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