Imagining a reimagined game of football

The XFL’s goal is to make a great game even greater.  An ambitious mindset for sure, but everything about the league’s mission thus far has been just that.

The average amount of actual action in an entire NFL game has been calculated to be anywhere from eleven to fifteen minutes. This is what the viewer at home, and in the stadium, experiences over a three-hour span of watching an NFL game. Fifteen minutes or less of actual football.  A sixty-minute game that only produces a quarter of actual gameplay. More than three quarters of an actual NFL game clock is spent on camera shots, commentary and players huddling and regrouping before the next play from scrimmage. The average three-hours plus of an NFL game is dedicated to advertisements, replays, multiple breaks in the action, and then more advertisements. Fifteen minutes, at best, of actual football plays, and nearly three-hours of everything else. In defense of the NFL, after all these studies came out, in recent years they have to attempted reduce all the dead spots in their telecasts.

People will often point to advertisements eating up the three-hours plus of a football game. The NFL has taken steps, in recent years, to increase their in-game advertising through picture-in-picture technology, with quicker commercial breaks and on-field advertising.  The real issue is that it’s not just about how long a game or broadcast takes. It’s about what happens during the actual game. It’s about the amount of in-game action, and the lack of it, or the delays between plays.  It’s not just about the fans at home watching. It’s about the people watching live at the games. Oftentimes, the home viewer has a better experience than the fan seated in a stadium. TV Ratings have been up for the NFL, but attendance is down; simply because people would rather watch the games at home. Part of that is a financial decision, but a large part of it has to do with being able to better enjoy the game at home. The breaks in action and momentum throughout the course of a football game are way more noticeable when experiencing a game live in person, than they are from the comfort of your own home. The breaks in momentum also effect the players and the play on the field.

The XFL’s mantra of “less stall and more ball” is less about fitting a football game into a three-hour window, and more about increasing the importance of the action on the field.  It’s about minimizing the dead play time and meaningless plays, and maximizing the meaningful plays.  So, the number of plays and the overall time of the telecast is important, but not the main focus. It’s only part of the overall picture.  Actions speak louder than words, and for these words to matter they need to be put into action.  How exactly does the XFL plan on doing that?  The experimenting of this is still on-going, and will continue later this month with the league’s broadcast partners, ABC, Fox and ESPN, when the league partners again with the Spring League to continue their research, development, and testing of game rules and in-game technologies.

One way of speeding up and increasing the action is to shorten the play clock. Rather than the current 40-second play clock used in the NFL, the XFL is working towards having a 25-second play clock.  With a 40-second clock, two offensive plays can potentially take up to a minute and twenty seconds of game clock. The 25-second play clock will, in theory, add an extra play for every minute played on the field.  However, it doesn’t stop there. The XFL’s goal is to quickly run another play once a play has ended. The league is planning to speed up the process by having a designated official, whose sole job will be to line up the football immediately after a play has ended. The quicker the ball is spotted, the quicker the next play happens. In theory, a shorter play clock with a system in place to set and reset for the next play will help speed things up, but there is a reliance on human execution.  This is where modern technology comes into play to help boost the operation further.

The XFL is planning on using an “all-11” audio communication system, for both offense and defense. In modern day football, a play call is relayed from a coach to his quarterback, who then relays the play to his teammates before the next play can be run. Some NFL and college teams that implement a faster style of offense will often use signals and even drawings to speed up the process.  With an all-11 audio system,  every offensive player will immediately know the next play call. Once again, time is being saved before the next play happens. This will extend to the defense as well. What’s unknown at this point is if there will be a cut off time in the audio transmission to players.  In the NFL, the audio is cut off before the team is at the line of scrimmage. Will the XFL decide to keep the audio transmission going right up until the snap? It would be the equivalent of Tom Brady hearing Josh McDaniels instruct him at the line of scrimmage, while Brady is scanning the defense. Imagine if that audio exchange was also available to the audience. During NFL telecasts, Tony Romo has expertly surmised where the play should, and could go, right before the snap. Imagine a scenario where he was actually telling Jared Goff, where to throw the ball based on the defensive look.  An “all-11” audio system not only helps players know the play and line up quicker, but it can also help them execute their designed plays better. Using this type of technology will almost make the need for a huddle unnecessary.

Technology can also be a useful tool in other areas. Some of the dead spots in football telecasts are unavoidable, like injuries for example.  The one area where games do get dragged down, and the action gets slowed down to a halt, is with officiating delays and replays. The XFL plans on implementing a modified officiating protocol. They are looking to speed up the process in which penalties are called, and in how quickly replays and challenges are resolved. One of the nine game officials is going to be in the booth, with access to all angles and replays. This official’s job will not only to be to correct a call, but to communicate it quickly to the head referee on the field.

Simplifying the rules will also help cut down on penalties and game stoppages. The XFL’s proposed “multiple forward passes behind the line of scrimmage” rule, not only adds an extra layer to the offensive strategy, but it makes the referee’s job easier when it comes to determining where the ball is. The XFL’s proposed one foot in bounds catch rule also helps officials as well. So much time is spent on stoppages and replays determining what is, and what isn’t a catch. One foot in-bounds as a catch eliminates the referee conferences after a catch and the potential challenges that usually follow these types of plays.

Meaningful versus meaningless plays. Since taking multiple safety measures, the NFL has seen a big increase in touch-backs and fair catches over the last few seasons. Kickoff and punt returns, to a lesser extent have been reduced significantly. One of the bigger dead spots and lulls in action in the NFL, comes after a team scores. A break in the action is then followed by the next play, being yet another break in the action. No time is taken off the clock during this operation, but usually nothing happens. This really hurts the live in-game experience and the momentum and flow of the game, not to mention eliminating the excitement that was attached to kickoffs in the past. The now defunct AAF eliminated the kickoff altogether, and an offensive play followed a score. However, what that effectively did was to guarantee that no offensive team would have the ability to start a drive in good field position. Every team started their drives at the 25-yard line. Eliminating the kickoff also eliminated the excitement and shift in momentum that comes from big plays on kick returns.

The XFL is bringing the kickoff and kick return back, keeping safety in mind with a new alignment that reduces collisions but brings back the exciting aspect of a big return. This is one of the original “reimagine” concepts that the XFL has been tinkering with and testing for quite some time. This concept was heavily aided by the league’s health advisory committee members. One of the most recent proposals was for touch-backs to result in teams starting on offense at their own 35-yard line. An incentive to not kick the ball deep into the end zone and to ensure that a return happens. The punt return will also be different, but familiar to football fans. A 5-yard halo will be in place that allows the returner to set up and return the football. This is borrowed from the Canadian game. One of the more exciting plays in the CFL is the punt return, and CFL special teams coaches have a field day designing plays with reverses and all kinds of gadget plays stemming from the point of the return. Another reimagining that has safety and the big play in mind at the same time.

There is no play that goes against the competitive nature of pro sports, and is more meaningless, than the kneel-down in football.  The NHL has its own form of clock killing during penalties, and it comes when a team is trying to run out the clock when they are facing the disadvantage of having one less player on the ice. However, this form of action requires skill and risk. It’s the boxing equivalent of being up against the ropes and trying to avoid being knocked out until the round ends. The kneel-down in football has no such skill involved. It’s always been a way of retreating and copping out. An extremely boring end to first halves and the end of games. Although things are still being ironed out, the XFL plans on reducing or eliminating the kneel down altogether by enforcing that teams have to attempt to gain yardage by moving forward. To further this rule, the clock automatically stops within two minutes. This forces teams to have to try and get first downs rather than attempt a series of quarterback sneaks and then punt. You are essentially waving the white flag and giving the ball back to your opponent inside of 15-20 seconds if you don’t try to maintain possession. To keep the ball, you have to keep moving it forward. The competitive action continues, and it doesn’t come to a screeching halt.  One of the sequences that almost always gets booed by a home team crowd is when a team decides to take a knee before a half, simply because they don’t have enough time or timeouts and don’t want to risk trying to advance the football.  Increasing the amount of meaningful plays and action actually extends to a few other different aspects as well. The first ties into the kneel-down and the final two minutes of each half, and what is being loosely referred to as the “comeback period”. The game clock is supposed to stop after every play within two minutes. This has been, and is still being tested by the XFL. If implemented, it will no doubt increase the amount of plays run in the game’s most crucial moments, but this type of “reimagining” may dramatically change the whole time honored aspect of game and clock management as we know it.

In the original and in the current XFL, the extra point kick is no more. This is another untimed play that is virtually meaningless. In recent years, it has been moved back to create drama but it’s still one of the more automatic and boring plays in football.  Replacing the extra-point kicks in the XFL are three tiered conversions: a one-point conversion from the 2-yard line, a two-point conversion from the 5-yard line, and a three-point conversion from the 10-yard line. After a team scores a touchdown, they will have one of these three options to choose from. What they choose will be based on strategy, and if they are ahead or trailing in the game. Teams that attempt a three-point conversion will be in desperation mode. Converting one play from the ten-yard line will be very difficult to pull off.  The premise of this concept is to create more scoring related plays that add drama to a game, and create the possibility of a late comeback.

Then there’s the XFL’s proposed overtime concept. This has safety and fairness in mind.  The safety aspect is to avoid having players play multiple series and quarters. Doing so increases the likelihood of injuries.  The fairness aspect is allowing both teams the opportunity to win the game on offense and defense, with no coin flips or kickers determining the outcome. A tie is broken when both teams get the opportunity to score in what has been loosely labeled as a “shootout”.  As presently proposed, both teams’ offenses get five scoring opportunities at the opposing teams five-yard line. Although similar “shootout” concepts exist in hockey and soccer, those shootouts come down to a version of their games that is not played during regulation. The XFL’s shootout is traditional 11-on-11, offense versus defense. No field goal kicks, “Oklahoma drills,” or 40-yard dashes. The concept is trying to resolve a tie quickly and fairly with the players health and safety in mind. Trying to accomplish all of this and still make it an exciting sequence for football fans to watch. The XFL is still working out the kinks and rules on this concept. The truth is that overtime games are very rare, especially in an 8-team league. The original XFL had 43 regular season and playoff games. Only one of those games resulted in overtime. The AAF played 8-weeks of play, resulting in 32 overall games. Only one of those games ended up in overtime. So, the likelihood is that the XFL could only have one or two games that would result in this overtime concept seeing the light of day.

The XFL is trying to walk a fine line of being different enough to get noticed, but still appear to be familiar. The idea is appealing to college and NFL fans, by trying to resemble the game of football that those groups love, while also trying to improve upon aspects of football that can be upgraded for the year 2020 and beyond, all the while using advanced technology to be the driving force behind all of it.  Change always produces resistance.  There was a time when people didn’t want 2-point conversions.  Many rule and presentation changes over the years were first met with skepticism and scrutiny.  While the XFL will be adopting ninety-percent of NFL rules, it’s the other ten-percent that could create hesitation for those who may consider following the league.

A lot of these concepts seem very exciting. When imagining the possibilities of what’s being reimagined, can the league pull it off? The attempt to increase action and plays and to make the game more exciting and evolved than it already is. The XFL’s goal is to make a great game even greater.  An ambitious mindset for sure, but everything about the league’s mission thus far has been just that.

Will the XFL’s big time from the beginning strategy pay off?

Vince McMahon and the XFL are clearly swinging for the fences right out the gate.

Big time money is being invested into the XFL. Hundreds of millions of dollars. ABC, FOX, ESPN and FS1 will be airing the league’s games. Two big time networks that produce NCAA Football and the NFL on a grand scale, have signed multi-year deals to be the broadcast homes/partners of the XFL. The league will debut in eight of the top twenty-one TV markets in the country. New York, LA, Dallas, Houston, Seattle, DC, Tampa and St. Louis. Big time money in big time cities on big time networks.

It’s becoming quite clear what the vision and design of XFL2020 is at this point, despite being labeled as such by most detractors. The XFL has no intention of being a minor league. They want to be what the USFL could have been , and they want to be what MLS has become. They are trying to be a powerful standalone sports league in the spring. The league’s partnerships and big-league football hires are evidence of just that.

Back in January 2018, when Vince McMahon announced the relaunch of the XFL, his announcement was met with great ridicule and skepticism. Why bring back a league that failed in such a spectacular fashion? Was there even a market for it, and who would support or be a part of it?

The latter question is being answered on a daily basis. This past week alone, saw XFL Dallas Head Coach/General Manager Bob Stoops hire Daryl Johnston as his Director of Pro Player Personnel, as well as hiring, Air Raid Inventor Hal Mumme as his offensive coordinator. Big time moves in Big D. This coming Monday, June Jones will be announced as the HC/GM of the XFL’s franchise in Houston. A big name in those parts, Jones is a great part of Houston pro-football history, especially from his time with the Houston Oilers and Gamblers.

The current XFL’s eight teams will now have five coaches with Head Coaching experience. The original XFL only had one coach with NFL Head Coaching experience in the late Ron Meyer. The eight original XFL Head Coaches were all quality coaches with backgrounds in NFL Europe and the NCAA, but for the most part, it was what you would expect from a “secondary league.” No one expected the current version of the XFL to attract Bill Belichick and Nick Saban, but it’s fair to state that the current group of coaches, collectively, are a very solid group, one that consists of a college football champion, Super Bowl champions and a multiple time CFL champion. In an upstart pro football league, this is a strong positive… getting accomplished coaches to buy in. It’s not an easy task in today’s world to get these types of coaches to believe and commit to a new league. Especially after what just happened with the AAF, and what has happened to countless other non-NFL football leagues.

When it comes to the XFL’s TV deal, most people assumed that the XFL would have a hard time getting any networks to air their games. With the new age of streaming, the feeling was that if all else failed, Vince McMahon would just put his games on his successful WWE Network. Some thought that perhaps, one of his cable partners like NBC Universal, would perhaps, as a favor, allow the league to air some games on USA network.

The last time Vince McMahon attempted to bring a football league onto the sports landscape. He wasn’t a billionaire three times over. NBC backed him and bought fifty-percent of the league. NBC parted ways with the NFL, and saw the original XFL as a cheaper and potentially rewarding alternative. By now, everyone knows how that story ended. NBC took their contractually obligated fifty-million dollars away from the XFL and went home after one season. McMahon’s other fledgling broadcast partners (UPN/TNN), tried to leverage a second season of the XFL against McMahon’s other property, the WWE. McMahon begrudgingly was forced to choose, and ended up shutting down the XFL.

Upstart leagues have a very hard time getting any exposure or TV time. The defunct United Football League tried desperately to get any network to air their games. They landed/settled on HD Net as their main TV home. There was always talk of the UFL ending up with a cable deal or even on the NFL Network. The UFL hoped to expand to more than just 4 or 5 teams. The thought was that it would happen, once the league got their long-awaited TV deal. It never came, and the league eventually folded, ending in what was the sports version of “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

Upstart leagues have to beg for TV time, or in the case of the AAF, pay for it. These types of leagues are desperate for any type of attention and exposure. Credit to the Alliance, they found a way onto television by hook or by crook (Reggie Fowler). As admitted on ESPN Radio by Bill Polian, the AAF rushed into the marketplace to get ahead of the XFL. When it came to exposure for their league, the AAF knew that they wouldn’t be able to hit a home run, so they settled for just getting on base. The problem was that they never drove those runners home. The entire league was left stranded on base, unable to finish their season. The AAF still owes CBS and the NFL Network millions of dollars. They paid to be on CBS, which ended up airing only one game all season. They also paid NFL Network to be on their network. It was a neat way of creating the appearance/perception that the NFL was backing them by airing their games. Sort of like paying Marshawn Lynch thousands in quarters, to pretend that he was a backer of the AAF on TV. The Alliance was not only paying for production costs and air time, they were paying the on-air talents like former NFL Head Coach Steve Mariucci. As reported by Sports Business Journal’s Daniel Kaplan, Mariucci was being paid 20k per game, plus air fare.

The XFL having their games on ABC and Fox every single week is a big deal. Just being associated with those networks, gives the league a great rub. Having all four weekly games on Fox, ABC, ESPN and FS1 is the kind of exposure/coverage that sports leagues crave. Particularly an upstart sports league, that doesn’t have an established fan base or track record. Despite it being a new remodeled version, the XFL comes to the game with some blemishes on its image and record. The league still has a lot to prove.

There are some drawbacks to the XFL’s television deal, and the positives and negatives go hand in hand. Being on big networks ups the stakes. One of the things that killed the original XFL, was their failing ratings by 2001 standards in Network Primetime. The league’s championship game was a low point and had just over 3 million viewers. Ironically, this was the same number of viewers the AAF had in their premiere game on CBS. Being on a big network like NBC was great for the original XFL, but the expectation level of producing weekly primetime ratings hurt the XFL greatly. The league was setting historic weekly primetime lows in the ratings back then. However, the TV ratings landscape was vastly different two decades ago than it is now.

The current XFL will still have pressure to produce good numbers on Fox and ABC. The lone positive, however, is that the league’s games will not be on in primetime. Save for two games late in the season in weeks 9 and 10, that will be on primetime on Fox, the XFL will be airing early afternoon games in most of their markets. The “late” games are scheduled for 5pm Eastern, which would be 2pm on the west coast and 4pm Central Time. The ratings will still be judged, but on a different scale than if the league was in primetime on ABC and Fox. Instead the XFL is going to be in the position of being a lead in for other network sports and programming. Instead of being those networks feature presentations. Having to work and schedule around ABC and Fox’s many sports leagues, may have benefitted the XFL in the short run. The truth is that prime time games might not have been available on a weekly basis, even if the league wanted it. If the XFL was a weekly primetime entity on network TV, they would be expected to produce big numbers.

The other drawback to the TV deal is that the XFL is not being paid a rights fee by the networks. TV money helps keep leagues afloat. The XFL doesn’t have that luxury in this case, nor should it have been expected coming off the heels of the AAF’s demise, and other leagues like it. Besides the exposure and potential weekly coverage, and endorsement of being partnered with Fox and ABC, what the XFL is getting is their production costs covered by the networks. This could amount to 400 thousand dollars or more per game. Production costs for season one can range anywhere from 17 to up to and over 20 million dollars. The XFL is not paying to be on the air and won’t have to pay for the on-air talent. The presentation and production will be top notch, with premiere production and on-air talent from Fox and ABC’s deep broadcasting talent pool. Talents who have great knowledge and experience calling college and NFL games like Tim Brando and Joel Klatt for example. The networks will treat the games and players like they are important. This is the type of respect that upstart football leagues have really struggled getting in the past. All of this outweighs the negative of not commanding a typical sports league rights fee.

Ultimately, the XFL could have attempted to play in smaller markets and venues, and avoid paying expensive leases, or high salaries to coaches, office/football personnel or players. The XFL also could have looked to secure a rights deal with a cable network or a streaming service. There are so many networks out there looking desperately to add live content. The league could have gone small, limited their risks and costs, and the goal could have been to survive until they can potentially grow over time. That’s clearly not the strategy here. Perhaps there is an argument for that type of approach.

The XFL is clearly swinging for the fences right out the gate. The league might strike out and is guaranteed to lose a significant amount of money in the early going, as all startups do when they are trying to get off the ground. From the sounds and looks of it, Vince McMahon is prepared to take those lumps early on. Lose big early and then win late. The game to them is 9-innings, and the plan is to keep swinging for the fences until they start scoring big.