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Almost two decades after the XFL folded, however, the NFL under Roger Goodell is as stiff and outdated as it’s ever appeared, which made initial reports that Vince McMahon was bringing the XFL back welcome news indeed in many quarters, including this virtual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.