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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
If you watch ESPN’s 30 for 30 on the XFL, one of things the documentary does a great job of capturing is the breakneck pace the league moved to get ready to play. With just one year between announcement to kickoff, the XFL had to move breathlessly to get the league up and running.
This time around, the XFL has given themselves two years of lead time. The immediate and obvious benefit is the optics: this signals that the league is taking a more thoughtful approach. But what are the other benefits to this extra year?
One answer appears to be figuring out the finances. McMahon has stated multiple times, most recently on a WWE Investor conference call, that the current funding will not be sufficient. We know that the XFL’s parent company, Alpha Entertainment, started with $95,791,200 after Vince McMahon liquidated WWE stock. That might be enough to get the XFL through its first season: the original XFL lost roughly $70-$93.8 million, depending who you ask or how you’re counting. For all the bad things you can say about the original XFL, they paid their bills, and McMahon surely has no interest in leaving so little margin for error this time around.
So, where might additional funding come from?
McMahon obviously has much more of his own personal fortune to draw from, but if the plan was to solely rely on liquidated WWE stock, it stands to reason that he probably would have gotten it over with all at once. Beyond the impact to him personally, the CEO of a company unloading stock can have an adverse effect on stockholder confidence.
When news of the initial sale of stock broke, WWE released a statement that said “Mr. McMahon has informed the Company that he has no current plan to sell additional shares of the Company’s stock and that he intends to continue in his capacity as the Company’s Chairman and Chief Executive Officer for the foreseeable future.”
Other major investors
In the original incarnation, NBC approached WWE about getting involved and the two companies eventually became joint owners, with each putting in $50 million. There’s nothing stopping other individuals or entities from stepping up to the table this time around. As a reference point, Mark Cuban reportedly paid $5 million for a 5% stake in the ill-fated United Football League in 2010.
McMahon specifically said at the opening press conference that the league would be a single entity operation rather than pursuing a franchise model. That might appear to rule out individual team owners, but remember that Major League Soccer also considers itself a single entity, instead giving owners an operating license for an individual team and a 1/23rd share of the league.
In terms of how much the XFL could fetch for an operating license, it’s worth looking again at the United Football League. Ahead of the 2010 season, it was reported that owners invested $10 million plus a personal commitment to cover opening-season losses up to another $10 million in exchange for a one-half interest in a team.
Community owned football teams include the Green Bay Packers in the NFL and the Edmonton Eskimos, Saskatchewan Roughriders, and Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the CFL. The NFL has banned the community ownership structure, but teams building new stadiums regularly rely on personal seat licenses (PSLs) to help fund the project. PSLs are paid licenses that entitle the holder to the right to buy season tickets for a certain seat in a stadium. As a reference point, the PSL prices for the new Giants Stadium ran from $1,000 to $20,000.
The XFL, a league that promises to “give the game of football back to fans” could theoretically explore a similar set up, exchanging season tickets and a small stake in the team in exchange for a hefty chunk of change up front. And while there’s no real indication that this is something the XFL is considering, it’s interesting that Pro Football Talk’s Twitter account threw it out as a theoretical:
I hope the XFL is successful, but here’s the real test: If given the opportunity to invest your own money in it, would you?
The XFL has largely been quite since the initial press conference, but based on ESPN’s Darren Rovell clarifying on Twitter that Johnny Manziel has not yet been ruled ineligible, we can infer that the XFL is communicating with media behind the scenes. If the XFL were going to release a trial balloon, Mike Florio and Pro Football Talk are as good a medium as any.
To answer Florio’s question, would I invest my money in the XFL? For my sake, I sort of hope that’s not an option. The list of men who have made a buck in pro football is very short. It took the NFL decades to achieve profitability, and after a century, the CFL is still only barely coming out ahead. The XFL lost a lot of money the first time around, and most recently, the UFL lost even more.
The right reason to invest in pro football is because you love the sport and can afford to lose some money to be able to say that you are a part of it. That’s the attitude that originally sustained the NFL and the attitude that allowed the American Football League to survive long enough to force a merger. Hopefully anyone who invests in the XFL, no matter how big or how small, will share that same mindset.
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
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
Corey Ivy was one of many players to make the leap to the NFL following the 2001 XFL season. Photo Credit: BaltimoreRavens.com
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.