XFL’s silence has stretched to over a month. Should we worry?

For a league promising “less stall, more ball,” the XFL has been awfully quiet lately.

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

The NFL can’t shake free from the anthem protest controversy. Can the XFL avoid a similar fate?

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 NFL Competition Committee unanimously agreed that the infamous Dez Bryant non-catch should be ruled a completion. Can they write a rule that delivers?

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.

The XFL is looking for more money. Where is it going to come from?

Johnny Manziel may never don an XFL uniform, but the league still needs a money infusion.

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 himself

McMahon has already committed over $95 million to the XFL.

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

Since divesting in UFC, Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta launched Fertitta Capital with $500 million to pursue direct investments.

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.

Team Owners

Major League Soccer’s single entity status hasn’t stopped wealthy team owners like Arthur Blank from getting in on the fun.

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.

Individual fans

This guy owns a piece of the Green Bay Packers.

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:

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.

XFL eyes moving its Week 1 to the Sunday before the Super Bowl

Charles Puleri #7, Kelvin Kinney #92
In 2001, the XFL debuted on the Saturday after the Super Bowl. For 2020, the XFL appears to be considering the Sunday two weekends earlier. Photo Credit: Todd Warshaw/Allsport

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.

The potential implications are wide-ranging.

It would fight the label of “spring league”

Chicago opened the 2001 season in the warmer markets of Orlando, Los Angeles, and Birmingham before finally hosting the Hitmen on February 24. Photo Credit: Getty Images

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

Screenshot 2018-02-01 at 6.06.32 PM
In 2001, the Week 1 Los Angeles-San Francisco broadcast overlapped with the NFL’s Pro Bowl for about an hour. Photo Credit: Associated Press

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

After drawing ratings of 9.5 and 4.6 during Weeks 1 and 2, the Week 3 Saturday night broadcast between San Francisco and Memphis drew a 3.1. Image Credit: Getty Images

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

The XFL stands to indirectly benefit as demand for WWE content peaks during Wrestlemania season. Photo Credit: WWE

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.