For all the change coming the XFL’s way, one of the constants appeared to be the schedule: eight teams, 10 weeks, and two rounds of playoffs, just as it was in 2001. The assumption that it would also kick off the week after the Super Bowl seemed safe.
“It will start end of January, beginning of February,” said Vince McMahon in the January 25 press conference that announced the league’s rebirth. This lined up perfectly with the original edition, which took the field for the first time on February 3, 2001 — the Saturday after Super Bowl XXXV.
McMahon further stated that the league would target Sundays, an unsurprising adjustment given the league’s much-publicized struggles on Saturday nights in 2001 and Sunday’s place as the traditional home of professional football. But days later, the league Twitter account teased the possibility of another tweak: the league playing the Sunday before the Super Bowl.
Games are being planned for Sundays, which means this time in 2020 you could be watching the XFL. #XFL2020
— XFL (@xfl2020) January 28, 2018
The potential implications are wide-ranging.
It would fight the label of “spring league”
Trading two weeks of January for two weeks of April might seem like a bad swap, but that nicer spring weather has the insidious drawback of just not feeling like football weather. Spring football has a strong association with college practices and a slew of failed professional leagues, and every week the XFL pushes into April, the more out of place pro football can seem.
This is clearly not lost on McMahon, who made a point to avoid the label of “spring league” at the January 25 press conference. “Well, it won’t be a spring league,” he said in response to a question from the Associated Press that used the term. “It will start end of January, beginning of February and play through. Not exactly a spring league.”
It would put the XFL on the same Sundays as the Pro Bowl and Super Bowl
Pushing their way into January means encroaching on the NFL’s footprint, putting Week 1 on the same Sunday as the Pro Bowl, and perhaps more interestingly, Week 2 on Super Bowl Sunday itself.
Playing on the Sunday before the Super Bowl is undoubtedly an opportunity, as football fans don’t have a game of consequence for the first Sunday in nearly five months. Those fans do have the Pro Bowl, and despite its reputation, NFL’s all-star game is still a television ratings monster. (The ABC/ESPN simulcast drew a combined 8.6 millions viewers in 2018). Staging games opposite the Pro Bowl will fuel a silly NFL vs. XFL headlines, and the XFL will be hard pressed to come out ahead in the battle for viewership. (Although as we’ll see, there’s a silver lining to depressing the Week 1 television ratings.)
As for Week 2: the obvious risk is being a complete afterthought on the biggest day of the American sports calendar. The potential benefit is getting to actually participate in what is now a de facto national holiday. To think about how that might work, let’s consider this year’s Super Bowl, which is scheduled to begin at 6:30 PM Eastern. The XFL could fill the traditional 1:00 PM time slot and, if they succeed in their quest of fitting a game into a two-hour broadcast, could even run a second set of games at 3:00 or 3:30 PM, giving the fans an hour or more to get home and enjoy the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, television viewers would have an alternative to wall-to-wall Super Bowl pregame coverage.
It could help muddle the narrative around television ratings
As it was with the original, the XFL’s most difficult will be one of perception. Toward that end, it will be critical to avoid the exact same sequence of events that unfolded in 2001: after debuting with fantastic television ratings in Week 1, the viewership sharply declined for three straight weeks, establishing a pattern and a narrative that would never be reversed in any meaningful way.
The XFL desperately needs to avoid that same initial trend. It might not be possible; the novelty is necessarily going to wear off. But having very different circumstances for each of the first three weeks (Week 1 pre-Super Bowl, Week 2 on the Super Bowl, and Week 3 post-Super Bowl) increases the chance that things unfolding differently.
It would align the XFL season with WWE’s Road to Wrestlemania
It’s important to note that there is not a perfect overlap between the two fan bases. Wrestling fans have a complicated relationship with Vince McMahon, and many will be actively rooting against the XFL. But to the extent that the fan bases do overlap, you could not build a better schedule. The XFL would kick off on the same Sunday as the Royal Rumble and stage its semifinals on the Sunday of Wrestlemania; the latter is the company’s biggest event of the year, and the former is arguably the second biggest. The stretch in between is known as “The Road to Wrestlemania,” and fan interest and approval (and thus goodwill toward McMahon) is generally at its highest as WWE puts forth its best creative efforts as it tries to sell its biggest show.
This is complete speculation, but it’s imaginable that the XFL could stage its semifinals in the Wrestlemania city itself (not yet announced for 2020, but Atlanta and Miami are among the rumored possibilities). Wrestlemania is a destination event for wrestling fans, as they travel from all over the globe to attend not just Wrestlemania itself, but also an NXT Takeover event on Friday, the WWE Hall of Fame induction ceremony on Saturday, and the weekly Raw and Smackdown shows that follow on Monday and Tuesday. The XFL could try to squeeze another buck out of that captive audience on Sunday afternoon, which also means not having to count on the local home markets to fill a stadium for a sixth time.
It would free the players to participate in more of NFL off-season workouts
The final advantage is that it nearly clears the path for the players to make it to the first days of NFL off-season workouts, which will absolutely be important when it’s time to start recruiting players. By and large, the XFL’s player pool will consist of players that hope to one day make it to the NFL and many will certainly be good enough to take part in off-season workouts and mini camps.
In 2018, NFL teams with new head coaches (7 of the 32 teams) start off season workouts on Sunday, April 2, and teams with returning head coaches start workouts on Sunday, April 16. A theoretical XFL season that started on Sunday, January 28 would end its regular season on Sunday, April 2 and stage its championship game on Sunday, April 16.
There’s a lot of ways to slice that, but one way is this: 80% of the league’s players would be completely done with their XFL obligations prior to the first day of off season workouts for 78% of NFL teams. For a league ostensibly focused on quality of play, that’s a powerful sales pitch.