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Almost two decades after the XFL folded, however, the NFL under Roger Goodell is as stiff and outdated as it’s ever appeared, which made initial reports that Vince McMahon was bringing the XFL back welcome news indeed in many quarters, including this virtual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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Pre/Postmodern football fans rejoice: The SPFL cometh

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ESPN Films’ 30 for 30 series finally peaks following Simmons’ departure

At some point in the last fifteen years, ESPN, as a brand, became uncool. I described this transition at length here, pegging 2003 as the beginning of the end of the Worldwide Leader’s cool cache. The ongoing creep (some would say, “dash”) toward faceless, nameless on-air talent and lowest-common-denominator content has not infected every corner of the four-letter network’s offerings, and the conventional wisdom was and remains that the weaker a program’s ties to Bristol, Connecticut, the higher its quality. That physical remoteness from the corporate jackboot seemingly allowed things like Bill Simmons’ Los-Angeles-based Grantland and the itinerant College GameDay to flourish.

Simmons also took a leading role in ESPN Films’ 30 for 30 series, a universally praised series of sports documentaries. After Simmons and ESPN parted ways in the spring of 2015, Grantland died, but 30 for 30 lived on. While I’ve enjoyed every 30 for 30 film I’ve caught flipping around on the television, none ever has been appointment viewing.

Until now.

Nearly two years after Simmons got himself kicked out of ESPN, the network will air what undoubtedly will be received as the best 30 for 30 entry ever: “This Was the XFL.” From the press release:

A bold challenge, a fearless experiment and ultimately, a spectacular failure. In 2001, sports entertainment titans Ebersol and McMahon launched the XFL. It was hardly the first time a league had tried to compete with the NFL, but the brash audacity of the bid, combined with the personalities and charisma of Ebersol and McMahon and the marketing behemoths of their respective companies — NBC and WWE — captured headlines and a sense of undeniable anticipation about what was to come.

Bringing together a cast of characters ranging from the boardrooms of General Electric to the practice fields of Las Vegas, “This Was the XFL” is the tale of — yes — all that went wrong, but also, how the XFL ended up influencing the way professional team sports are broadcast today. And at the center of it all – a decades long friendship between one of the most significant television executives in media history and the one-of-a-kind WWE impresario. This film will explore how Ebersol and McMahon brought the XFL to life, and why they had to let it go.

Both of these films (plus exclusive bonus features) will be available for streaming on WatchESPN immediately following their premieres.

I’m not much for fantasy football, but I played fantasy XFL, still love the ideas behind this league, and remain on vigilant watch for the emergence of subsequent examples of its ilk. The XFL improved the NFL, which now is in need of another shakeup. Here’s hoping that the release of this movie, slated for three days prior to the next Super Bowl, will rattle the NFL’s cage.

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Related
Pre/Postmodern football fans rejoice: The SPFL cometh

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.