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 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!

Don’t tell anyone, but the XFL is bringing back a lot of its 2001 rules

The XFL is keeping the similarities to its ancestor on the down low.

The XFL followed up on its announcement of its first eight cities by pulling back the curtain on the work being done to develop its 2020 rulebook.

There some original tweaks the league is implementing — most prominently in the way the game is timed (clock runs continuously until the final 2:00 of each half; 10 second stop after every play thereafter) and the kickoff (players line up five yards apart on the receiving team’s 30- and 35-yard line; players can begin to move once the ball is caught).

But what stands out to me is how much is unoriginal. Here’s XFL Commission Andrew Luck talking about the rules on the The Grueling Truth’s “Survive and Advance” podcast:

We’ve even borrowed an idea from the CFL [Canadian Football League], which is on a punt, no fair catch allowed, but there’s a halo rule.

It’s true that the CFL uses the halo, which prevents tacklers from coming within five yards of the receiver until the punt is caught. It also happens to be true that the XFL used the halo itself in 2001, infamously marketing it as “no fair catches” and sort of implying that punt returners might be decapitated.

Also recycled from 2001 is the 1-, 2-, and 3-point conversions from the 2-, 5-, and 15-yard lines. The XFL added tiered extra points for the playoffs in 2001, with the 3-point attempt then coming from the 10-yard line.

That these are presented as “reimagined” or even “borrowed from the CFL” is illustrative of the complicated relationship XFL 2020 has with its ancestor. Vince McMahon cited “brand equity” when asked why he decided to bring back the XFL name, but Luck is keenly aware of the baggage that accompanies it. Here is Luck at the Sports Business Radio Road Show, in response to a question about whether the league will again put nicknames on the uniforms:

We’re going to be careful not to do things that are viewed as gimmicky. I’ll be very candid; one of the challenges XFL 2001 had were there a couple of things that the viewing public looked at as gimmicky. … We want to make sure that what we do is not viewed as gimmicky. That doesn’t mean you cannot innovate and do some things we think are fairly clever and will help the game. … But we want to stay away from gimmicks.

Of course, nicknames on jerseys is now mainstream, and in the same interview, Luck floated the incredibly gimmicky idea of letting the fans call the first play of each game. It’s not the ideas that Luck fears, it’s the source. XFL 2001 was basically ruined by the sports media, and XFL 2020 is going to do everything they can to prevent today’s sports media from saying “here we go again.”

And on that front, so far, so good. Most mainstream coverage of the league lately has ranged from positive to benign. The bulk of that credit goes to Luck, who oozes professionalism and has sports administration bona fides that command respect. If that trend holds, it will be interesting to see if the XFL ever publicly warms to its legacy. After all, the apple doesn’t seem to be falling terribly far from the tree.

My Christmas List for XFL D.C.

It was Christmas season last year when news first leaked that the XFL might be making a comeback. As someone who fell in love with the 2001 version as a sophomore in high school in the Washington, D.C. area, the XFL’s return, coupled by the announcement that D.C. is getting a team, has been nothing short of surreal. So as I make my Christmas wish list for XFL D.C., I’m focusing on the payoff, not the hurdles. After all, we’re already living in my own personal pipe dream.

Pick a color scheme that matches Audi Field

Audi Field was built primarily for D.C. United, affectionately known as the Black-and-Red by its supporters. That color scheme is featured prominently in its home stadium, and my hope is that XFL D.C. uses a similar palette as the foundation for the team: black and red as a loose starting point, with charcoal/grey/silver/chrome as possible directions to go.

This has less to do with the quality of the color scheme itself (although it’s strong; look no further than the greatest uniform in football history) and much more to do with creating the feel of a team playing in its home stadium, rather than just some building its renting.

Name the team the Federals

For the unaware, the Washington Federals were a USFL team, best remembered for their atrocious on-field performance (7-29 over two seasons). If the XFL is passing on bringing back their own brands, their certainly not going to want to borrow from other leagues as they seek to forge a new path and sell new merchandise.

But this isn’t a nostalgia request — the Philadelphia Eagles-esque logo and colors ought to be left in the 1980s. The name, on the other hand, is just perfect. It’s uniquely D.C., versatile (the team can be called Feds for short), and marketable.

The name is so good that it would be my choice for a Redskins or Wizards rebrand should either come to pass. If Martians land on Earth and teach us marsball, my vote for the name of the D.C. franchise is Federals. It’s just a fantastic name, and the XFL would be lucky to jump on it.

Run the triple option

Note: The triple option is technically a play, not an offense. I think “flexbone spread option” is the preferred nomenclature; I’m using the colloquial “triple option” because I’m lazy and willing to perpetuate ignorance.

The XFL’s vision of its game seems like its being based on a Chiefs-Rams utopia. But they would be smart to take a broader view of the game.

One of college football’s great strengths is the schematic diversity. You can see pro style, the spread, pure air raid, pistol, old school run and shoot, etc., each week. In the NFL, homogeneity reigns, as teams relentlessly copy the strategies of one another, while the sheer volume of teams in college football allows different visions to flourish. As a single entity, the XFL can manufacture diversity if they so choose. As they seek to create a compelling television product, they would be wise to consider the value of giving different teams a different offensive DNA.

It’s also a way to improve the team’s offensive talent. Schools that face recruiting challenges (the service academies and academically rigorous Georgia Tech being recent examples) have turned to the triple option as a way to change the recruiting dynamic. Rather than fighting for the same type of players with their unencumbered rivals, the triple option lends itself to a different body type at most offensive positions. This allows the school to work on a comparatively higher place on the food chain. An XFL team running the triple option will be able to target first or second tier option-style players that otherwise are left out of pro football or playing out of position, as opposed to fighting with the other XFL teams (not to mention CFL and AAF teams) over the NFL leftovers. We’ll get to one very specific example soon.

Finally, it would be likely be very effective. Personnel aside, a well-run triple option is extremely challenging to defend, especially for defensive coaches who aren’t practiced in it. (It’s telling that triple option teams tend to struggle the most against other triple option teams.) Assuming the other seven XFL teams feature pro-style defensive coaches, running the triple option would likely amount to a significant competitive advantage. But here’s the brilliance: Even if the triple option fails spectacularly, that would be OK too. The triple option getting a chance to prove itself in a professional setting is a built-in storyline for the league to market. No matter which way the results fall, it will be an interesting and compelling journey to follow.

Hire Paul Johnson

A willingness to run the offense isn’t useful without a coach qualified to teach it, and fortunately for the XFL, one of the masters just became available. Paul Johnson retired as Georgia Tech’s coach after amassing a record of 189-98 at Georgia Tech, Navy, and Georgia Southern.

He retired due to burnout; The Athletic’s Jeff Schultz, who broke the story of his retirement, said shortly after that Johnson “still enjoys game day but a lot of other stuff that goes with being a FBS [head coach] today has worn on him.”

It’s a big leap from that to being willing to join the XFL, but supposing that the lighter workload and the chance to run his offense on a pro stage sparks his interest, the XFL shouldn’t hesitate to pull the trigger.

For starters, he’s really, really good, and would thrive in a start-up environment like the XFL. From a career retrospective by TheMidReport.com’s fantastic Mike James:

Throughout his career, Johnson has repeatedly accepted the challenge of situations that others would label as impossible tasks. He helped to build Georgia Southern up from literally nothing and turned it into the most successful FCS program of its era. His offense was the catalyst that Hawaii needed to advance to the program’s first bowl game since moving up from Division II. Two years after Sports Illustrated published a column suggesting that Navy drop to I-AA, that same offense won the Aloha Bowl. Navy wouldn’t return to a bowl game until Johnson returned as head coach. He took Georgia Tech to two Orange Bowls, the Yellow Jackets’ first major bowl games since 1966.

In addition, he carries a lot of respect in the D.C. media thanks to his success at Navy, especially amongst the stuffy old guard that will be least inclined to give the XFL the benefit of the doubt. He’s also a fantastic quote and carries petty grudges that Vince McMahon would be proud to script. An example of one reared its head this season, when Johnson’s Georgia Tech faced Louisville, whose defensive coordinator was Brian VanGorder — the same man that had succeeded Johnson at Georgia Southern. From a SB Nation breakdown of the feud:

Before season began, VanGorder made a point that he wouldn’t be running Johnson’s flexbone option. From the Statesboro Herald:

In the advertisement, Georgia Southern’s marketing department promoted the 2006 season with a series of video clips that ended with VanGorder pointing at the camera and proclaiming “There is no option.” The school later chose to edit out the coach’s comment. The four words drew criticism, became a catch phrase for the season and spawned t-shirts reading “Win Coach. There is no option.”

Well, word of VanGorder’s overhaul made its way to Johnson, the head coach at Navy at the time.

”VanGorder had made some comments that he didn’t think too highly of the offense,” longtime Georgia Southern administrator Robert Inman said via USA Today. “And Paul called me up and said, ‘I need to talk to (athletics director) Sam (Baker) and get Georgia Southern on the schedule,’” Inman said. “I said, ‘Why do you want to play us?’ And he said, ‘Because I want to beat the hell out of Brian VanGorder.’ “

That was 12 years ago. Fast forward back to this October, Johnson kept the foot on the gas as Georgia Tech beat Lousivlle 66-31, and VanGorder was fired at the end of the season.

All of which is to say, the D.C. press will enjoy covering a Paul Johnson-led XFL team.

Sign Keenan Reynolds to play quarterback

If we’ve gotten this far, Johnson will need a pivot to execute his offense, and one of the all-time greats is theoretically available in Keenan Reynolds. The former Navy quarterback and NCAA rushing touchdown record holder is currently bouncing off and on NFL practice squads as a wide receiver (at the time of publication, he is on the Seattle Seahawks’ practice squad). From the aforementioned Mike James:

There is no position in football that has more impact on his team and on a game than that of a triple option quarterback. None. Every play revolves around him. Playing quarterback is difficult in any offense, obviously, but the option quarterback doesn’t have a chance to hand the ball to a tailback 20-30 times per game. He’s not getting easy yards by throwing a bunch of screen passes. When you run the option, even the running plays depend on your decisions, and nobody makes those decisions better than Reynolds.

There’s no guarantee he would be willing to trade that for a top-tier XFL contract and the opportunity to return to his natural position, but if he was, XFL D.C. would be running the triple option with one of the best, if not the best, option quarterbacks on the planet, while other teams would be running standard offenses with, at best, the 150th-best quarterback for that system.

In addition, XFL D.C. gets a star with local cache, thanks to his record-setting career at Annapolis, and the XFL gets a picture-perfect poster boy to market as it seeks to set themselves apart from the ugliness of domestic violence that haunts the NFL.

Dream Big

Are any of these wishes likely to come to fruition? The color scheme would really be prudent, but even there, it is important to remember that these decisions will not take place in a vacuum, It is the clash of colors that makes football its most visually appealing, and there are seven other teams to think of. Even if the league is sold on using the venue as a starting point, that still leaves Houston and Tampa Bay vying for red as a primary color. (Although we can hold out hope on the latter doing a full Houston Oilers revival.)

So no, none of this likely. But we live in a world where the XFL is coming back, nearly two decades after one of the most spectacular sports failures in history. Anything is possible, so I invite us all to dream big this Christmas season.

Happy Holidays!