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Super Bowl LIV, in the NFL's 100th anniversary season, was an historical anomaly, in that both the teams playing originated in leagues other than the NFL: the San Francisco 49ers in the All-American Football Conferece in 1946, and the Kansas City Chiefs (as the Dallas Texans) in the American Football League in 1960. Since the merger of the AFL with the NFL in 1970, there have been frequent competitors to challenge the behemoth ...and now another has re-appeared.
The return of the XFL is one of the most remarkable comebacks in American sports history. It hardly seems like twenty years have passed since WWE Supremo Vince McMahon and NBC Sport's Dick Ebersol's brainchild played its only season: created on a wave of hype aimed at the NFL's image as the No Fun League and pro wrestling's violent showmanship, the league never could live up to that hype, nor could it endure the $35 million loss taken by each of the partners. Today its best-remembered player, Rod Smart, is a sporting footnote due to the nickname he wore on his jersey's back: He Hate Me. Sports Illustrated writer Paul Zimmerman asked his wife, “who do you think hates him?” to which she replied “his high school English teacher”.
The new XFL is McMahon's own project, and he seems to have learned from the mistakes of the first incarnation. First and foremost, it is a football league, with little trace of WWE influence: gone are the cheerleaders in scanty costumes 'encouraged' to date players; gone are the WWE announcers; gone is the explicit appeal to more violence than the NFL, which in today's injury-conscious landscape is a necessary and a good thing.
McMahon's smartest move may have been hiring Oliver Luck, a former NFL quarterback and father of retired Colts' QB Andrew, as commissioner. Luck has taken on board the experiences of previous spring football leagues: the recently-failed Alliance (whose owners included Ebersol's son Charlie), the United League (whose trademarks McMahon now owns) and of course the World League of American Football/NFL Europe (WLAF/NFLE), the NFL's long-running development league in which Luck served running first the Frankfurt Galaxy and then the league itself.
The new XFL is similar to the first incarnation in that it too sells itself on rule differences from the NFL. But rather than aimed at more contact, the new league is looking for a faster game with more offense, and the elimination of many of the longeurs of the kicking game. For a generation reared on the Madden video game and watching NFL on Red Zone, this would seem to be the right approach to take, and after week one many of the reviews concentrated on the game structure itself, with largely favourable reviews. With the exception of St. Louis they've avoided putting franchises in cities without NFL teams, as previous leagues have generally done; instead concentrating on perceived football hotbeds and major markets (Chicago, Tampa, Houston, Dallas, Seattle, Los Angeles and Washington DC). Where possible they've aimed at smaller stadia where they can expect crowds who will make them look full and make the appropriate stadium-filling noise. And whereas the first XFL had a broadcast deal that wound up being limiting, with few games actually cracking NBC; the current league has the benefit of a wider broadcast market, with less need of dominating the ratings.
The league will live or die first and foremost on the perceived need for MORE football, and in America MORE is always better. I worked at ABC when we broadcast the very first spring league, the USFL, and while the ratings were originally less than promised, we soon realised they were good, as good as anything else we showed on Sunday afternoons. The league was viable, at least until Donald Trump took it into fall competition with the NFL, expecting to leverage his team into the big league. That failed, and whatever happened to Trump since then?
The second question will be whether the league's play will be good enough to hold the football fanatics who tuned into week one. They've opened up the game to televisions, with microphones on coaches and players that can be open all the time, and interviews with them during the course of the game: bringing audiences further into the game has been the basis of sports TV in America ever since Roone Arledge created Wide World of Sports.
The play need not be as good as the NFL, no one expects that. But it needs to be entertaining, competent and competitive. If week one was any indication, they are part of the way already - remembering they have fielded eight teams with totally brand-new rosters who played no pre-season games, much like the old WLAF/NFL Europe. The quality of the players is probably somewhat below the best of NFLE but not yet up to XFL 1, a league stocked with ex WLAF players and crucially three ex WLAF coaches, one of whom Al Luginbill, won the championship while another, Galen Hall, was voted coach of the year. As the baseball guru Bill James once pointed out, talent is like a pyramid: it is very narrow at the top, but spreads wide at the bottom. The difference between the bottom 20 on an NFL roster and practice squad is not that great over the next 20 guys who got cut, much of it is a matter of time and place, of fit with a system or coach, or more or less competition. The outstanding receiver in XFL week one was probably Eli Rogers, a former fourth option for the Steelers before he got injured and suspended for drug use.
The quality will, in the end, be determined by the quarterbacks. One advantage the WLAF had was players assigned by NFL teams. Think about it: say the 32 NFL teams each have 3 QBs on their roster, that means 96 of the best are unavailable to the XFL, whereas a number of them, from Kurt Warner to Scott Mitchell to Jake Delhomme to Brad Johnson, played in WLAF. XFL has ex-Steeler Landry Jones reunited with his college coach, Bob Stoops, in Dallas. Cardale Jones, a fourth-round pick who never could crack playing time in the NFL, starts in DC. Josh Johnson (LA) and Matt McGloin (New York) are long-time backups with a few NFL starts (Johnson missed the season opener with injury, meaning Chad Kanoff, one year removed from Princeton, was their starter), while Brandon Silvers and Aaron Murray played in the Alliance. The two most intriguing passers were St. Louis' Jordan Ta'amu, who went undrafted from Mississippi last year, and surprisingly failed to make even an NFL practice squad. He has some upside, while PJ Taylor, who played for Temple under Matt Ruhle, was passed by because he's only 5-11. But he beat out former NFL player Connor Cook, and was the league's player of the week in week one. As Tom Luginbill, Al's son, who's a sidelines reporter for XFL games, pointed out, offensive lines take time to meld together, and a quarterback who can move about is a powerful weapon when defenses have the advantage.
In the meantime, Vince McMahon has money to spend to keep the league afloat but his track record on anything outside wrestling - pro body-building, restaurants, a film studio, XFL 1 - is not great. His new league will find its reality come March, when NCAA basketball's Madness begins, and in April with MLB starting and playoffs beginning for the NBA and NHL. That's when the competition gets going, which is where the tough get going too.