Five things we learned in the first week of the XFL under new ownership
We’ve already learned a little about the future of the XFL. Here’s what we’ve been able to glean so far.
It’s now been a week since news broke that a group led by Dany Garcia, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and RedBird Capital would be taking over the XFL. In that time, it’s been clear Garcia will be the voice of the partnership, having already done numerous print interviews with media outlets (ESPN, The Athletic (subscription required), Sports Illustrated, and of all places, People Magazine). Looking at her comments and other reporting over the last several days (via The Athletic (subscription required), Front Office Sports, and Sportico), we’ve already learned a little about the future of the XFL. Here’s what we’ve been able to glean so far:
(1) XFL 3.0 will look a lot like XFL 2.0
In almost all of her interviews, Garcia had high praise for the on-field changes brought on by Oliver Luck and his team, as well as the quality of play. She was a big fan of the more recent XFL incarnation, so it’s no surprise most if not all of the on-field innovations will be kept. Garcia did tell ESPN that she’d like to make the broadcast access more “elegant,” so that’s where you could end up seeing the most change, though I doubt it would be drastic. For those worried the new buyer would come in and make wholesale changes to an on-field product that largely worked in 2020, it seems for now those worries are unfounded.
(2) Former XFL employees will be strongly considered for positions within the rebooted league
Sportico spoke to former league employees that are yearning to still help make spring football work, and ESPN noted an estimate of fewer than 10% of those fired in the XFL’s shutdown have found permanent work elsewhere. Garcia told ESPN she’d be open to rehiring some people, and it sounds like COO Jeffrey Pollack and his team are safe. It’s been heavily speculated, however, that Oliver Luck will not return. There are many staffs at the team level that did a good job marketing locally, so it would be nice to have many of them back as well if for nothing else than the sake of continuity.
(3) The league is eyeing a 2021 return, but hasn’t committed to that
Garcia’s stance in these interviews when asked is that while their preference is to have the league up and running in 2021 (in a bubble if necessary), she hasn’t committed to it. A source close to the ownership group told The Athletic’s Daniel Kaplan that he doubts the league will be able to return as soon as 2021, but left open that possibility. With the sale of the XFL not officially closing until August 21, that doesn’t leave the group a lot of time to hire staffs, find coaches and players, secure TV deals, etc. needed for play less than six months from then. It’s also difficult to know what the landscape of sports will look like amid the pandemic early next year. One of the first big decisions Garcia, Johnson and others will have to make will be whether or not to start back again in 2021.
(4) Despite the powerhouse pairing of Garcia and Johnson, the league may struggle to get a good TV deal
FOX and ESPN have filed court documents to prevent their contracts with the league from being a part of the bankruptcy purchase. The Athletic and Front Office Sports both make it sound as if FOX is willing to play ball, but ESPN still may be on the outside looking in. Much of this will depend on the status of college football and what conferences opt to play in the spring and the XFL’s willingness to restart play in 2021. The two articles cited above also mention that representatives of the league are already holding informal talks with potential TV partners, but industry sources cited in those stories doubt the league will get any kind of paying deal, even to the level of the previous contracts which only included the networks doling out production costs. The pandemic may cause the sports TV rights bubble to finally burst, leaving behind the potential financial windfall the league was originally resurrected by Vince McMahon to cash in on.
(5) Expansion is on the menu…whatever that might mean
When asked by SI what’s next for the league, Garcia’s first response was “expansion.” She didn’t go much deeper than that, and expansion was always likely down the road had the league found success in 2020. It should tell you how much money the group is willing to spend on the league because expanding will not be cheap no matter when it occurs. The fact that the question was so open-ended and the first place Garcia’s mind went was to expansion should tell you that’s high on the list of priorities for the new ownership group. However, could Garcia have meant something other than expanding the number of teams? She followed up by saying “expansion and more storytelling,” citing the desire for the league to be in the consciousness of the fan year-round; could she mean expansion in terms of expanding marketing, social media, and engagement?
There are various major hurdles for the new ownership group to clear, more so than even perhaps Vince McMahon had when he initially brought the XFL back into existence. There were many news dry spells for fans of the league over the two year period between McMahon’s announced XFL resurrection and its kickoff; I don’t think fans will have to wait as long between news bites over the next few months, especially if things trend toward playing again in 2021.