XFL explores dropping the facemask

The XFL is toying with the idea that taking away the facemask will force a safer, if perhaps bloodier, style of play. Would it work? And would fans watch?

The XFL’s parent company, Alpha Entertainment, recently sent out a market research survey to evaluate potential ideas for the league. Wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer provided a summary of the contents in the May 13 edition of his subscription-only Wrestling Observer Newsletter, which in turn was synthesized by Deadspin’s David Bixenspan as part of a broader XFL update. Underlines are mine:

As promised, there are various ideas to speed up the game, which include no kickoffs, no timeouts, a 20-second play clock, the game clock only stopping for a change of possession, and fewer flags. One potential tagline for the league listed in the survey was “warp-speed football reinvented,” … No more facemasks on helmets, an innovation that the league’s brass believes will make tackles safer. … New, allegedly safer helmets … no extra point kicks, only plays similar to the two-point conversion … Cash prizes for fans who most accurately call the same plays as the players in an XFL app during games … Team fan clubs that get a special section at the home stadium, can vote on jersey designs and team awards, and have access to pre/post-game meet and greet events. … More official team/league sponsored events and vendor booths/trucks during tailgate parties.

It is hard for those of us who grew up playing and watching football with facemasks to imagine the game without it, but the NFL was in business for over three decades before use of the facemask became widespread in the mid-1950s. Football traces its history back to 1869, meaning that it has still spent more of its history without the facemask than with it. Continue reading “XFL explores dropping the facemask”

The AAF and the importance of broadcast revenue

“For the first time in recent history you’re going to see a league that isn’t predicated on a huge media deal,” says the AAF’s Charlie Ebersol. What does that mean, exactly?

AAF CEO and Co-Founder Charlie Ebersol was recently interviewed by Geoff Calkins of Memphis’ The Commercial Appeal. The answers were among the more insightful given by a league whose officials have generally stuck to a well-crafted script. All underlines are mine:

Q: Memphis has a history of success with spring football leagues, but the leagues themselves don’t have a history of success. Why is this different?

A: A couple reasons. For the first time in recent history you’re going to see a league that isn’t predicated on a huge media deal. So in the past, you look at the history of the two attempts that really had a shot at working and they both got killed because their television partner a) had a short-term deal, whereas we have a long term deal, and b) were not built around fan interaction. What you’ll see is that we are putting the power in the fans’ hands. Had it been in the fans’ hands 17 or 18 years ago, in the previous iteration of the spring league, the league would still be around. They were averaging 20-25,0000 fans a game, which is an enormous number relative to what all other sports do.

When Ebersol says “the two attempts that really had a shot at working,” he’s referring to the United States Football League (USFL) of the mid-1980s and the XFL of 2001. He’s right that the USFL averaged 25,627 fans and the XFL 23,410, both of which outstrip today’s NBA (a league-record 17,978 in 2017-18), NHL (17,446), and Major League Soccer (22,113 in 2017).

Continue reading “The AAF and the importance of broadcast revenue”

Which Florida city will get an Alliance team?

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Jay Gruden led the Orlando-based Florida Tuskers in the 2010 UFL season.

Charlie Ebersol has held back on announcing the Alliance of American Football’s eight cities for the inaugural season, instead planning to unveil that information beginning in April with the hopes of staying visible. However, a number of clues were provided at the Facebook Live Q&A that followed the opening press conference, and the most concrete came from Ebersol himself:

Each team will have the ability to take an allocation from the players that play in their region first and foremost, so our Florida team, for example, will pull from the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Miami Dolphins, the players that played there, that established themselves, as well as the collegiate players at University of Miami and Florida State, etc. Each team will have four NFL teams that are in their “region,” and then they’ll also have college teams in that area.

If you’re going to give on away one home state for free, the Sunshine State was a good choice. As the Alliance seeks to create a national presence, Florida is an obvious building block, and there are enough qualified cities that just naming the state doesn’t quite confirm anything.

Continue reading “Which Florida city will get an Alliance team?”

XFL still moving forward in wake of Alliance announcement

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Apparently the Alliance’s design team are big fans of the Drew Bledsoe-era Buffalo Bills.

We still know very little about the exact relationship between Vince McMahon’s XFL and Charlie Ebersol’s Alliance, but all the indications are that the XFL is still moving forward despite the latter’s splashy opening press conference this week. The XFL’s media relations team has continued to be in communication with the press, including XFL Watch, behind the scenes, and issued a “no comment” to ESPN’s Darren Rovell just today.

David Bixenspan, who has been thoroughly if cynically covering the story since the beginning, published an article on Deadspin that floats the theory that Charlie Ebersol has been working on the Alliance for nearly three years, and may have used the 30 for 30 documentary as a way to move those plans forward.

What exactly were Charlie Ebersol’s intentions in making the XFL documentary? Was it to examine one of his father’s most maligned creations, or was it to whet the public’s appetites for a “new XFL” and how a revival could be done right? Was what otherwise appeared to be a journalistic endeavor actually something more like a means to an end for the AAF, or was Ebersol’s closeness to the subject matter a convenient elision of his journalistic obligations?

I think that’s far fetched. The original citation for the three-year timeline came from a former WWE writer quoting a Washington Post story. The online version of the story currently doesn’t contain a reference to a three-year timeline, and at the opening press conference, Ebersol referenced a 14-month timeline, effectively saying he started on the league in earnest right after the 30 for 30 dropped. A much more plausible explanation is that the process of making the documentary inspired Ebersol to give it another shot. McMahon likely heard about Ebersol’s plans, which in turn inspired him to get back in the game as well, and pushed him to make premature announcement to get out ahead of Ebersol.

 

XFL retains former Fox media exec, Virginia Beach wants a team, and the new Arena CBA

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The Virginia Destroyers won the 2011 UFL Championship in the Virginia SportsPlex.

As we start to wrap our heads around a world that includes both the XFL and the new Alliance of American football, I wanted to run through news I’ve been chewing over before Tuesday’s bombshell announcement.

XFL retains Lou D’Ermilio LOUD Communications

The XFL has hired Lou D’Ermilio to provide communication services, according to a recent story by the WY Daily. D’Ermilio spent over two decades in communications and media relations for Fox Sports, leaving in 2016 and starting LOUD Communications, which he describes as “a boutique sports communications firm providing strategic, personalized, senior level communications services.” It would be dangerous to read too much into his ties to Fox Sports, but it’s worth noting that there’s a lot of chatter around WWE moving from NBC Universal to Fox Sports after the current broadcast rights agreement expires in 2019.

Virginia Beach stadium lobbies for XFL team

The same WY Daily story included some quotes from Chuck Thornton, the managing partner of the company that operates the Virginia Beach Sportsplex, which hosted the UFL’s Virginia Destroyers in 2011 and 2012.

“We think we could be a good fit for the XFL, … We haven’t been contacted, but we have tried to reach out to them through some back channels to some people we know. … We could’ve sold 20,000-25,000 seats [for the Destroyers]. It really showed how much of a football town we are.”

The fact that they’re publicly lobbying for an XFL team likely means that they never even engaged in a conversation with Alliance. I’m not surprised. It’s true that the Destroyers drew relatively well, but the stadium is too small (it was expanded to ~15,000 seats for the Destroyers) and has a sheen on the playing surface that makes it look terrible on television. Even if the stadium weren’t an issue — Norfolk’s Foreman Field would work in a pinch — the media market is too small and carries too little prestige nationwide to make sense for the first round of teams.

Arena Football League finalizes new collective bargaining agreement

The Arena Football League will indeed move forward with their four-team, everyone-makes-the-playoffs season after finalizing a new collective bargaining agreement with the players union. Exact terms weren’t announced, but it seems players salaries will be boosted $1,500-2,000 a game, players will earn $350 a week during training camp, and all players will enjoy full healthcare.

The money is supposedly about twice what they earned last season, but it’s still far from what the XFL figures to pay. In 2001, XFL players earned a base of $4,500 a week (quarterbacks earned $5,000 and kickers $3,500) and could earn a $2,500 bonus for a regular season win and $7,500 for a semifinal win. The league champions split a $1,000,000 prize, which came out to roughly $25,000 per player.

Where does the Alliance announcement leave the XFL?

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Vince McMahon and Dick Ebersol teamed up to form the XFL in 2001. Barring another development, Vince’s new XFL and Charlie Ebersol’s Alliance of American Football will compete head to head in the coming years.

In a swerve that Vince McMahon would have been proud to script, Charlie Ebersol, son of Dick Ebersol and director of the critically acclaimed XFL 30 for 30, announced the formation of the Alliance of American Football, which will launch in 2019 with a near exact copy of the XFL’s stated game plan. For a complete rundown of the Alliance, I recommend this story from Variety. But plenty of unanswered questions remain.

Did Vince know this was coming?

This is by far the biggest and most fascinating question. On the one hand, it’s hard to fathom that that longtime family friend of the Ebersols wouldn’t have known. Charlie Ebersol obviously put a lot of work in behind the scenes, raising money and picking the brains of people that can help him. If you’re doing due diligence into starting a football league, why on earth would you not talk to the family friend who ran one himself?

On the other hand, is that less credulous than Vince McMahon re-launching the XFL against a direct competitor using the exact same business plan who will have beaten him to market by a full year? Neither makes sense. But one, apparently, must be true.

What does this mean for the XFL?

My first reaction was that the XFL packs up shop. The margin of error is so slim and the cost of failure is so high to try to execute this in the same space. Vince has barely invested anything into the venture so far, and it stands to reason that most WWE people would be more than happy to see the idea die.

But Vince is a stubborn guy, and competition certainly brought out the best in him as a wrestling promoter. For all we know, getting word that someone else was going to execute his vision is exactly what pushed him to try again in the first place. If that’s the case, it’s going to set the stage for an absolutely fascinating battle. Forget XFL vs. NFL talk, which was always just hype. The XFL vs. The Alliance is a battle that could literally play out on the gridiron.

Who is in a better position to succeed?

Ebersol put on a very slick and impressive show yesterday, but unlike the XFL, who we know has $100 million in the bank, we heard little in terms of specifics on funding. We know he has major investors; we don’t know how much they’ve committed. We know he has a television deal with CBS; we don’t know how much, or even if, they’re paying for the broadcast rights. In the end, both the Alliance and the XFL will be exactly as serious as the amount of money they’re prepared to lose.

What’s next for both leagues?

The Alliance is going to be rolling out cities, coaches, and venues over the next two months. The city selections are arguably the most important decisions a league can make, so we’ll get a sense very quickly of both how smart the Alliance really is and also whether there are enough quality markets left on the table for the XFL to enter the fray. We gleaned from comments at the Facebook Live Q&A that there will be a team in the west and the south. We also know that there will be a team in Florida — whether that’s the same team as the southern team was not clear.

Meanwhile, WWE’s Wrestlemania takes place on April 8. The week beforehand is a media blitz for the company, and we will surely get a sense of whether Vince is going to press forward or not. Before a WWE press conference on Friday, the XFL promotional video was playing on screen, so the plan was still to make a go of it before the Alliance press conference. We’ll find out in the coming weeks whether or not that has changed.

Could international cities be among the XFL’s eight?

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The London Monarchs and Barcelona Dragons face off in the World League of American Football, which later became NFL Europe.

As the weeks continue to mount without any updates from the XFL itself, most of the chatter about the league, at least on Twitter, has been about the location of the eight teams. McMahon offered few hints at the opening press conference, saying that “all cities are on our radar,” and brushing aside specific questions about Pittsburgh and San Diego. A more intriguing answer came in response to a question about international television rights: “By simplifying the rules, I think it makes the XFL a more global friendly environment.”

When trying to think this through from the outside, the most important thing to understand is that in terms of being a money-making entity, the XFL isn’t really a football league. It’s a broadcast property. This is driven home when you listen to how Vince McMahon talks about the league: faster play, no halftime, easier to understand rules, and especially, a two-hour game. These are all changes that are designed to produce a better television product, not necessarily a better football game.

So when considering whether City A or City B makes more sense for the league, it’s not just a matter of which city can draw fans and provide support at the gate. It’s also a matter of how well that market can draw television viewers worldwide, how the stadium and crowd will look on television, and how that city can increase the value of the broadcast rights.

The advantages to looking outside the United States are obvious: you can better penetrate outside markets with a team in the country. There’s nothing stopping the XFL from selling its broadcast rights in Canada regardless, but the league will be a much more valuable property to Canadian broadcasters with a Canadian team (or two) in the league.

The downsides are not insignificant. Doing business in another country adds a layer of cost. Travel is more expensive and, depending on the country, scheduling can become much trickier. The XFL has also selected a relatively quiet period in the U.S. sports calendar that does not necessarily translate internationally.

What won’t work?

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A huge crowd turned out for Japan’s Rice Bowl. Despite the game’s popularity, the time zone difference makes landing an XFL team unrealistic.

Before we get to the international cities that might make sense, we can eliminate most of the world. Anywhere without a reasonable interest in American football is a non-starter, as the league needs to be able to play in front of strong crowds to create a strong broadcast.

Regions with too great a disparity in time zone are also unworkable from a broadcast perspective, so we can cast aside otherwise intriguing options like Japan, where the game has achieved considerable popularity: Nearly 23,000 fans came out to watch this last season’s X Bowl, the country’s professional championship game, and 34,500 showed up to watch the Rice Bowl, which pits the X Bowl champion against the Japanese college champion.

The most qualified candidate that likely won’t earn serious consideration for Year 1 is Mexico. The proximity to the United States makes scheduling painless, and the NFL has been putting in a lot of work in the country to grow the popularity of the sport. Most recently, the Raiders and Patriots played a regular season game in front of over 77,000 in Stadium Azteca in Mexico City.

Despite its qualifications, what will most likely hold the Mexico back is the relatively instability and McMahon’s unfamiliarity with the country’s business landscape. WWE runs shows in Mexico, but it’s not a stronghold, despite its proximity. There was actually a lot of chatter around Monterrey landing a UFL franchise before that league’s 2009 kickoff, which fizzled out after cartel violence destabilized the region. For a startup league like the XFL, there are probably too many challenges for it to make sense initially.

What could work?

First, there’s a limit to how many international cities the XFL would likely be able to start with in 2020. The priority is establishing a foundation in the United States, and that likely requires no fewer than six American teams. That allows the league to place a team in the north and south of the east coast, west coast, and fly-over states, creating a national brand.

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The Argonauts won the 2017 Grey Cup despite league-worst attendance. Would the XFL be able to generate interest in Toronto?

Within this framework, one viable option is going into Canada. Most of the country speaks English, there are no scheduling challenges, and WWE has a long history of operating successfully in the country. Toronto was on the XFL’s short list in 2001, with the league going so far as to engage in talks with the Skydome. Vancouver’s recently renovated B.C. Place is probably the best stadium situation in the country for the XFL, with a canopy system that allows capacity to be reduced from 54,500 to 22,120. Montreal averaged over 28,000 fans in the World League of American Football, although the language barrier, the return of the Alouettes to the CFL in 1996, and the over sized nature of Olympic Stadium makes it the least attractive viable option.

Canada carries plenty of challenges. The CFL has never been healthier, and unlike putting an XFL team in an NFL city, the XFL represents true direct competition. (If the XFL goes back to San Francisco, for example, 49er fans need not worry that they’ll poach Jimmy Garoppolo or Kyle Shanahan. That’s not necessarily the case for Argonaut fans in Toronto.) The XFL will also face considerable competition from the NHL, as the national sport commands the country’s attention during the league’s stretch run. Finally, the most obvious candidate, Toronto, has been the country’s most apathetic toward the CFL. The Argonauts averaged a league-worst 13,914 fans despite fielding a Grey Cup winning team in 2017.

It’s unlikely that more than one Canadian city would get the call. There are diminishing marginal returns for a second city, and there are enough question marks in certain regions of the United States (namely, the Midwest and Southern California), that being able to hedge bets stateside would be a welcome luxury. (That’s an essay for another day.)

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The Frankfurt Galaxy and Rhein Fire led NFL Europe in attendance for over a decade.

Alternatively, the league could go to Europe, putting a team in London and a team in either Frankfurt or Dusseldorf. London is undoubtedly the sexiest option, given the amount of effort the NFL has poured into the market over the years. There is no language barrier, and WWE is very comfortable in the country, operating an office in the London and running an annual UK tour. Americans are getting accustomed to consuming UK sports live and visa versa. The time zone difference isn’t too large, as an evening game in the UK fits nicely into an afternoon window on the U.S. east coast. Finally, the London Monarchs got off to a fast start in World Football League, drawing over 40,000 fans in 1991 before interest waned.

Meanwhile, interest never waned in the German cities of Dusseldorf and Frankfurt, where the Rhein Fire and Frankfurt Galaxy were consistent draws at the gate for NFL Europe. The Fire averaged over 26,000 fans per game in their 13-year history, and the Galaxy drew over 30,000 over 15 seasons. After 1995, Rhein and Frankfurt finished finished first or second in attendance every single season.

There are a number of hurdles, including the German language barrier and the fact that the XFL season is head to head with the end of the European soccer seasons. None is bigger than the travel costs and logistics; a flight from Frankfurt to San Francisco is a nearly 12 hour trip. But by putting two teams in Europe makes the travel and scheduling slightly easier; American teams making the trans-Atlantic flight can knock out two games in a trip rather than just one. In addition, the two European teams would have a built in rivalry that should help sustain interest.

Will it happen?

In all likelihood, the league will stick with just American teams for 2020. It keeps things simple for a league that will have all sorts of other complexities to deal with. But for a league’s whose future rests on selling broadcast rights, there is little question where the upside is higher.

Top XFL-ish Stories of the Week

 

ESPN-NFL relationship suffering

The Sports Business Journal reports that the relationship between the NFL and ESPN is fraying, as the network is unhappy with the quality of the games assigned to Monday Night Football and the league is unhappy with unfavorable reporting on programs like Outside the Lines. This sets the stage for an interesting three years, as ESPN holds NFL broadcast rights through the 2021 season. From the XFL’s perspective, any potential opportunity to court a relationship with ESPN is welcome news. ESPN’s role as a taste maker is waning in the social media age, but it has not yet evaporated, and the XFL will need all the allies in the media it can get.

MLB, MLS announce social media broadcast deals

Major League Baseball announced that 25 regular season games will be streamed exclusively on Facebook this season. Terms have not been announced, but it supposedly will cost the social media company between $30 and $35 million. The games are midweek day games, primarily on Wednesday, which are generally MLB’s weakest properties. Meanwhile, Major League Soccer announced that they have agreed to a three-year contract with Twitter to broadcast matches, including 24 in the 2018 season. The value of the deal has not yet been made public.

MLS closing in on Austin

The Austin soccer community has started to celebrate, as Columbus Crew owner Anthony Precourt released a statement saying that his group will focus exclusively on a city-owned site in North Austin. The site always figured to face the least resistance, as it is not on parkland and not adjoining a neighborhood; the biggest question was whether the Crew ownership would be willing to accept it, as it is not technically downtown. It’s still not a done deal, but all signs seem to point to a deal getting done and Austin getting an MLS (and thus XFL-appropriate) stadium.