and coaching staff are still available for hire. Whether or not they want to put their time, effort, and faith in the XFL again remains to be seen. A big part of the future will be the new ownership’s view of Kevin Gilbride, and whether he is willing to take another leap of faith. The Guardians being back in the tri-state area could be the deciding factor, although they may not be, at least until 2022.