As far as spring football goes, this venture seems to be getting off on the right foot.
Many of its coaches are known quantities, the players are largely of the NFL “just miss” variety, there are some clever rule innovations, and league officials appear to not only know what to do, but how to do it.
Nah, this is what I said about the Alliance of American Football this time last year – just a few days in advance of its debut and a couple of months before it failed to finish its only season.
To casual observers of the AAF, everything looked good up until it didn’t.
So here we are, three days before the revived XFL extends football season for fans, and so far it has made all the right moves.
Guys like Bob Stoops and June Jones are working the sidelines, and they’re proven winners.
The 52-man rosters are stocked with players who already have some NFL experience – men such as Josh Johnson, Cardale Jones, Landry Jones and Kony Ealy – and many more who are closer to being “haven’t-yets” than “has-beens.”
Three-point conversions, safer kickoffs, overtime shootouts and fast game play will make it unique.
And with respected football executive Oliver Luck serving as CEO and commissioner of the league, the XFL’s rollout has been professional and impressive.
But again, at first (and even second) glance, the Alliance checked all those boxes, too.
So what’s different?
A couple of things.
For starters, placing all eight teams in major cities is a smart move by the XFL. It will debut with squads in Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, St. Louis, Tampa Bay and Washington, D.C.
All but one have NFL franchises (and St. Louis had one up until 2016) and they represent five of the largest TV markets in the United States, including the top two.
That national footprint no doubt helped the XFL land contracts with ABC, ESPN and Fox, deals that call for all games to be televised.
Although media has changed dramatically just in the last few years, advertising dollars and television saturation is still important, especially to a fledgling sports league.
The Alliance had teams in Atlanta, Birmingham, Memphis, Orlando, Phoenix, San Antonio, Salt Lake City and San Diego, completely ignoring the northeast and dipping into only two NFL metro areas. That puzzled me because the geography gave off something of a regional league vibe.
Plus, its games were shown primarily on CBS Sports Network, the NFL Network and B/R Live, outlets that aren’t as easily accessible to many viewers.
The most important advantage the XFL has over the AAF, however, is Vince McMahon – or to be specific, Vince McMahon’s bank account.
The wrestling mogul and billionaire has reportedly sunk roughly $500 million into the league – enough to cover three full years of operation.
Unbeknownst to those of us on the outside looking in, the AAF was in financial trouble from the get-go when its original primary investor, Reggie Fowler, bailed after the first week. Co-founders Charlie Ebersol and Bill Polian then had to sell out to Carolina Hurricanes’ owner Tom Dundon to stay afloat.
Dundon pledged $250 million but was angling for a farm system-type deal with the NFL. When he realized one was not forthcoming, he tapped out after spending $70 million. Thus, the Alliance had no money to continue and died with two weeks still remaining in the regular season.
So considering the areas where it has improved over last spring’s gridiron swing and miss, the XFL is a can’t-miss proposition, right?
While it’s starting off with a strong foundation (it has had two full years to get up and running), history certainly isn’t on its side. No domestic spring league has lasted more than three seasons, and the one that did was the United States Football League – which sought major league status and was becoming a major force when it folded.
The World League of American Football, funded and operated by the NFL, fielded North American franchises for just two years before becoming an all-European circuit. It then bled money for 13 years before owners ended the feeder system.
McMahon’s original XFL had a one-and-done season in 2001 – and the viewing public lost interest quickly.
It tried to combine the bravado of World Wrestling Entertainment with AA brand football, and the result was largely boring games framed by sleazy shtick. It also holds the sad distinction of featuring the lowest rated prime-time telecast in TV history. On March 17 of that year the Birmingham-Las Vegas game drew a 1.6 audience share, and was part of a downward ratings spiral that began after a promising opening week in February.
But much has changed since the lowbrow, rasslin’-inspired XFL was rushed to market 19 years ago. This version has been carefully planned, shelved all the sideshow nonsense and looks poised to be a fan-friendly, “major” minor league.
So maybe – just maybe – second-tier pro football will finally defy all the odds and find a niche.
I mean, there’s a first time for everything, right?
For more information on the league, including schedule, TV times and rules, go to XFL.com.