Is the XFL the Future of Football?

XFL: St. Louis BattleHawks at Dallas Renegades
Feb 9, 2020; Arlington, Texas, USA; St. Louis Battlehawks quarterback Jordan Ta’amu (10) tries to elude Dallas Renegades safety Micah Abernathy (21) during the second half in an XFL football game at Globe Life Park. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t know if the world needs more football, but it seems like it’s going to keep trying whether we like it or not. No, I didn’t sit in my office for 6 hours straight on Saturday and Sunday watching the rebirth of the XFL, but I checked out enough of it to see what it’s all about. You know what? I enjoyed it. 

Before I go any further I want to ask you something and I’ll come back to it in a few minutes. Remember your answer. If you liked the games this weekend, why? If you didn’t watch the games this weekend, why not?

It’s innovative. It’s unique. It’s a substantial departure from the bombastic, theatrical and manufactured bravado that defined the league 20 years ago. 

It also has almost no chance of succeeding. 

Let me first define what success would mean for the XFL. Making a profit. Simple. The league is not a partner with the NFL. It is not a competitor to the NFL. It is a supplement for football fans who have such an insatiable thirst for the sport that they can’t even last a week past Super Bowl Sunday without suffering withdrawals. 

The XFL’s revenue model right now is a little difficult to pin down. They negotiated a TV deal with ESPN and FOX where the networks aren’t paying the league a dime to broadcast the games, but are covering all of the production costs. That’s a nice deal for both sides that allows the networks to take a reasonably low-risk investment into a league while also giving the XFL a significant platform to grow the brand in year one. 

Like any start-up business, it will likely take several years before the XFL can begin to think about turning a profit. The obvious question now is: can it last long enough to see those profits come to fruition? 

Let’s explore that possibility here. 

There is a lot to like about the XFL! The kickoff rule is fantastic. Each team lines up on the receiving team’s 35 and 30 yard line — only 5 yards apart — and can’t move until the receiver catches the ball. It’s fun, it’s safe and exciting. Ninety percent of kickoffs were actually returned this weekend, compared to just 60 percent this past season in the NFL. It’s an exciting part of the game that shouldn’t go away; and the XFL made a clever tweak to make it safer. I loved it. 

The replay process was just as brilliant. First and foremost, having a 30-second time limit on reviews is so refreshing. Additionally, putting a mic on the replay official gives us an inside look at one of the most compelling and controversial parts of the game. This might be the best idea the league has; especially when you take into account how important gambling will be to the success of the league. You’ll need complete and total transparency if you want your game to have integrity when it comes to gambling. 

You can see the point spreads and the totals front and center on the scoreboard. It’s the most up-front ESPN and FOX have ever been when it comes to addressing gambling on a game broadcast. It’s very overt. ESPN executives have even said the announcers will discuss the point spread during games

“The over/under and point spread will be incorporated in our on-screen dashboard for XFL games. When it’s appropriate, our announcers will also have conversations around the spread and over-under,” said Lee Fitting, ESPN’s Senior VP of Production. 

For example if a team scores a touchdown and is down 9 and the spread is 8, they’ll talk about how a 2-point conversion would cover the number. Gambling will play a major role in the success and popularity of the league (as it does in every sport, by the way). The league is smart to embrace it so transparently. 

In fact, the betting handle for Week 1 was over 20 times more than what books took in for Week 1 of the AAF last season. 

The on-field interviews mid-game are neat but I don’t think are all that revelatory. The hot mics on coaches sending in the playcalls are fun and make for a great guessing game (“what is 52 Flip Robot Pirate? Oh it’s a run to the left!), but that’s never something that will fly in the NFL. I also think it makes life hell on the coaches, who now have to try to figure out how to disguise their calls from week to week to avoid their own version of the Houston Astros’ scandal.

Also, I know this makes me sound like the No Fun Police, but the liberal whistles on big collisions and helmet-to-helmet blows is a bit too far. I know the NFL has struggled to balance policing the brutality of the game with keeping longtime fans of the sport pleased, but the safety of its players should be priority number one for every football league at any level. It’s also oddly hypocritical that the XFL adjusted the kickoff rule for player safety concerns, but also has no problem allowing hits like this one:

They can’t let hits like this be legal. They just can’t.  

Many of the other new adjustments very well could work in the NFL, however. Which is exactly the XFL’s biggest problem. This brings me back to that question from a couple minutes ago. 

If you liked the XFL, I’m willing to bet it was for some of these new features. The replay stuff, the kickoffs, the extra-point rules, the interviews, whatever. I’m pretty confident you weren’t tuning in to see if Matt McGloin can still sling it. 

The presentation of the game and the unique tweaks to the format are the XFL’s unique selling points right now. It makes the games interesting.

So…what happens in a year when the NFL’s adopted whatever the XFL does best? What happens then? 

If the NFL puts mics in the replay booth, or changes the catch rule to one foot down, or puts point spreads on the scoreboard — whatever people seem to latch on to the most about the XFL — well, then what? 

I asked earlier if you didn’t watch the XFL why was it? It probably had something to do with the fact that the players simply aren’t very good compared to what we’re used to watching pro football. These are predominantly practice squad hopefuls and former NFL journeymen trying to keep the dream alive. I wish the best for all of them, but that’s not going to make the product watchable in the long term. 

Why isn’t the Canadian Football League more popular in the USA? After all, it has only a slight overlap with the NFL season. Why isn’t it a major success in the states? 

Because the players aren’t as good. It’s not rocket science. I bet some of you are saying right now it’s because the CFL is in Canada. That’s just not anywhere close to the biggest reason why. The English Premier League does very well here in the states — better than the MLS — and it doesn’t matter that it’s on another continent. It’s because they have the best players in the world. If it’s a professional sport, we only want to see the best of the best. 

The XFL seems destined to be the Snapchat to the NFL’s Instagram. For years, every time Snapchat introduced a new exciting feature, Instagram eventually copied it and made it better. The NFL doesn’t exactly ace its rule changes every year, but the league has the budget and the resources to take whatever it is that makes the XFL’s product watchable and do it themselves. 

Once that happens, how can the XFL stay alive? The most obvious answer is to pluck college stars away before the NFL allows them to join their own league. I’ve said for years the NFL needs to reduce the limit from three years of college to two. Just about every year over the last decade or so, there have been a handful of players who proved enough in two years that they were ready to be pros. Prior to the last decade, maybe two, there was almost never a player who was physically ready for the next level before their third year of college. 

Now, elite high school athletes are on world-class nutrition and strength & conditioning programs from earlier ages than ever before. The quality of athletes entering college football is just simply more advanced now than it was 20+ years ago. Combine that with the fact that the average age of retirement in the NFL continues to decline, the window for NFL players to maximize their earning potential is shrinking. 

Take Nick Bosa for example. In his first two years at Ohio State, Bosa put out enough tape to justify a top-five draft pick. After a fairly minor core muscle injury in September of his junior year, he shut it down for the season. He was drafted No. 2 overall last spring, and just darn near won the Super Bowl himself as a rookie two weeks ago. Bosa did not need a third year of college. He’s not alone. 

Jadeveon Clowney, Adrian Peterson, Tua Tagaovailoa and Trevor Lawrence are just a few of the high-profile college stars who jump to mind that were ready to go pro after two years. 

The biggest flaw in the NFL’s structure that the XFL can exploit in the immediate future BY FAR is convincing even a small handful of recognizable college stars (basically, quarterbacks) to come spend a year or two in their league before heading off to the NFL Draft. 

I would ultimately love to see the XFL take enough players in that situation (i.e. sophomores not yet eligible for the NFL Draft), that the NFL has to re-think its age limit and lower it by a year. It’s probably a pipe dream. 

College football’s audience will absolutely trump the XFL’s. It would be smart for the league to take advantage of the marketing power created in a year or two of college football from some of its bigger stars and try to convince a handful of them to come join their league for at least a year before turning to the NFL. How likely is it that they can convince a Trevor Lawrence-type to make the jump? Probably not very high. But even if they can just snag a couple of 1st, 2nd, or 3rd-round level prospects each season to help the league market its product just a little bit more, perhaps that’s enough to keep the league in business. 

Could Jalen Hurts have bypassed Oklahoma and spent a year in the XFL playing with professional coaches and players? Those are the kind of names the league should target in the future. It’s not a fail-safe strategy, but it’s better than asking us to watch Brandon Silvers and Matt McGloin for 10 weeks. 

The XFL faces a steep uphill climb to ever become a viable spring football league. If the measure of success is strictly dollars and cents, it stands almost no chance. However, with bright leadership and a well-designed product, that doesn’t mean it can’t help shape the future of football as we know it. 

(Header image courtesy: Jerome Miron/USA Today Images)

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