Fortunately, this year, wrestling tycoon Vince McMahon is launching a substitute that aims to satisfy America’s appetite for football. Nearly two decades after the first iteration of the XFL collapsed, McMahon is hoping to learn from his mistakes when he reboots the league this weekend. Back in 2018, McMahon said, "I wanted to do this since the day we stopped the other one. A chance to do it with no partners, strictly funded by me, which would allow me to look in the mirror and say, 'You were the one who screwed this up,' or 'You made this thing a success.'" I have been following the revived league since December 2017, when the XFL was simply a punchline and a reboot was nothing more than speculation. On January 25, 2018, McMahon live streamed a press conference over the internet to officially announce the return of the XFL. From the onset, McMahon did not want to rush the league’s development saying in the initial press conference, “We have two years now to really get it right.” The original iteration of the XFL was criticized for cutting corners and rushing the league to market. In the 743 days since the league’s announcement, host cities were selected, team names were revealed, players were drafted and a competitor, the infamous Alliance of American Football, played both its first and last games.
Now that the revived league’s inaugural game is scheduled this weekend in Washington, DC between the DC Defenders and the Seattle Dragons, here are four things to watch over the course of the season:
One of the original goals of the XFL was to create faster paced games without losing excitement. The unofficial motto of the league is “Less Stall, More Ball.” Fans have long criticized the NFL for having excessively long games due to nonstop commercial breaks and the overuse of coaches challenges, among other factors. Even before any specific rule changes were announced, McMahon noted that he hopes games will be under two hours in total, 37.5% shorter than the average NFL game in 2018. Various rules have been created to both speed up the pace of play and limit off-field breaks. The most notable is a continuously running clock outside of the final two minutes of each half (the clock would only stop during a change of possession). Within the final two minutes, the XFL will follow NFL rules, with the clock only stopping after an incomplete pass or if the ball carrier runs out of bounds. Additionally, the XFL will have a 25 second play clock, compared to the 40 second clock used in the NFL. A dedicated ball judge aims to save time by spotting the ball quickly after each play and all challenges will be initiated from a “sky judge”, who has only 60 seconds to determine whether to overturn a call. All of these innovations were created with a faster game in mind, but will it be enough to create a noticeable change in game length? Will the average XFL game be two hours long, as desired by McMahon?
Which gameplay changes will stick?
In addition to the rulebook changes mentioned above, the XFL will incorporate other modifications to the standard NFL rules with the aim of making games safer and more exciting. A strong focus was placed on rethinking kickoffs, often called football’s most dangerous and least exciting play. Under the new rule, all players except the kicker and returner will line up on their respective sides of the receiving team’s 30 yard line. They are unable to move until the ball is caught or three seconds after it hits the ground. This is designed to eliminate the high impact hits that occur as players sprint down field after a kick. Additionally, the extra point kick is replaced with a play from scrimmage. Teams can elect to take the ball from the 2-yard-line, 5-yard-line, or 10-yard-line after they score. Upon a successful conversion, the scoring team will be awarded 1, 2 or 3 extra points, respectively. The gameplay rule that I am most excited about is the legalization of the double forward pass. Teams are allowed to have up to two forward passes, as long as the ball does not cross the line of scrimmage before the final pass. I can only imagine the trick plays that coaches will draw up to utilize this rule. However, it is unknown whether any of these changes will have a positive reception with fans. For every two-point conversion, a rule originally pioneered by the AFL before becoming a natural part of modern football, there are dozens of “opening scrambles”, an ill-fated rule change introduced in the original XFL that replaced the opening coin toss with a 60-yard scramble to earn possession. It will be interesting to see if coaches make use of the double pass or how they strategize the varying extra point options.
How many viewers will tune in?
How much of an audience will the XFL garner? At this point, it seems to be an accepted law of nature that spring football will never garner close to the audience of NFL or NCAA football. The inaugural game of the original XFL earned an astounding 10.3 Nielsen rating (over 54 million live viewers), which at the time was the 12th highest recorded rating for a Saturday night. However, viewership fell dramatically, and by the final week of the regular season, games earned a 1.5 Nielsen rating, incredibly low for primetime, nationally-broadcast, live sporting events. The Alliance of American football drew decent viewership, with the opening game drawing 2.9 million live viewers and subsequent games drawing around half a million. Those numbers are more impressive considering that only the season opener was shown on a broadcast network (CBS). The rest of the league games were shown exclusively on premium cable networks TNT and NFL Network. In contrast, the XFL will air a majority of its games on broadcast networks ABC and FOX. The remaining games will be covered by ESPN and Fox Sports One, the gold standards of cable sports networks. Will the more favorable broadcast partnership help the XFL gain strong viewership? Will Vince McMahon finally be able to break the curse looming over spring football leagues?
Will politics be present?
Finally, it is unknown how much politics will be allowed into the XFL. The announcement of the league occured right after Colin Kaepernick’s controversial anthem protests and from day one, McMahon hoped to discourage political gestures during games. "People don't want social and political issues coming into play when they are trying to be entertained," McMahon said at the announcement press conference in January 2018. "We want someone who wants to take a knee to do their version of that on their personal time." Although anthem protests received less coverage during the past NFL season, it will be interesting to see what measures, if any, will the league take against players making political statements. According to XFL commissioner Oliver Luck, the ban on kneeling during the national anthem is codified in player contracts. Additionally, players with criminal records are reportedly barred from the league. I will follow whether player advocacy or politics get involved and, if so, how the league decides to address it.