After a 19-year hiatus, the XFL relaunches this weekend with four games set to air on ABC, FOX, and ESPN. The original league, owned by WWE Chairman and CEO Vince McMahon, promoted fewer rules and more physicality and played one season in 2001 before ceasing operations. The new league, also owned by McMahon, promises a faster-paced and safer game.
I had a chance to speak with XFL Commissioner Oliver Luck about the new league and why he believes it will succeed. Luck joined the XFL in June 2019 after stints as President of NFL Europe, President and General Manager of Major League Soccer's Houston Dynamo, and Executive Vice President for Regulatory Affairs for the NCAA. Here is what he had to say.
How long had Vince McMahon been thinking about relaunching the XFL?
Luck: Over the years as he’s built WWE and has had the success that he's had with the company, I think he’s been sort of mulling over relaunching the league. When I got involved, he had already announced the league; this was back in January of 2018 when he announced the league and I got involved that summer. But my sense is that he'd been thinking about this for at least a couple of years prior to his announcement back in January of 2018.
You have worked as an executive in several sports industries. What really excited you about the XFL?
Luck: I was very much intrigued by a start-up of a brand-new football league. That doesn't happen very often, and I've been involved with NFL Europe as a start-up running some of the teams around the league and had a pretty good taste of a soccer start-up with the Houston Dynamo when we recruited that franchise to move down from San Jose to Houston. It's not that often that you've got a chance to have your fingerprints on a start-up league that is well-funded by Vince and supported by a guy with Vince's experience in terms of building companies. He has built an incredibly successful publicly traded company with WWE, so that really attracted me.
When the original league was launched in 2001, it was promoted as going back to fewer regulations and rougher play. The new XFL is touting itself as a faster-paced, up-tempo game that balances player safety. Can you describe how the league forged this new path?
Luck: I think it really sort of began with Vince asking me, and I brought staff on board to think about the game and ask where can innovate and where can we reimagine the game. We really started with fans. We talked to thousands of fans through focus groups and a bunch of market research and asked, “What do you like about professional football and if you could change a thing here or there, what would you change?” Generally speaking, the answer was somewhat unsurprising. People said, “Yeah we love pro football. It’s great. It’s the number one sport in America. It seems like every week there are new records being set for attendance or television ratings. But there are some things that we would like to change as fans.” The game sometimes moves a little bit too slowly. There are too many interruptions for some people's taste. They'd like a little bit better rhythm and better flow. So, we listened to all of those fans, and it was pretty much a consensus on where we could make a difference. We view it is taking a great game and making it a little bit better with the innovations that we've built into our rule book. We worked with a whole bunch of football experts: current and former coaches; current and former players; tech people because we wanted to make sure we could integrate tech in places where it helped the game. We brought health professionals on board because 20 years ago nobody was talking about brain health in football, but now it's a very important topic and a serious topic, and we wanted to make sure we were doing the right thing in that space. Then we distilled our innovations down to about a dozen. We wanted to do enough to innovate the game where it really matters to help us play this up-tempo, fast-paced game, but I also didn't want to just innovate for innovation's sake. There’s no sense in changing a long-established rule just for the sake of doing it, so we tried to be very selective. We also understand that players play high school ball. They play college ball. They play professional football. You don't want to overburden a player with too many new things all at once and that was a break as well on some of the ideas that we had.
There have been other efforts to create a football league that runs during the NFL offseason that did not last. You worked with NFL Europe, and there was the USFL, the World Football League, and the first iteration of the XFL. How do you see this league succeeding and what will be the key to its success?
Luck: I think there are three things that I really believe we have going for us. One of those is the support that Vince has, his resources and his experience in building a company. As we like to say, the gas tank is full. And he realizes that this is a long-term plan that's not going to have success in Week 1 and Week 2. It’s going to be over the course years that we determine the success of the league. Secondly, I really believe in the power of our broadcast partners, FOX and Disney with ABC and ESPN. I don't think there's ever been a startup sports league, let alone a startup football league, that had kind of exposure right off the bat. I think that's very encouraging. Those are two to really powerful entities that we're partners with. The third thing is that football is at a really interesting time right now. I think we're seeing in this country peak football. I think the game is played incredibly well. There are so many good skilled athletes and great coaching, along with the accouterments of football and how the game is presented. I think we're really in a very interesting time and if we can stay disciplined and play good football — and by staying disciplined, l mean keeping our focus on the springtime and our franchises and building our identities — I believe that have a chance to build a pretty strong foundation for this new league and its fanbase.
— 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 XFL.com)