Did somebody just out-XFL the XFL?

xfl fans orlando

Baseball may be the de jure national pastime and the NFL may be the de facto national pastime, but, heretofore, the official sport of ALDLAND always has been the XFL. Almost twenty years ago, the brash and innovative XFL upended the stogy NFL with a fan-first (or certainly not player-first) approach that, while not long-lasting in its then-current form, lives on through a variety of changes it forced the NFL to make to stay current with its most ardent fans.

Almost two decades after the XFL folded, however, the NFL under Roger Goodell is as stiff and outdated as it’s ever appeared, which made initial reports that Vince McMahon was bringing the XFL back welcome news indeed in many quarters, including this virtual one. The NFL once again is ripe for upheaval, and a revived XFL seemed like just the vehicle for the job once again. Unfortunately, further revelations from McMahon have made clear that the new XFL, which is planned to resume play in 2020, has a mission devoid of the brash, raw, boundary-pushing, potentially/probably dangerous approach the league took in 2001:

On January 25, 2018, Alpha Entertainment announced a new incarnation of the XFL, which would begin with a 10-week inaugural season beginning in January or February 2020. In a press conference, McMahon stated that the new XFL would be dissimilar to its previous incarnation, stating that “There’s only so many things that have ‘FL’ on the end of them and those are already taken. But we aren’t going to have much of what the original XFL had, including the cheerleaders, who aren’t really part of the game anymore. The audience wants entertainment with football, and that’s what we are going to give them.” McMahon stated that the league would feature eight teams as a single entity owned by Alpha (the previous XFL was also a single-entity league), which will be revealed in 2019. Alpha Entertainment was established in order to keep the league’s management and operations separate from that of WWE.

The XFL will discourage political gestures by players during games (such as, for example, taking a knee in protest), and will forbid any player with a criminal record from participating. He justified this by stating that the XFL would be “evaluating a player based on many things, including the quality of human being they are”, and that “people don’t want social and political issues coming into play when they are trying to be entertained”. He suggested that players who wish to express political opinions should do so on their personal time.

He’s had a lot of success, but here, McMahon’s being too big of an idiot in too many ways. The second coming of the XFL wasn’t going to be a cookie-cutter version of the first edition, of course, but its organizing principle, by McMahon’s own admission, has nothing to do with football. Nobody ever thought the XFL would offer a better on-field product than the NFL because the best players always play for the most money, but you’re lying if you said you thought the XFL would return to play the role of a more conservative NFL. (And not to get too deep into the water here, but does anyone think he could’ve saved a lot of words by just saying he only wants white players?) What a waste.

Thankfully, somebody else saw an opening here. That somebody is Charlie Ebersol, the son of Dick Ebersol, the longstanding NBC executive who, along with McMahon, formed the original XFL. Charlie, who directed the recent 30 for 30 movie about the XFL, plans to scoop his father’s former partner by debuting his new league, the Alliance of American Football, a year earlier than XFL 2.0:

The league plans to kick off on February 9th, 2019, one week after the Super Bowl, with 50-man rosters and a ten-week season.

The news just gets worse and worse for the XFL, as Ebersol’s league has already recruited some heavy hitters from the NFL world. Ebersol has brought in retired Indianapolis Colts General Manager and current ESPN analyst Bill Polian to help oversee the league, with former Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu doing the same for the player side of the new venture and former USC star J.K. McKay for the team side. Adding to the league’s growing star power are Hines Ward, Justin Tuck and Dick Ebersol, who are all league advisors.

The league’s financial backing comes from a variety of sources, including former Minnesota Vikings defensive lineman Jared Allen, Billionaire Peter Thiel and the Chernin Group. This stands in contrast to McMahon, who is financing his new XFL through personal wealth. That creates more upside for him personally, but Ebersol is taking a longer view of his new league saying “I think where businesses like this fail is that they expect to have ludicrous and unrealistic ticket and media deal projections in Year 1. Our investors here understand that it’s a 7-10-year plan.”

Significantly, AAF already has a television broadcast deal with CBS, and it claims it also will offer live streaming on a free mobile app. Plus, according to an ESPN report, there will be no TV timeouts, substantially fewer commercials, and mandatory two-point-conversion attempts after every touchdown.

The younger Ebersol hasn’t said much about the AAF’s broader mission beyond a general goal to provide fans and players with a quality on-field performance which, while vague, is better than the position McMahon’s staked out. It’s tough to read the tea leaves on the league’s backers and advisors– Polian presents as an NFL-stooge type; Thiel funded the Hulk Hogan lawsuit that mortally wounded Gawker Media Group; Chernin owns a majority of Barstool Sports and recently upped its stake; and Polamalu, Ward, Tuck, and Allen all seem like fun, personable characters in the former-player role.

The XFL of 2001 may never (and arguably shouldn’t) return, but, sitting here today, I have far greater hope in what the AAF can offer the world of football than I do in McMahon’s soft retread effort.

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Related
Pre/Postmodern football fans rejoice: The SPFL cometh

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Can technology rescue the NFL?

A variety of well-publicized incidents have kept the focus of NFL leaders on the correction of off-field problems this season, but player safety on the field remains an ongoing challenge for the league, particularly in the area of head injuries. Fans likely would agree that the success of the NFL’s approach to addressing head injuries has been mixed, both in terms of prioritization and implementation. Some have criticized rule modifications ostensibly designed to protect vulnerable players as fundamentally (and detrimentally) changing the game by neutering defenses. Others have been dismayed by the fact that the much-lauded NFL concussion settlement appears designed to excludemany players who have and will suffer from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease found in those with histories of repetitive brain trauma.

One positive development on player-safety front that seems likely to satisfy all interested parties is the NFL’s XPRIZE-like initiative known as the Head Health Challenge. The NFL, together with some of its corporate partners, committed “up to $20 million to fund innovative solutions that will help” to “advance the development of technologies that can detect early stage mild traumatic brain injuries and improve brain protection.”

Earlier this month, the league announced seven new Head Health Challenge winners, each of which received $500,000 (and the opportunity to receive an additional $1,000,000) toward the further development of their proposed safety technology. The winners included a government agency, universities, and private companies. The winners’ proposals include new helmet technology, of course, but they go beyond that to address improvements in on-field concussion diagnostics and changes to the playing surface itself. Each winner created a short video to explain its project, and the videos from Emory University in Atlanta and Viconic Sporting, Inc., a Dearborn, Michigan-based company that draws technological inspiration from the automotive industry, are illustrative of the latter two proposals:

Links to all of the winners’ videos are available here.

One of the implicit promises of projects like these is that they offer a means to improving player safety without altering the way the game is played, something that is likely to satisfy players and fans alike.

It is apparent from the deaths and life-changing injuries of players such as Dave Duerson, Junior Seau, and Mike Utley that the NFL has plenty of ground to make up in this area. While it is not clear whether or how soon the NFL or other football organizations will adopt any of these safety technologies, one message of the Head Health Challenge seems clear: if the league is willing to invest in the development of safety technology, it is likely to be met with a ready supply of implementable solutions.

Let’s see action! Tennis > Baseball > Football?

Entering that time of year when baseball and football overlap, I was reminded of the mostly uninteresting sports superiority debate, one football usually wins because of its media popularity and perception that it offers a lot more action than the other sports. It’s pointless to swim against the tide of football supremacy, but is it really true that a football game offers more action than a baseball game?

I found myself reevaluating this question while flipping between baseball and football games on college football’s opening weekend, simultaneously enticed by shiny football and entranced by the playoff potential of my favorite and local baseball teams. Baseball seems slow, of course, and there’s no clock. Most of the time, though, a televised baseball game takes as much time to complete as a televised football game. As a comparison of these two random articles indicates, MLB games actually tend to consume less time than NFL games. The nature of the gameplay is what it is, but a fan is going to spend the same amount of time– roughly three hours– watching a game of one or the other.

We can go deeper and wider, though. Fewer Americans watch tennis than either the official or unofficial national pastimes, but even men’s tennis matches (played as the best of five sets, rather than the women’s best of three) tend to take less time than baseball or football. Moreover, as a set of recent Wall Street Journal studies conclude, it’s tennis– not baseball or football– that packs the most action per match or game.

Read the full article here.

Everything you need to be an NFL playcaller

One thing that I think is important when tackling a complicated problem is to avoid rushing into it. Instead, I like to break it down and solve the simplest part first and then move on to more complicated parts.

The question today is, “What play should an offensive/defensive coordinator call?” Of course, NFL play books run 800+ plays. I’m not really prepared to consider the effects of 800 plays versus 800 (over a half a million combinations, each of which would have to be carefully considered). Instead, let’s suppose that each the offense and the defense have two plays. A rush style play and a pass style play. The defense wants them to be the same – that is, they do best when they select a rush style defense against an offensive rush play (and the same for pass plays). On the other hand, the offense wants them to be different – they want to catch the defense off guard.

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Sports media member swings, misses at sports analogy

The football head injury conversation more and more people are having is a complicated and multifaceted one. One of the reachable conclusions is obvious, though: a confluence of related factors could conspire to bring about the “end” of football as we currently know it. Many people often immediately retort, “No!”, maybe because they like football a lot and don’t want it to end, but also, they say, there’s too much money in football, it’s too big of a business, and it’s way too popular and ingrained in our culture to go away. And the first person might then bring up boxing. To put the thesis statement at the end of this opening paragraph, the point, for those, like Jonathan Mahler, who might miss it, is that if a sport as widely popular and culturally ingrained as boxing could fall from prominence, so too could football; in other words, that football is America’s most popular, wealthy, culturally relevant sport is no defense to the claim that it might lose that status, because a once-similarly situated sport– boxing– did lose its status as such.

Mahler, a sports columnist for whatever Bloomberg View is, captured readers with the headline “Why Football Won’t Go the Way of Boxing (Yet)” and his thesis is that football won’t follow boxing’s decline because boxing’s decline was the result of television-related changes, not “brutality.” The issue that vitiates the analogy is not the specific reason for the decline, as Mahler believes, but it is the fact of the decline itself.

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Pre/Postmodern football fans rejoice: The SPFL cometh

Early this afternoon, new Deadspin Editor Tommy Craggs posted an exclusive, leaked copy of the plans for a new football league, to be called the Spring Professional Football League, which would begin in 2013.

According to its own forecasts, the SPFL, whose management includes a number of former XFL and NFL Europe executives, will debut in 2013 with eight teams playing a 14- to 16-week season. The summary lists the cities under consideration as New York, Washington, Memphis, Orlando, Charlotte, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Denver, Dallas, Phoenix, Houston, Los Angeles, and Seattle. Teams would be centrally owned by the league, a la Major League Soccer.

The league is pitching itself as one that would not be a direct competitor to the NFL by declining to compete for time or players.

For anyone who loves postmodern establishment framework-busting, that premodern time when there were biologically different types of humans cruising around the Earth simultaneously, or who has admitted to playing fantasy XFL, this is thrilling news.

While Craggs’ Deadspin piece, linked above, includes some downers from “sports economists” like “this is XFL redux without the pizzazz and the McMahon baggage, but with all of the other flaws,” the fact that SPFL’s “director of cheerleading, Jay Howarth, was in charge of XFL cheerleading” should be news enough for any fence-sitters to jump on the SPFL train. 

Football is Better than Soccer: An Englishman Abandons the Beautiful Game for the NFL (via WSJ)

In its energy and complexity, football captures the spirit of America better than any other cultural creation on this continent, and I don’t mean because it features long breaks in which advertisers get to sell beer and treatments for erectile dysfunction. It sits at the intersection of pioneering aggression and impossibly complex strategic planning. It is a collision of Hobbes and Locke; violent, primal force tempered by the most complex set of rules, regulations, procedures and systems ever conceived in an athletic framework.

Soccer is called the beautiful game. But football is chess, played with real pieces that try to knock each other’s brains out. It doesn’t get any more beautiful than that. … Read More

(via WSJ)
(HT: VC)

Running past interference

I like Grantland’s Vegas correspondent, Bill Barnwell, and it seems he had himself a pensive weekend, maybe because he lost all his money? Who knows, but he posted today his suggestions for reforming the NFL’s pass interference rule that are thoughtful and almost academic in their substance and presentation. Aside from the practical workability concerns he identifies, I think his solution– creation of minor, major, and flagrant pass interference penalties– is a good one. The details are available here.

I have long complained about pass interference calls in football too, but not for the same reasons as Barnwell. I’ve often said that 75% of pass interference calls shouldn’t be made, and while I’m no good at numbers, the point is that it’s called too much. Barnwell agrees for a derivative or secondary reason: the game-atlering nature of the sanction. I think so for a primary reason, however: the very act being punished isn’t worthy of punishment as often as it is punished, irrespective of what that punishment is.

I get that football doesn’t work if the DBs get to just tackle the receivers on every play, and I get that this is especially true today, when passing has come to dominate the pro game to the extent it now does (ESPN declared 2011 the Year of the Quarterback, so it must be true), but this is still a contact sport, and passes are still live balls, and getting a jersey tugged or an arm touched is part of the game. Watching every receiver who just missed a catch pop up and flail for a flag he more often than not gets shouldn’t have to be, though. I know we don’t really live in the world of tear-away uniforms anymore, but the jersey pull is the dumbest of all, right? “Yep…right there…grabbed the back of his jersey….”  Whether that and other similar physical interactions cost the defense five yards or fifteen yards isn’t my concern, and I don’t propose any formal rule change. Rather, the league should just tell the officials to back off on their pass interference calls. 

Barnwell, ever the Vegas man these days, writes a lot about risk and reward in his proposal for sanction modifications. Because the types of interactions the pass interference penalty punishes aren’t those that are large player safety threats, a similar analysis could apply to my proposal for treatment of the underlying act in that this is a low risk, high reward area for the league to permit back into the game some of the physicality it’s taking out in other areas.

A Thanksgiving tradition for over 70 years

The Detroit Lions have been playing football on Thanksgiving day since 1934. From the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s account:

When it comes to Thanksgiving Day football, NFL style, most fans first think of the Lions and the tradition that was started in 1934. It was their first year in Detroit after a local radio executive, George A. Richards, had purchased the Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans and moved the team to Detroit. The Spartans were members of the NFL from 1930 to 1933.With the Spartans, not only was Richards bringing a proven, quality team to Detroit, he was also bringing at least one super-star, Earl “Dutch” Clark, one of the most versatile backs ever to play the game. Clark had an outstanding supporting cast in the Detroit backfield with a big, talented line anchored by Frank Christiansen.

Even though he knew there was some risk in scheduling a game on Thanksgiving Day, Richards also recognized that his Lions were taking a back seat to the baseball Tigers on the sports pages. So as one way of attracting Motor City fans during the team’s first season, he opted for the Thanksgiving Day contest.

The matchup between the Lions and the World Champion Chicago Bears proved to be an all-time classic. The 1934 Lions had not allowed a touchdown until their eighth game and entered the game with the Bears with a 10-1 record. But with 11 straight wins, Chicago had an even better record. Still a win would put the Lions into a first-place tie with the Bears with only a game left, a repeat clash with the Bears in Chicago, just three days later on December 2.

The 26,000 tickets for the Turkey Day clash in the University of Detroit Stadium, were sold out two weeks in advance of the game. It was estimated that another 25,000 would have attended had there been seats available.

The Bears edged out the Lions 19-16 in the classic holiday struggle and then prevailed 10-7 three days later to clinch the NFL Western Division crown.

Not despondent over the last two losses, Richards reasoned that his team had done well in its first year in Detroit. His confidence was rewarded the next year when the Lions won the 1935 NFL Championship. The key game in the title drive came on Thanksgiving Day, when the Lions defeated the Bears 14-2 to clinch the West championship.

Thus the football-on-Thanksgiving tradition became firmly established in Detroit. With the exception of a six-season gap from 1939 to 1944, the Thanksgiving Day game has been played with no interruptions.

In recent years, the Lions’ poor performance led many to question their entitlement to the Thanksgiving game year-in and year-out and even call for their removal from the game. To take from a team that had so little going for it that one special thing it did have seemed pretty heartless, even by NFL standards. Even in its worst years (and even if they didn’t win), the team seemed to rise to the occasion, playing tough to preserve legacy and pride on what was likely to be their only nationally televised game of the season. Our family went to one of these games, when the Lions hosted the Bears at the Silverdome in the 90s. I can’t remember which year it was, but after reviewing the old schedules and doing some mental math, I’m going to go with the 1997 meeting, a 55-20 Detroit victory over Chicago.

This year’s meeting, at the Lions’ Ford Field against the undefeated Packers is a critical matchup for two teams with playoff aspirations. On both sides of the ball, the run game will be important to Detroit’s chances for victory. If resurgent Kevin Smith continues to act like old Kevin Smith and the Lions’ defense suddenly discovers a way to stop the run, they could hand the Packers their first loss of the season. Knocking Aaron Rodgers unconscious would help too.

Big Monday

Today really isn’t a big day, and most of the weekend’s football games were duds, but there were a couple notable exceptions.

Saturday day was pretty slow around the college football world, but things picked up Saturday night, when two unbeaten teams, Wisconsin and Oklahoma, put their perfect records to the test and failed to preserve them. In East Lansing, Michigan State made it two in a row against the Badgers. Wisconsin dominated early, but the Spartans seized the momentum and the lead, which they held for most of the game. In typical MSU fashion, though, their attention lapsed and Wisconsin was able to tie the game at 31. With no time on the clock, QB Kirk Cousins threw a Hail Mary (or “Rocket” pass in Dantonio terminology– we always seem to learn the names of his game-winning plays) to the endzone that bounced off B.J. Cunningham’s face and into the waiting hands of Keith Nichol, who muscled it across the goal line for the walk-off score:

That game finished in time to watch Texas Tech complete its victory over Oklahoma, a game the Red Raiders mostly dominated, although the Sooners threatened to make it interesting late, after most of their fans had left. (Vanderbilt wrapped up a homecoming win against Army before both of these games.)

All of which caused me to miss a dominant performance by Albert Pujols in Game 3 of the World Series.

On Sunday, the Lions dropped their second straight game and looked a lot like their old selves. Speaking of which, I saw former Lion QB Dan Orlovsky on the sidelines in Indianapolis during their loss in New Orleans, which made me think that, of the three defeated NFL teams– Indianapolis, St. Louis, and Miami– the Colts may actually be trying to lose all their games. Orlovsky has to be a better option than Curtis Painter. He certainly was a serviceable player for the Lions last year, and Painter is not that. The Rams are suffering from critical injuries at QB and RB, and the Dolphins, who need Andrew Luck most of these three, really just are that bad. But Jim Caldwell’s decision to go with Painter over Orlovsky supports the notion that Indy is tanking this, although they really are pretty bad all on their own too. On the topic of rookie quarterbacks, Cam Newton turned his record-breaking stat parade into a win for Carolina, and Tim Tebow did what Tim Tebow now does, apparently, in his first start for Denver, coming from behind to beat the aforementioned and still hapless Dolphins in Miami.

In hockey, the Washington Capitals dealt the Detroit Red Wings their first loss of the year in a 7-1 Capitals home win.