Five thoughts on the XFL team brands

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The XFL crossed a major milestone on August 21, revealing the names, colors, and logos for its eight teams.

Branding is hard

In the lead up to the unveiling of the XFL identities, a friend asked me if I was excited. I told him I felt anxious. A bad brand can hurt the cause much more than a great brand can help it, so the XFL has about to cross through a necessary threshold that contained more risks that rewards.

Branding is an incredibly difficult and unforgiving exercise. Quality is highly subjective and the public is extremely opinionated. Most brand rollouts result in some level of public backlash. The challenges are multiplied when you’re doing eight teams at once, and you have to consider a brand not just on its own merits but where it might fit in with a range of other potential brands that make up the league. It’s one of the reasons I once advocated for splitting the work between local designers.

And that’s just on the design front. A sports designer recently told me, “the league officials aren’t picking the names; the lawyers are.” Trademark law is a messy, complicated business — we know it prevented AAF San Antonio from using “Defenders.” As an example of the hurdles the XFL faced, look no further than Seattle, where the future NHL team had already trademarked 13 possibilities (including Seattle Kraken, my preference for the XFL team) in an effort to keep their options open. It’s easy to come up with names that we prefer, but it’s hard to evaluate what was even available to the XFL.

This was a lackluster effort

Still, with all these caveats, with all my measured expectations, it was hard not to feel disappointment.

Reaction on social media was predictably savage, but all my in person conversations have been, at best, lukewarm. The names range from hollow (what’s the difference between a Defender and a Guardian?) to low rent (BattleHawks); the logos from underdeveloped (Vipers) to overbuilt (Roughnecks).=. As the XFL measures itself against the AAF’s progress from a year ago, I think this is the first time where the XFL has not clearly been a class above.

I have a lot of one-off complaints, but no single decision was more violently frustrating than to give Houston the name Roughnecks (a colloquialism for an oil rig worker) and the logo of an oil derrick, but then give the primary color of the old Houston Oilers to the Dallas Renegades. (Meanwhile, the Renegades are playing in the old home of the Texas Rangers, whose colors of red, white, and blue are now being worn by the Houston Roughnecks.) It’s such a bizarre decision that I can’t help but wonder if someone mistyped or misread an email at one point and no one made the correction.

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The Roughnecks logo with the Renegades’ colors. How hard is this?

It’s even more bewildering when you remember that a) the XFL once teased an Oilers look, b) Oliver Luck snuck Columbia blue into the Houston Dynamo’s logo when he was that team’s president, and c) Oliver Luck told University of Houston communications students that he was partial to Columbia blue for XFL Houston’s colors. This was not an unreasonable expectation.

The only thing I can come up with is that it was nixed by the legal department, as the XFL is perhaps already on thin ice with such obvious references to the old NFL team. But that still wouldn’t explain why you would give the color to the other team in the state.

A lackluster effort might be OK

I certainly was hoping for more, but it’s important to keep in mind the XFL’s top priority with the branding: don’t embarrass ourselves. I see some parallels between naming a team and naming a child. It’s much more important to avoid something stupid than it is to come up with something brilliant.

This is especially true for the XFL, which carries the weight of the original XFL’s infamous missteps. The current XFL’s leadership believes (rightly, in my opinion), that the original’s failure was one of media relations, and there’s no doubt that the league’s branding played a key role in that death spiral. Names like Xtreme, Maniax, and Hitmen were easy targets for pundits who were eager to see the league crash and burn. As today’s XFL attempts to get on its feet, it again faces plenty of people openly rooting for failure, now armed with social media accounts.

So playing it safe makes sense. These brands’ greatest crime is being boring, but that ensures that none (save perhaps BattleHawks) are even interesting enough to be used as a weapon against the league.

There are some legitimate bright spots

I know this all sounds pretty negative, but there were some things I really liked:

  • I’m relieved the league went with the colors of the city flag rather than the USA flag for the D.C. team. Red and white with black as an accent will mesh nicely with the backdrop of Audi Field.
  • Wildcats is a classic sports name. It’s not sexy, but it will age well.
  • I like the concept of using a gargoyle theme for New York and an oil theme for Houston. Execution may not have been perfect, but logos and even colors can always be tweaked or replaced over time.
  • The green/yellow color scheme can work for Tampa, evoking the old USF Bulls logo and the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
  • The BattleHawk wings should look fantastic on a football helmet.
  • I appreciate that the league didn’t overthink the colors or name for Seattle (Fury, Force, Surge, and Wild were also trademark). It’s probably the most well-rounded brand of the eight.

I was also impressed with the roll out itself, which included an online simulcast between XFL.com, ESPN.com, and FoxSports.com. Coverage from national media was robust and even-handed. I was especially glad to see the warm public welcome the league lined up from some of the other major sports teams in town. (For example, the D.C. team received welcome tweets from the Capitals, Wizards, D.C. United, and University of Maryland.) This kind of stuff will go a long way in a crowded sports city. The media relations team is doing an outstanding job.

The uniforms are going to add a lot

Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that we still haven’t seen the most important piece of the puzzle: the uniforms. The undisputed best brand of the original XFL was the Las Vegas Outlaws, and while it’s a strong name with a fine logo, it’s the uniform that pulled it all together. Hopefully the 2020 uniforms can similarly make these brands more than the sum of their parts.

Until next time!

XFL Watch: From A(AF) to Z(orn)

As the AAF deals with a myriad off the field issues, the XFL hires two more coaches.

It was a wild week for the AAF.  First, Tum Dundon (owner of the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes) was announced as the new lead investor in the league, with $250 million committed. Then, news broke that the league had to push back payroll (they blamed a glitch in switching systems) and, depending who you believe, may or may not have missed it entirely had the money not come in. It was later clarified that Dundon hadn’t actually put in $250 million, but rather that is the maximum he could invest if the AAF were to “rapidly expand.” From interviews, and he sounds like a fun guy who hasn’t totally grasped what he’s bought.

On top of all of that, the original founder was sued by his old business partner, who says he had a handshake deal to be a co-founder before being forced out. The legal filing revealed that the league that would become the AAF went to Vince McMahon and asked for the rights to the XFL name in exchange for a small stake in the league. McMahon declined and instead decided to restart the XFL himself.

Oh, and the Orlando Apollos are now bussing to Georgia for practice because they weren’t able to secure workers’ compensation insurance in Florida, and the Atlanta Legend’s quarterback coach and play caller quit the team two days before the team’s first home game.

In the midst of all of this was Week 3. The games were OK. Reported attendance ticked down; television ratings ticked up, all of which I guess only matters to the extent that it encourages or discourages Dundon to continue funding the league.

Meanwhile, the XFL hired two more coach/GMs. Jim Zorn was tabbed to lead the Seattle team. From what I can tell, the hire been well-received by the local media, who remember him fondly as a Seahawks quarterback. For me though, his press conference brought back strong memories of his time with the Redskins. He seems like a nice guy, but he’s just so corny and spacey. If it works, it works. But I think I’d be chasing more serious people for these super important jobs.

For D.C., the league hired Pep Hamilton. He’s been an offensive coordinator in college at Stanford and, most recently, Michigan under Jim Harbaugh, as well as in the NFL with the Colts and Browns, where theoretical XFL target Robert Griffin III just happened to be one of his quarterbacks. At 44 years old, Hamilton is by far the youngest coach hired by either the AAF or the XFL to date, hopefully signaling that the XFL isn’t looking at their league as a part time job.

My hope for the D.C. team — which I knew was far-fetched — was to hire Paul Johnson, the old Georgia Tech and Navy coach, and run the triple-option. The more I watch the AAF, the more I think that offense would dominate at this level. It’s hard to defend on its own, but you also get to target first-rate option-style players rather than third-rate NFL-style players.

XFL Watch: Observations from the Alamodome

Spurrier dials up the offense, the AAF’s no extra point rule, and a great George Allen anecdote.

My fiancée and I made the drive from Austin to San Antonio on Sunday for the San Antonio Commanders-Orlando Apollos game.  Orlando erased a 12-point deficit and ended up winning 37-29. The Steve Spurrier-coached Apollos are as aggressive as you would expect on offense, which makes for a fun game to watch. This is completely pulled out of my ass, but until the XFL announces a coach for their Tampa Bay team, I will wonder if they will try to get Spurrier to jump leagues.  He is close with XFL Dallas’ Bob Stoops, who was Spurrier’s defensive coordinator for the University of Florida’s 1996 National Championship.

The upper deck of the Alamodome wasn’t opened, but the lower bowl was probably 80% full.  Attendance was announced at 29K; I had estimated it at 25K. Either way, a good crowd and an impressive atmosphere.  San Antonio had the benefit of hosting all eight AAF teams for training camp, which gave the team a local presence and the media easy access.  The XFL might want to think about keeping as many teams in their home cities as is possible for their camp.

The other AAF cities aren’t doing nearly as well.  Reported attendances for Week 2 was 20,019 for San Diego, 17,319 for Birmingham, and 11,980 for Memphis.  All of those looked about 5K too high to me based on what I saw on television. I’ll never understand why they didn’t choose more appropriately-sized stadiums; only Atlanta’s stadium — the old Turner Field that’s been retrofitted for football — is what I would consider “right-sized” with a capacity of 24,333.  

Watching football without an extra point is weird.  You see a scored of 12-6 and it feels like a field goal game, even though it would be 14-7 with extra points.  An idea I’m playing with: 7 points flat for a touchdown. You can gamble one point for a conversion try from the two-yard line, which is effectively the two-point conversion as we know it.  You make it, you get 8 points. You miss, you get 6 points. But in addition, you can gamble 2 points for a try from the 12-yard line. If you make it, you get 9 points. But if you miss, you only get 5 points.  Genius, or merely brilliant?

I recently finished Jeff Pearlman’s Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL. My favorite stories are all about what a lunatic George Allen was.  He coached the Chicago Blitz in 1983, but Chicago and Arizona ended up swapping teams for the 1984 season so that the owner could be closer to his home.  Everyone — players, coaches, office staff — changed cities. When Allen’s team vacated their Chicago offices, he took literally everything, down to the light bulbs.  Anything with the Blitz logo on it that he couldn’t use in Arizona, like stationary, he had destroyed or thrown away rather than leave it for the incoming people. That’s how obsessed he was with winning.

Who is the AAF serving by restricting defensive player movement?

“You’ve got to think, most of the offensive linemen in our league, they haven’t seen complex schemes before.”

It’s really how it’s going to be the same that makes it different. Everyone that’s tried to do this before us has tried to reimagine the game or do whacky stuff. They didn’t focus on the thing that matters the most: quality football.

That was AAF CEO and Co-Founder Charlie Ebersol during Super Bowl week, answering a question on NFL Network about what will set the AAF apart from past leagues. As the XFL has marketed itself around a “reimainged” game, the AAF’s rhetoric has drifted in the opposite direction: we’re going to deliver an NFL-like product.

So I was surprised to read a full list of the rule changes in an article by Commercial Appeal’s Jason Munz. Among the changes are the following that restrict defensive movement.

  • On defense, no more than five players may rush on passing plays.
  • Players that line up on the line of scrimmage are designated as one of the five players eligible to rush, regardless of whether they rush or not.
  • No defensive player may rush from a position of more than two yards outside the widest offensive lineman and more than five yards from the line of scrimmage (defensive pressure box). The exceptions would be play-action or run-pass option plays and if the ball leaves the tackle box.
  • Any player who aligns on the line of scrimmage either prior to or at the snap is designated as one of the five players regardless of whether he rushes.
  • The penalty for “illegal defense” carries a 15-yard penalty.

The AAF has been keeping this close to the vest, for good reason. Far from a small tweak, restricting defensive movement fundamentally changes the balance between offense and defense. Offense gets to decide when the play starts, but is limited in how they can line up and move. Defense has to react to the snap, but is able to move their players as they see fit.

So why make the change? To his credit, AAF Head of Football Development Hines Ward provided a surprisingly candid answer.

You’ve got to think, most of the offensive linemen in our league, they haven’t seen complex schemes before. We want to be able to evaluate our guys and protect our quarterbacks, while also maintaining the integrity of the game. We didn’t want to overload blitz where we have a corner or a safety coming off the back side where an offensive lineman may just totally miss and they’ve got a free run at our quarterbacks. Maybe year 2, year 3 we can make some changes down the road. But in year 1, let’s just see if they can play and block man-on-man, one-on-one.

The key word here is “evaluate.” As in, we want NFL scouts to be able to evaluate our players.

When the AAF was unveiled, the Ebersol explained that the name and the three stars on the logo represented an alliance between the players, the fans, and the sport. On the eve of its inaugural game, the game is being fundamentally altered, player deficiencies are ostensibly the reason, and it’s being done for the sake of another league.

Ep 4: Will the fans turn out for the Alliance’s Week 1?

TBT’s 2019 format, Pacific Pro’s confusing proposition, and Week 1 AAF predictions.

After months of hype, it’s time to see if fans are ready to buy what the Alliance is selling. Join Mike Brantley (@MikeBrantley_YJ) and Mike Sherman (@MikeShermanInfo) for a discussion of outlaw sports teams and leagues.

Show Highlights

  • Praise for Oliver Luck’s framing of the XFL’s position in the football ecosystem
  • The Basketball Tournament (TBT) unveils its 2019 format
  • Game and attendance predictions for the Alliance’s opening weekend

Show Lowlights

  • Mike Brantley’s feud with Trent Richardson deepens
  • The two of us getting the Alliance’s name wrong a combined three times
  • Mike Brantley’s dog making noise in the background

Thanks for listening!

Ep 3: Would you buy XFL season tickets from this man?

XFL news and rumors, a BIG3 naming contest, the best and worst developments of the week.

This is among the questions not outsourced to Ice Cube on the third episode of the Outlaw Sports Podcast. Join Mike Brantley (@MikeBrantley_YJ) and Mike Sherman (@MikeShermanInfo) for a discussion of outlaw sports teams and leagues.

Show Highlights

  • A look at the XFL’s moves on its one-year anniversary
  • Mike Brantley’s inspired suggestion for a BIG3 team name
  • The best and worst news of the week

Show Lowlights

  • Cheap shots at indoor soccer
  • Liberal use of other people’s content
  • The sinking realization that scaling back on run length isn’t corresponding to an increase in quality

Thanks for listening!

Ep 2: Why is the best QB on the Commanders playing WR?

BIG3’s Season 3, XFL penalty metrics, and a lot of nervous fretting over the AAF

These questions, and many more, are inadequately addressed in the second episode of the Outlaw Sports Podcast. Join Mike Brantley (@MikeBrantley_YJ) and Mike Sherman (@MikeShermanInfo) for a discussion of outlaw sports teams and leagues.

Show Highlights

  • The implications of Jon Kitna leaving the AAF
  • The BIG3’s big plans for their third season
  • A look at the XFL’s goals for penalty administration

Show Lowlights

  • A discussion my fiancee describes as “repetitive”
  • Mike Sherman skipping half of the BIG3 news
  • No one wishing the listeners a happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Thanks for listening!