The original XFL launched in 2001 with huge fanfare, an NBC primetime slot, and a promise for more excitement than the NFL was delivering. League founder and WWE owner Vince McMahon famously declared to the crowd before the inaugural game, “This is the XFL!” Then after 14 million viewers tuned in for that first game, interest dropped off catastrophically, and the league folded after one season.
The new league, which relaunched last weekend, has a more modest approach and an up-tempo pace, thanks to a shorter play clock, a continuous game clock (except for the final two minutes of each half), and a 10-minute halftime. It has also modified the points after touchdowns and special teams to make the game more exciting for fans while preserving player safety.
“We did an in-depth study on the American football fan, and that led to our conclusion that there are approximately 40 million avid football fans in the United States who want more football when there is otherwise none, which has typically been after the Super Bowl in late winter and early spring,” XFL President and COO Jeffrey Pollack said. “That’s what we have geared up to provide.”
With the disastrous runs of the original XFL and last year’s Alliance of American Football, the necessity for this new league has been the subject of controversy. However, the league offered a good on-field product in Washington, D.C., where it hosted the opening game. Instead of going for the 80,000-seat FedEx Field in Landover, Md., the league chose Audi Field, D.C. United’s 20,000-seat stadium in the heart of the District, as a more realistic home for the DC Defenders.
The league also held back on the ballyhoo and went for basic advertising and word of mouth. The main promotion was a foam battle shield for the first 10,000 fans on game day, and while event staff still handed out shields 15 minutes before kickoff, they went fast after that. A crowd of 17,163 showed up, with only single-seat tickets remaining, to watch the Defenders beat the Seattle Dragons 31-19.
That’s not to say they weren’t skeptical of what to expect. Watching a new team with new traditions, fans screamed “red” and “O” during the national anthem, as they do during Washington Capitals games. Many mimicked McMahon’s “This is the XFL” cry, while another said, “History in the making,” with a laugh.
But unlike the original league, which put Jerry Lawler, Jim Ross, and Jesse Ventura in the broadcast booth, the only WWE presence was McMahon’s son and minority owner, Shane, watching the first half quietly from the sidelines. This allowed fans to focus solely on the game. The first kickoff, which lines the kicking and receiving teams five yards apart and prohibits them from moving until the ball is caught, proved that this would be a unique experience.
“Everybody’s pretty much down there when the ball is kicked so there’s really no gaping holes. There’s no wedge,” said Defenders safety Rahim Moore. “In the NFL, it’s a little different, but it’s challenging and if you hit it the right way, which we will one day, it’s to the house.”
The fans were into it too, booing the Dragons when they came onto the field and cheering when Defenders quarterback Cardale Jones completed his first pass. When Elijah Campbell blocked Brock Miller’s punt and Jonathan Celestin recovered it for the Defenders’ first touchdown, the crowd went insane.
The pacing also gave the game a much faster feel, as the first quarter lasted 34 minutes, thanks to a game clock that would run as soon as the play clock was set for incomplete passes and penalties. The 10-minute halftime was surreal but a breath of fresh air for fans at home and in the stands.
“There was some paranoia going into training camp with how we would manage the faster play clock and I thought we handled that well,” Defenders head coach Pep Hamilton said. “It was great that the officials were willing to have dialogue with us prior to the game and during the game to better help us manage those situations.”
As with the pace, the fans seemed to be adjusting to the rules during the game. For example, when Dragons kicker Ernesto Lacayo booted the kickoff short of the 20-yard line before halftime, fans were thrilled to learn that it resulted in an illegal procedure penalty that put the ball on Seattle’s 45-yard line. So were some of the players.
“I’m like, ‘What is going on’ and definitely was surprised by a few things,” said Jones. “But we’ve got next week to look forward to.”
The 3.3 million viewers also saw unique changes including sideline interviews during the game with the players after they made great or bad plays. For Dragons wide receiver Austin Proehl, who scored two touchdowns, it was a bit awkward at first.
“It’s definitely different,” said Proehl. “After you score a touchdown or make a big play, whatever it may be, I think it’s fun to over and celebrate with your teammates, but you’re not really expecting to have cameras. That’s definitely a new thing, but I think it’s a good addition to this league.”
For his quarterback, Brandon Silvers, who was interviewed after a throwing a pick-six to Bradley Sylve in the fourth quarter, it was not as fun.
Fans at home could also hear play calls and sideline discussion. Hamilton was very mindful of being broadcast, but Seattle Dragons head coach Jim Zorn was not and still even covered his mouth during calls.
“I’m interested to hear what that’s all about,” said Zorn. “Next week, who knows, I may just go with wrist bands and say ‘Play one. Play two. Flip it over.’ I’m kidding, but we’ll have to see how it turned out on national television.”
While the NFL keeps gambling a football field’s length away from its promotions or broadcasts, the XFL has embraced it. Broadcasters Steve Levy and Greg McElroy frequently discussed the point spread and the winning and losing bettors. The over/under was even displayed on the broadcast next to the score. Depending on how fans react, that could change, as the league will evolve as it learns.
It takes years to determine if new sports leagues will succeed, and the fans will be the decider. Nevertheless, the new XFL is off to a good start.
“I would love for every fan who comes to see us this weekend to walk away with one simple thought: ‘That was a great game, and I had a fun time.’ That’s it,” Pollack said.
The players also seem to be having a good time too.
“It’s definitely a second chance for your career. Ball is ball,” Moore said.
— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.
(Top photo courtesy of @XFLDefenders)