Down on the ground, left for dead by NBC and Vince McMahon in 2001, the XFL is making a comeback as if the league is Hulk Hogan and the Better Business Bureau is Andre The Giant at Wrestlemania III.
Under the newly formed Alpha Entertainment, McMahon is hoping to revitalize his dream. To provide a different brand of football to an already football-obsessed nation. While it didn’t work — at all — in 2001, things are different in 2018.
McMahon has the benefit of learning from his past mistakes. Well, at least we thought he did. That’s the most important aspect in all of his. But there’s even more, non-McMahon related things that could help the XFL thrive when it returns in 2020.
To put it bluntly, even if this writer doesn’t necessarily agree with the sentiment: Fans of the National Football League believe the league, and product in general, has gone soft. Broken down individually, targeting calls, the rash of penalty flags, and general watering down of personalities has hurt the league.
It is why, at least partially, the NBA has done a great job of stealing some of the NFL’s previous death grip on the calendar year. With the NFL’s people in power attempting to remove all personality from its players, the NBA is flourishing in large part due to its stars’ ability to entertain with their pettiness.
Beef is fun. The NBA has loads of it. The NFL gets some, but immediately attempts to force it out of everyone’s craniums.
Unfortunately, the XFL relaunch had some great promise. Then Vince McMahon held a press conference that put to bed any hope of a solid product that could have been counterculture to the NFL’s. He spoke of it being a safe space from politics, hinting at a conservative product and other less than promising league ideals.
Here are some things McMahon can do, and fix, that can help his XFL product survive, if not thrive.
The XFL should be launched in summer, not February
Going head-to-head against the NFL would be counterproductive. If a start date was pushed back to Christmas-ish time, the XFL would still have to deal with the NBA, NHL and college basketball still happening.
Bad ideas… that McMahon apparently does not care about.
It would have been wise for the XFL to start its league-play in the summer. It would only be doing battle with Major League Baseball — and, if we are being honest about competition, those two entities won’t exactly be battling for the same sort of demographic.
Furthermore, players can work at full-speed during warm months. Even though people claim they love the idea of watching games in the snow, after the initial awe goes away, all the viewing audience is left with is a bunch of marvelous athletes falling over each other.
With it only being an eight-game schedule, yet starting either late January or early February, the XFL will still be operating in a sports-heavy time of the calendar.
Nevertheless, the XFL’s least amount of competition in the sporting world is in the summer. No reason to purposely attempt to climb a huger mountain if there’s a much smaller one around the corner. And yet, here we are, with Vince tickling with the idea of doing the same thing that failed in 2001, but two decades later.
Then again, who knows, maybe the XFL dominates ratings and Vinnie Mac takes things the old WCW route, creating a war between the brands with at least some idea that it will work.
Brand-name QBs matter
Forget every other position in the league. For the XFL to draw eyeballs, at least at first, it will need some brand-names trotting about its multiple football fields.
The league can do this without even needing to get the best gunslingers available. Instead, it could focus on the most polarizing, infamous, or downright absurd.
Tim Tebow, Johnny Manziel, whatever recent NFL Draft first-round busts are available, or quarterbacks people loved to consume in college, but are falling in NFL mock drafts because the old-guard has no idea how to evaluate a Lamar Jackson-type of player.
Sure, some money would need to be hurled around, but for guys like Tebow and Manziel, they would come relatively cheap. Couple that with McMahon targeting mobile, dynamic signal-callers the NFL doesn’t know what to do with, and the league could have a more attractive string of QBs than the NFL.
Is the idea of polarizing players like Tebow facing Colin Kaepernick attractive? You’re darn right it is.
Thing is, McMahon was directly asked about a Kap or Manziel, then went on a rant about players with “arrest histories” not being allowed in the league (including players with a DUI). While Kap doesn’t have a rap-sheet, Johnny Football does. He also specified players who jump to the league must abide by the rules. While he didn’t lay out exactly what those rules are, he made it quite clear there may be rules surrounding the national anthem.
He did, however, say Tebow is welcome.
Embrace the college offense model
We mentioned the types of quarterbacks we want, which actually coincides with the brand of football that should be played.
McMahon constantly referenced a “safer, faster” re-imagination of football. Maybe that means the league is a 7-on-7 model, but it seems clear he wants to try something different.
A spread-styled offensive league would be fantastic. It has worked amazingly in college, as Saturday’s have long had more entertaining games than Sundays because collegiate coaches operate unafraid.
McMahon could go as far as banning quarterbacks taking snaps from directly under center. More logically, the XFL can target offensive coaches in college who implement systems that are spectacular to consume. Snag some Chip Kelly acolytes, lure a few of those fancy lower-tier coaches who run the most gimmick-heavy offenses in the nation, and so on.
Basically, avoid people with the “Power I” mindset or dudes who decide to coach scared while up 10 points in the fourth quarter against the New England Patriots.
The XFL’s motto should be “The Not For Doug Marrone League.” Also, bring in Lane Kiffin.
There’s still hope here.
Offer deals to five/four-star high school players
The NFL allows its feeder-system, the NCAA, to develop future pros while those players go unpaid. Vince McMahon has zero obligation to do such a thing. By circumventing a somewhat predated model, he could land some of the country’s best, young players.
It might not stick, as the nation’s top prospects might still prefer going the traditional model, but stealing away a few five-stars would be good for business — even if the XFL can only hold onto those players for three-four years before the NFL comes calling.
There can — and should be, for that matter — an argument about what is the right age for a person to start playing professional football, but Vince isn’t here for those semantics. He is, presumably, around to get some quality players for cheap.
The NCAA offers a scholarship to future NFL players. The XFL, on the other hand, could offer even more.
Vince never touched on this possibility. Maybe he will later, because he should, as this is an untapped goldmine.
Downplay the gimmick feel
The original XFL brought as much pro wrestling into it as humanly possible. So much so, in fact, had it not been sent the way of the dinosaurs, we were only one more season away from linebackers performing atomic leg drops on receivers.
Don’t get it twisted, though — the XFL should very much allow its players to have ALL the personality. At the same time, we don’t need in-game promos or pregame tomfoolery like having players chasing a football to decide what team gets the ball first.
Given how McMahon talked about the league operating, with it being a safe space, there will presumably be some off-limits issues that players will be forced to avoid.
It should be simple — go above and beyond to put together a solid, not WWE-related broadcast team and allow the pregame broadcast to be worked somewhat similarly to how the wrestling promotion handles its Network Special kick-off shows.
Air some video packages, let the studio team discuss the who and what, and let players actually prepare for the game.
Don’t force the petty, wild and crazed promos. Let them come natural.
And that, my friends, is likely the biggest thing the XFL will need to do — not force its brand upon the country, but allow it to develop naturally by not stunting any one player’s personality. It needs to avoid asking that player to perform as a version of himself amplified by a million.
This is football. Not the WWE. The league, and more specifically Vince McMahon, simply needs not to force the feeling of it being different than the NFL. It will happen naturally if they allow it by merely not punishing players for being themselves.
All of that being said, given how McMahon handled the press conference; if the rules, logistics of it, him owning every franchise are things he plans on doing, as well as the billion other questionable plans, it wouldn’t shock me if the XFL never actually makes it to the field.