It’s been very quiet in the #XFL2020 world. The xfl.com website (warning: music automatically plays), along with alphaentllc.com, the website of the Alpha Entertainment parent company, have not been updated since they were launched on January 25. The associated social media platforms have not been updated since the stick figure cartoons dropped during the Super Bowl on February 4.
I followed the United Football League closely in the lead up to its inaugural season in Fall 2009, and one of the things that league desperately suffered from was a lack of buzz. Extended stretches of silence made it seem like they were allergic to getting anyone excited about their product, and they paid for it dearly when they finally took the field.
So, is a month without word from the XFL a cause for concern? At this point, no. If the XFL proved anything in 2001, it was that they could generate plenty of hype in a very short amount of time. Vince McMahon probably couldn’t generate as little anticipation as the UFL if he tried. We know that the work done on the XFL to date has been handled by WWE employees and contractors, and this is an extremely busy time for the company. Not only is it Wrestlemania season, as WWE builds to its biggest show of the year on April 8, but the company is also preparing to negotiate their next broadcast rights agreement this spring. Attention is elsewhere, and that’s understandable.
Meanwhile, the steps that need to be taken on the XFL front are not necessarily forward facing. The top priority is surely finding additional funding, followed by laying the parameters for selecting the home markets and starting to think about what makes sense in terms of broadcast partners. In addition, one of the league’s challenges — its association, fairly or unfairly, with the backlash to the anthem protests — is aided by a cooling off period. (More on that below.)
Top XFL-ish Stories
Dolphins, Texans embroiled in the anthem protest controversy
Two stories broke this week around the national anthem protests that forced NFL franchises to respond. First came a column that implied that the Houston Texans would avoid any free agent who had participated in an anthem protest, followed by news that the Miami Dolphins would require their players to stand for the national anthem. The former report was disputed by the Texans and the latter walked back by Dolphins.
The XFL’s vision for 2020 seems to be to present professional football stripped of all the things that people hate about the NFL, such as endless commercial breaks, too many penalties and stoppages of play, and players accused of domestic abuse. The controversy surrounding the anthem protests and subsequent backlash undoubtedly qualifies as emotionally draining, but as the NFL has seen, getting away from the issue is much easier said than done.
Vince McMahon generated a very unhelpful round of headlines after his awkward answer about the issue, and the league has wisely not touched the topic since. A best case scenario, from an XFL public relations perspective, would be that the NFL takes a hard line stance and forces the players to stand for the 2018 season, absorbing the heat themselves and relegating the issue to old news by 2020. At the rate things are moving, that seems very unlikely to happen. In lieu of that, the more this can be seen as an NFL-specific issue, the better for the XFL.
NFL Competition Committee working to revise catch rule
The XFL scored a cheap win during this year’s Super Bowl, releasing a cartoon mocking the NFL’s poorly-defined catch rule and seeing it pay off when the rule came into play during a pivotal moment in the 4th quarter.
The XFL surely couldn’t have hoped that this particular talking point would hold up until 2020, and indeed the NFL is working toward fixing it. The NFL Competition Committee has reviewed some of the more infamous non-catches and come to a consensus that the ones that seem to include “football moves” should be considered catches. Now comes the hard part: writing language that can match the eye test.
Everything Else Even Sort of Revelant
Forbes places Vince McMahon’s net worth at $1.8 billion.
Forbes released its list of the world’s billionaires list this week, and for the second straight year, Vince McMahon made the cut, coming in at a net worth of $1.8 billion. It represents a significant increase over the last Forbes’ valuation, which had him at $1.3 billion just a year ago. It’s that kind of bump that makes dropping a mere $100 million into the XFL seem like not that big a deal.
Pacific Pro announces partnership Adidas
The Pacific Pro Football League announced a footwear and apparrel partnership with Adidas, adding much-needed legitimacy to the new venture. Spearheaded by NFL agent Don Yee, Pacific Pro proposes paying players $50,000 right out of high school — very similar to the base salary the XFL offered in 2001 — and hopes to take the field in Summer 2019 with four teams based in Southern California. The XFL didn’t target college-eligible players in 2001, and there’s no reason yet to believe they have wavered on that stance. Pacific Pro, should it get off the ground, could change that dynamic.
The Spring League moves to a bigger venue in wake of Manziel signing
If you’re not familiar with the Spring League, just know that it’s not really a league, it’s a training camp for fringe NFL free agents. After drawing pitiful attendance in its first two incarnations, the league booked a 3,000 seat soccer stadium in Austin for April 2018. With the addition of Manziel, the Spring League has changed to a 11,000 seat high school football stadium, hoping that their headliner can justify the venue change. (They’re also still hoping to land Robert Griffin III.) For the XFL, it’s an interesting test case in the drawing power of a name player. For Austin, it’s an opportunity to prove that the city will support football in the spring with replacement-level players.
Ohio sues Columbus Crew to prevent relocation to Austin
Much more important to Austin’s chances at one day landing an XFL team is getting an MLS stadium built. Precourt Sports Ventures, the ownership group of the Columbus Crew, would be happy to do just that, provided that they can find a site in Austin and they can get out of Ohio. Regarding the former, things are starting to look up, as there appears to be mutual interest between ownership and the city in a site in North Austin. On the latter, things are getting ugly, as the Ohio Attorney General has sued the team and the league, using an untested statute put in place after the Cleveland Browns relocated following the 1995 NFL season. An MLS stadium in Austin, which wouldn’t be ready until the 2021 XFL season at the absolute earliest, would immediately make Austin an attractive option for the XFL. From Columbus’ perspective, the Crew’s departure would leave the 19,968-seat Mapfre Stadium completely available to an XFL team.
The CFL continues to make slow, steady progress in Halifax
Momentum continues to build around the CFL putting a tenth team in Halifax, Nova Scotia, as a strong ownership group is in place and the league and city appear to be more or less on the same page. It’s long been a dream of the CFL to add a 10th team in Atlantic Canada, which would balance the schedule, balance the conferences, and truly stretch the league from coast to coast. The CFL will be the XFL’s primary competition for coaches and players, although there’s little chance a CFL Halifax team would be operational in time to compete for either by 2020. Despite a recent and well-received town hall in Halifax, the lone missing piece is also the biggest: a stadium.
Redskins announce that the 1987 replacement players will get Super Bowl rings
Finally, the Washington Redskins announced that the 1987 replacement players will be awarded Super Bowl rings. I highly recommend the 30 for 30 documentary that covered the story; some of the best parts had to do with the efforts of GM Bobby Beathard to pull together talent off the street. The replacement players went 3-0 filling in for the NFL regulars during the strike, culminating in easily the greatest upset in replacement-level football history: a 13-7 victory on Monday Night Football over a Dallas Cowboys team that featured most of their NFL regulars, including Tony Dorsett and Randy White.