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XFL confident its second act will prove a success and avoid same fate as AAF

World Wrestling Entertainment chairman Vince McMahon (Credit: XFL)

  • Spring season league making a return after failure of inaugural iteration in 2001
  • WWE chairman Vince McMahon putting $500m of his own money into project
  • Lessons learned from Alliance of American Football’s demise, says commissioner 

This is the XFL 2.0. Almost 20 years after the first iteration of the XFL folded after just one season, World Wrestling Entertainment chairman Vince McMahon is taking a calculated $500m (€450.7m) gamble that the spring season American football league will work a second time around.

Having been announced in January 2018, the rebooted XFL officially kicks off on February 8-9, the weekend after Super Bowl LIV at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium.

Initially, eight teams will compete over a 10-week regular season followed by play-off semi-finals on April 18-19 and a championship game on April 26. The inaugural teams have been split between East and West Divisions. The East is comprised of the DC Defenders, New York Guardians, St. Louis BattleHawks and Tampa Bay Vipers, while the West includes the Dallas Renegades, Houston Roughnecks, Los Angeles Wildcats and Seattle Dragons.

They will play at a number of noteworthy sports venues: MetLife Stadium, Globe Life Park in Arlington, TDECU Stadium, Dignity Health Sports Park, Dome at America’s Center, CenturyLink Field, Raymond James Stadium and Audi Field.

Teams will have 52-player rosters, with 46 activated on game day. Players were selected via a draft, for which there were approximately 1,100 invitees, followed by a mini-camp. There is also a “Team 9”, which consists of 40 players of varying positions who will stay in shape via practice and provide teams with injury replacements.

The single-entity XFL is run by Alpha Entertainment, a private entity McMahon established in 2017 to explore investments in the sports and entertainment area, and is based in Stamford, Connecticut. McMahon has pledged to spend $500m in the league’s first three seasons and he has sold approximately $400m worth of WWE stock in the past two years to help fund the effort.

The XFL teams and logos (Credit: XFL)

Will it prove a success? It is, of course, too early to say but the failure of the XFL in 2001 – a joint venture between the then World Wrestling Federation (now WWE) and NBC – and the spectacular crash of the rival Alliance of American Football (AAF) after just eight weeks in 2019 has led to understandable skepticism.

But there is significant evidence to suggest a gap exists in the market for the XFL to exploit. According to a report from consulting firm McKinsey & Company, which prompted the McMahon into action, there are 85 million football fans across the United States, of whom 40 million consider themselves diehards.

And it is hoped the current immense popularity of the National Football League will carry over into its off-season. The 2019 NFL regular season gained an average US television audience of 16.5 million, up five per cent from the year before and the second straight annual increase. Among the most-watched US TV shows in 2019, regardless of genre, NFL games accounted for all of the top 10, and 47 out of the top 50.

“I think we are seeing peak football right now,” XFL commissioner Oliver Luck told SportBusiness. “The game is so much better than it was in the [1980s] and [1990s]. It’s incredibly popular, it’s packaged so well, not just by the NFL but also by colleges and others. It’s become our national obsession, these stadiums seem to be our secular cathedrals.

“It’s been a lot of work up until this point, there is still a bunch of stuff we have to do, but I think we all feel pretty optimistic in terms of the opportunity that we all have collectively. With the support and resources that Vince has given us, we have a full tank of gas in our truck. This is a great opportunity and if we stay disciplined and build our brands, we have a pretty good shot even if the odds are probably stacked against us,” Luck said.

‘Powerful’ network TV coverage in US

The XFL is run by a distinguished and experienced front office, led by Luck, a former senior executive at the National Collegiate Athletic Association, who previously served as president of NFL Europe and also held senior roles at West Virginia University and Major League Soccer’s Houston Dynamo. Jeffrey Pollack, the former chief marketing and strategy officer with the NFL’s Los Angeles Chargers, is the XFL president and chief operating officer.

Luck admits that he had some doubts over the viability of the league when it was announced but was won over by McMahon’s vision for the project. “I was contacted by Vince’s people in April 2018. I sat with Vince, talked to him and realized how serious he was about this effort and that he learned lessons from the failed version, if you will, in 2001,” Luck said.

“I came in with a certain level of skepticism. I wanted to understand why he was doing this and what his expectations were for doing this. I love the game, I respect the game, and I didn’t want to be involved with a league that had gimmicks and was a little bit cheesy because the game matters to far too many people in this country to diminish it any form or fashion.

“We talked and the only way he could convince me was through his words. And all the expectations I had in terms of building this league and hiring the coaches I wanted, training camps, all those sorts of things, he’s been incredibly supportive of all these efforts.”

Luck says it was also a challenge to convince potential coaches that the rebooted XFL would not be like the first iteration, which was heavily criticized for being too gimmicky, racy and violent. But, Luck adds, once former Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops was appointed head coach and general manager of the Dallas Renegades in February 2019, it helped give the fledgling league credibility, which led to a domino effect of more appointments.

Former Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops gave the XFL credibility after being appointed the head coach and general manager of the Dallas Renegades (Credit: Getty Images)

According to Luck, McMahon is mainly involved in the business side of the operations, rather than the sporting side, but most major initiatives and decisions are run past him, such as the choices for team head coaches.

Ensuring significant reach, the league has secured multi-year broadcast agreements with ESPN/Disney and Fox. All the games will air on national television, with doubleheaders on Saturdays and Sundays. Twenty-five games will air on ABC or Fox, while the remainder will air on ESPN, ESPN2, FS1 and FS2. ABC will broadcast the first game, between the DC Defenders and Seattle Dragons, at Audi Field on Saturday, February 8, at 2pm ET.

According to The Washington Post, the XFL is neither receiving a fee for its broadcast rights nor paying any network to broadcast its games. The XFL is also gaining an international audience after ESPN announced that its ESPN Player platform will stream the start-up league’s games to subscribers in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

“Having those folks with us in this journey is very powerful. No start-up league has had this kind of visibility [before],” Luck says.

The league has also gained wider structural support with the hiring of Elevate Sports Ventures – a joint venture of the San Francisco 49ers, Harris Blitzer Sports and Entertainment, Ticketmaster, Live Nation and the Oakview Group – to help guide and support ticket sales, as well as 160over90, the recently rebranded marketing services arm of sports and entertainment group Endeavor, to a communications role, and Infront’s iX.co to develop and launch new league and team websites.

Meanwhile, the XFL has signed a multi-year partnership with sports data and technology company Genius Sports to protect the start-up league against the threats of improper and illegal sports betting.

The league is banking on affordable ticket prices to attract fans. Prices range from $20 to $100 per seat per game for all eight teams. There are additional benefits for founding season-ticket holders, including a VIP field pass for one home game, 25-per-cent discount on merchandise at XFL.com, and VIP experiences throughout the year.

In regards to attendance, the St. Louis BattleHawks have already sold 6,000 season tickets, the most in the league. The remaining anger against Stan Kroenke for taking the NFL Rams to Los Angeles is believed to have sparked sales locally. The team hopes to sell out the Dome at America’s Center, which will hold 27,500 for XFL games.

Learning from AAF’s dramatic demise

For an extended period, it appeared that the XFL would be competing for fans and media attention with the AAF. But the AAF, which was founded by Charlie Ebersol – the TV producer son of  veteran  sports media executive Dick Ebersol – spectacularly crashed midway through its inaugural season last year due to a lack of funding. This is an issue the XFL will not face, at least in the short-term, due to McMahon’s financial largesse.

Luck says the XFL has taken some key lessons from the AAF’s demise, namely that they should pay a premium for quarterbacks, who will largely dictate the quality of play on the field.

All AAF players were paid the same, on three-year contracts worth $250,000, rising incrementally from $70,000 in the first year, to $80,000 and then $100,000. Average XFL salaries for a full season (December-May) are reportedly $55,000, which includes a base salary, a bonus for being active on game days and a bonus for being on the winning team.

However, franchise quarterbacks – such as former Pittsburgh Steelers back-up Landry Jones – will earn significantly more than their teammates. According to Yahoo Sports, they will earn more than the NFL rookie minimum, which is $495,000 this season.

“Quarterback play is critical and the lesson was let’s really identify quarterbacks, let’s be specific and let’s offer them more money,” Luck says. “The AAF didn’t, we did.”

XFL quarterbacks (Credit: XFL)

The AAF began its inaugural season less than a year after being announced, which caused significant problems. With two years to prepare for its launch, Luck says the XFL has benefited immensely from its extended build-up time.

“One of the things I learned with previous experiences at NFL Europe, and you saw this with the AAF as well, you need time to put a team together,” Luck says. “You have to hire coaches, and then give them time to hire assistants. You then need to scout players and have training camps, practices. We want to come out week one, playing good, crisp football and that takes time.”

Innovative rules and regulations

In order to speed up play and add excitement for fans, the XFL has unveiled a series of innovative rules, including nine-point touchdowns and a shootout-style overtime.

Following a six-point touchdown, teams will have options for extra points worth one, two or three points. This includes a one-point scrimmage play from the two-yard line, a two-point play from the five-yard line or a three-point play from the 10-yard line. There is no option to kick an extra point.

If the defense is able to cause a turnover and return the ball to the opponent’s end zone, the resulting score is equal to the number of points the offence was attempting to score.

XFL rules – and some which didn’t make the cut (Credit: XFL)

Other rule tweaks include: the right to throw two forward passes on one play, providing the first throw doesn’t go past the line of scrimmage; a 25-second play clock that begins after the ball is spotted for the next play; a requirement for only one foot to be in bounds for possession; two one-minute timeouts per half; a dedicated Ball Spotting Official who will solely be responsible for quickly spotting the ball and getting a new ball after each play; and a running game clock that won’t stop after incomplete passes or when players go out of bounds, except the last two minutes of each half.

There will also be a soccer-style shootout in overtime, in which each team will get five single-play possessions from the five-yard line. If the game is still tied at that point, rotating possessions will continue until there is a winner.

The start-up spring season league initially had over 100 ideas for new rules, which were cut to 50 and then tested with players since last December. Among the rules rejected were eliminating punts and field goals.

Luck says: “We took what is already a great game and tried to make it a little bit better. We think the rationale behind the dozen or so changes is all solid and will lead to a fast-tempo, high-scoring game. We’re not infallible, we may have made a mistake with some of the rules, and if we made a mistake we’ll be happy to change it.

“We’re pretty confident that these changes will be good for our game, others may not adopt them and that’s fine.”

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