How college football decision-making will shape the XFL’s chances for a 2021 season
Three college football scenarios that we could see play out, and what its effects could be for the XFL
Today, the Big 10 and PAC-12 conferences officially cancelled their fall sports, including football. Other FBS conferences may follow suit, though some like the SEC and Big 12 still plan on playing. The Big 10 and PAC-12 join the MAC, the Mountain West, independents Massachusetts and Connecticut, as well as many FCS conferences in postponing fall sports due to COVID-19.
The XFL league brass should be monitoring this situation closely. The dominoes may not be done falling in college athletics just yet, and the decisions made there should surely guide the XFL in whether or not to ramp up quickly to begin play in 2021 or to wait things out until 2022.
Here are three college football scenarios that we could see play out, and what its effects could be for the XFL:
1) College football conferences cancel their fall season, move to the spring of 2021.
This is the pie-in-the-sky hope for those conferences that have suspended play for the fall. Former Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer has already come out and said there is “no chance” for a spring college football season. University of Wisconsin safety Eric Burrell termed the potential of a spring football season at “0%” on Twitter. Both Ohio State and Wisconsin belong to the Big 10.
There are a number of issues at play that makes a move to the spring difficult. First, many seniors will opt out to train for the NFL Draft. Entertaining a full slate of games in the spring, then turning around and asking the student athletes to play again in the fall would be too much, especially as athletes are increasingly demanding a stake in decision-making within their schools and conferences. A modified spring schedule of 6-8 games and a revised fall 2021 schedule of similarly limited contests might be the starting point for discussions.
If the unlikely wins out and major conferences do play in the spring, it limits the exposure the XFL could get. Networks like ESPN and FOX that could be in the running for XFL games have billion dollar commitments to college football conferences. Creative scheduling and midweek XFL games could work, but the thirst for college football will mean the XFL will get lost in the shuffle. Another downside here is that decisions about spring college football may not be made until deep into the winter; by that point, the XFL will have had to make a decision about whether or not to play in February. Just the threat of college football in the spring may keep the XFL out of the game for 2021.
2) Some college football conferences play in the fall, some play in the spring
This may be the toughest scenario for the XFL to navigate. Because the NCAA doesn’t have full control over decision-making of all its members, we could see some conferences playing in the fall, some in the spring, and some not at all. We could see some schools within a conference that chose not to play move to another conference for one season if they disagree with the decision of its conference. We could see some go independent for a year to pick up games. It could be chaos. We’ve seen college football players opt out of the fall season; even if their teams return to play in the spring, players could still opt out and choose the XFL if they believe the bubble that the XFL would likely play in would be a safer option for them than traveling back-and-forth across the country.
The XFL could also pick up players whose conferences did not return to playing the spring. With fewer college football games in this scenario, they could have interest from networks. There’s a difference between battling a full slate of college games on a Saturday and a few games here and there. The XFL and its television partners could choose to move contests to Fridays and Sundays, leaving Saturdays open for college games. Or, the network could market the XFL and college football piggybacking off each other, making a full day of gridiron action (college in the afternoon, XFL in the evening for example). Flexibility is going to be the key here for the XFL, which won’t be easy on short notice and without a full front office staff currently in place.
3) College football conferences whose fall seasons get cancelled don’t play in the spring
This is the only plan in which I’d endorse the XFL going full steam ahead for 2021. With no other football competition, the XFL should have no impediment to TV airtime in the spring. They’d be able to recruit players whose conferences elected not to play in the fall. While many first-round talents would likely forego the XFL and train on their own for a pro career, there are many potential mid-round draft picks who may look to improve their standing by trying their hand at the XFL. Remember too that players will be one-and-a-half years removed from their most recent game tape for pro scouts and personnel evaluators to look at; by playing in the XFL, they’d have more recent tape that would be a better reflection of where their on-field talent lies. Plus, they’d be competing against other professionals and making money doing so.
It’s worth pointing out that whatever decision the XFL makes, whether they play in 2021 or not, should be made with the long-term in mind. It may be attractive to rush into the 2021 season for many reasons listed above, but the short-term play should not be taken at the expense of the long-term survival of the league.