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.

Ep 4: Will the fans turn out for the Alliance’s Week 1?

TBT’s 2019 format, Pacific Pro’s confusing proposition, and Week 1 AAF predictions.

After months of hype, it’s time to see if fans are ready to buy what the Alliance is selling. Join Mike Brantley (@MikeBrantley_YJ) and Mike Sherman (@MikeShermanInfo) for a discussion of outlaw sports teams and leagues.

Show Highlights

  • Praise for Oliver Luck’s framing of the XFL’s position in the football ecosystem
  • The Basketball Tournament (TBT) unveils its 2019 format
  • Game and attendance predictions for the Alliance’s opening weekend

Show Lowlights

  • Mike Brantley’s feud with Trent Richardson deepens
  • The two of us getting the Alliance’s name wrong a combined three times
  • Mike Brantley’s dog making noise in the background

Thanks for listening!

Ep 3: Would you buy XFL season tickets from this man?

XFL news and rumors, a BIG3 naming contest, the best and worst developments of the week.

This is among the questions not outsourced to Ice Cube on the third 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

  • A look at the XFL’s moves on its one-year anniversary
  • Mike Brantley’s inspired suggestion for a BIG3 team name
  • The best and worst news of the week

Show Lowlights

  • Cheap shots at indoor soccer
  • Liberal use of other people’s content
  • The sinking realization that scaling back on run length isn’t corresponding to an increase in quality

Thanks for listening!

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!

Ep 1: Who will play QB for the Fleet, if not Josh Johnson?

AAF television appeal, XFL to do list, and valiant efforts in alphabetizing.

These questions, and many more, are left unanswered in the first episode of the Outlaw Sports Podcast. Join Mike Brantley (@MikeBrantley_YJ) and Mike Sherman (@MikeShermanInfo) for a one-hour discussion of outlaw sports teams and leagues.

Show Highlights

  • The opportunity for the AAF and the XFL to enter the video game space
  • A look at the television appeal of each AAF team
  • A run down on the XFL’s to do list: broadcast partner and head coaches/GMs

Show Lowlights

  • Introducing a show name that’s already changed
  • Heavy-handed editing
  • Mike Sherman setting the one-hour world record for saying “it’ll be interesting”

Thanks for listening! Or, at least, thanks for reading the description of the show!

Two ways the XFL can improve upon the AAF’s branding process

Splitting the work among local designers and executing an open branding process can both yield significant benefits.

The Alliance of American Football released the logos and color schemes for its first eight teams in a pair of unveilings on September 20 and September 25. Some turned out better than others, but rather than getting too deep into the weeds critiquing the individual logos, I would like to take a step back and examine the overall process the league used:

  1. Hire a designer
  2. Work privately with that designer to design all eight brands
  3. Release the final product to the public

This is the standard in the industry, so I hope nothing I write comes across as accusing the AAF of cutting corners. This was a professional, serious branding process, and after the UFL’s “effort” in 2009, that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

But as the XFL looks for ways to improve upon the AAF’s performance ahead of their own 2020 launch, I see two big opportunities for improvement:

Split the work among local designers

The biggest issue with the AAF’s work is that all eight logos are pretty clearly done by the same hand. The designer, Joe Bosack & Co., was eminently qualified and produced some strong work, but there’s a cost associated with the sameness. I talked a lot about this theme here, but to summarize: the fan-team connection is the foundation on which sports are built, and anything that makes the teams feel like units of the whole rather than independent clubs compromises that relationship.

The BIG3 made diversity a priority.

A better effort was executed by the BIG3. Creating unique identities was especially important for the 3-on-3 basketball venture, as the eight teams aren’t based in a single city but rather travel the country together. Both the designer, Todd Radom, and the founder, Ice Cube, spoke specifically to the importance of creating diversity in this June 2017 ESPN piece:

Another priority was avoiding the cookie-cutter look that often results when designing uniforms for an entire league at once. “The teams had to look separate,” said Radom. “They should look like each one came from a different designer, if possible, because each team deserved its own look, its own feel.”

“I wanted a mix of styles,” said Cube. “I wanted to start from old-time basketball, back when the game first started, all the way up to a modern look. What was cool about working with Todd is that he’s able to give you all those different styles, all those different eras of basketball.”

Taking this a step further would be actually contracting eight different designers to design the eight different logos, which guarantees authentic diversity in the look and feel of each team. And splitting the work allows for a final optimization: contracting local designers for each market. As critical decision on imagery and colors are made, working with firms based in the host cities gives a league the best chance of coming up with a brand that resonates with local fans and steers clear of stereotypes or misconceptions.

Precourt Sports Ventures turned to the Austin-based Butler Bros to design Austin FC

An example of this recently played out in Austin. Precourt Sports Ventures (PSV), the ownership group of the Columbus Crew, recently unveiled the name and badge for Austin FC ahead of its planned move to the Texas state capital. PSV eschewed national designers in favor of the Austin-based Butler Bros, whose portfolio includes local favorites like Tacodeli. The result has been an instant hit locally and helped bolster support ahead of a crucial Austin City Council vote that secured PSV’s right to build a new downtown stadium in the city. The local bona fides of the designer played a critical role in that reception.

Would the XFL consider it?

Branding is a hard process, and working with eight designers is much more complicated than working with just one. The temptation to keep all the art under one roof will be especially strong for the XFL, as they already have easy access to WWE’s fantastic arts department. The league would be wise to resist.

Execute an open branding process

Screen Shot 2018-09-29 at 10.57.41 AM
The Open Branding Project provided updates on the progress of Baseball New Zealand’s rebrand.

Providing public updates on the status of the branding process contravenes the standard practice of only releasing the final product, but this very concept was recently executed by designers Brian Gundell and Brandon Moore for their redesign of Baseball New Zealand. The duo provided frequent insights into the status of the project before eventually delivering the final product. From their initial post explaining the project:

We believe there are 3 factors that attribute to a poor launch of a brand identity … 1.) It comes as a surprise. 2.) There is poor communication about what honestly went into the work. 3.) The public only sees the final piece and never the process or thought that created it.That’s why [we] want to do what we do best all in the open. We’d like to go through an entire design project and put all that we do on a virtual wall for all to see, in hope of solving the mentioned issues.

I loved reading the Baseball New Zealand updates, but it was watching the AAF’s process play out that convinced me an open process is worth trying with a wider audience.

I receive email alerts from the AAF San Antonio Facebook page, and from the moment the city was announced as the league’s eighth city in June until the league unveiled the San Antonio Commanders name, logo, and colors in September, the chatter had been almost exclusively been of two types: potential players desperately trying to get a roster invite, and fans suggesting names, colors, and uniforms.

For over three months, the AAF didn’t engage with their fans in any way on the topic that was most meaningful to them. Now that it’s time to start moving ticket packages, the San Antonio Commanders need to recreate momentum that has been lost. Moreover, for fans who had their hearts set on a different name, colors, or imagery, the Commanders now need to overcome a sense of disappointment.

An open process addresses both of these points, making it a marketing and engagement strategy in and of itself. Fans are engaged on the exact topic that they are most invested in, and as critical early choices in the branding process are made, fans get insight into why a decision may have been made and a chance to make peace with it early.

Would the XFL consider it?

One of the biggest differences we’ve been able to observe thus far between the XFL and the AAF has been the former’s openness. While the AAF made its public debut as a mostly fully-formed idea in March, the XFL announced its intention to return over two years ahead of time with little more than the league name settled. The AAF did their brainstorming in private ahead of their big initial announcement, while the XFL has been giving the public small glimpses into the work of their Football Reimagined Committee.

As anyone who’s ever had to deliver an update on a big project can tell you, the updates themselves can be a fair amount of work. Exposing yourself to criticism at every step of the process can be draining, especially for a league like the XFL that will have so many critics salivating at the prospect of its failure. But the XFL has already demonstrated an inclination toward showing their work, so an open branding process could be a natural fit.

Pulling it all together

If the XFL acted on both suggestions, this would be the resulting process:

  1. Hire eight designers in each of the eight XFL cities
  2. Communicate frequently about the status of each branding process
  3. Finalize the design

There’s a cost associated with both concepts, but the XFL would be wise to balance that against the significant benefits of a branding process designed to cultivate the engagement between the fans and the teams. In the end, that relationship is what will determine the success of each individual team and, in turn, of the league as a whole.