The XFL was working and will be missed

Comparisons between the XFL and other football failures like its 2001 version and the AAF are misguided. The league was serving a purpose.

There appear to be four certainties in life…death, taxes, Giants-Cowboys on Sunday night, and spring football failing to last.

The XFL, a reboot of the 2001 league of the same name, more or less called it quits on Friday. Its 2020 season had already been called off to the COVID-19 pandemic but the cancellation statement expressed hope to return next year. That possibility was seemingly brought down by Friday’s proceedings, which laid off nearly all of the league’s employees.

Such an announcement immediately prompted endless waves of jokes and comparisons to the campy 2001 attempt and other short-lived football leagues like the Alliance of American Football. Some noted that even the horribly mismanaged AAF made it to eight weeks of action. Others unleashed waves of memes and cries of “I told you so” and prayed there would be no further attempt at spring football, which never really gained long-term traction outside of the World Football League/NFL Europe. Even the niche brand Arena Football League finally bid farewell in November after years of financial difficulties.

But, make no mistake. The XFL had a purpose. Its impact can even be traced beyond the players that have found new jobs in the NFL. Even disregarding the fact that it took a global pandemic to shut the new XFL down, the league did something other the other failed attempts at football didn’t: it made us think.

Much like the AAF, the XFL’s biggest problem was not, as commonly believed when it comes to spring leagues, a lack of viewers. While things were trending downward, they were still numbers hovering the seven-digit range. Viewers love to complain about ideas like Thursday Night Football and the Pro Bowl, but these events continue to be staged because there’s no denying the stranglehold football has on our imaginations. The XFL invited viewers to give into that grip, while at the same time, introducing and encouraging an open mind toward ideas and that made the experience even more enjoyable.

Subsequent new attempts at football have tried to bill itself as an NFL alternative, creating gimmicks for gimmicks’ sake. The old XFL, for example, tried to get by solely on shock value, glorifying big hits, shady wrestling-inspired kayfabe, and outright debauchery. It introduced concepts that would never sniff the NFL, like an opening coin toss replaced by “the scramble“. As any horror movie franchise will tell you, the concept of shock value can only get you so far before people tire of it. The AAF might’ve close to being the thinking fan’s spring football league, but its laughable financial strategies perhaps ensured that it was never going to have a lasting impact.

New York Guardians

Feb 23, 2020; St. Louis, Missouri, USA; The St. Louis Battlehawks square off against the NY Guardians during the second half of an XFL game at The Dome at America’s Center. Mandatory Credit: Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports

XFL brass, however, had firm strategies, ones that took, again, a global pandemic to overrule. The powers that be ensured that games would appear on major networks, including the main networks of ABC and Fox. Vince McMahon sold off $270 million of WWE stock to fund the league (the pandemic closing off all additional revenue sources).

In essence, the XFL was set up for the relative long-term. Would we be preparing for an XFL season in 2030? That probably would’ve been a stretch, but the league was able to build a legacy in a short amount of time. A combination of the population’s appetite for football and just enough rage against the NFL machine was enough to ensure that.

Instead of trying to steer fans away from the NFL, however, the XFL operated on a mantra of “For the Love of Football”. Comparisons were mostly unwelcome. Instead, it was a fun little attempt to carry on gridiron antics after the Super Bowl, to keep the momentum going. It was all about enjoying football for a few more weeks, if you were into that sort of thing.

The XFL’s lasting trait will be its transparency. AAF replay reviews got the ball rolling in that regard, but the XFL took it several steps further. It retained the live look-ins into the replay booth while also putting reporters on the sidelines for instant analysis from the playmakers. Interviewers were on the scene immediately after big plays both good and bad. It led to some awkward situations, like the Los Angeles Wildcats’ defense cursing up a storm after being asked not to by ESPN’s Molly McGrath. The league was perhaps never going to get by name-brand recognition (though several players, like quarterbacks P.J. Walker and Jordan Ta’amu, gained cult followings), but there’s no denying that the average television consumer will grow attached to someone on TV. They’ll root for their redemption or hope they fall in a sense of schadenfreude. Of course, adjustments may have to be made…interviewing the kicker who literally just missed a field goal could be a bad idea…but a step toward transparency makes for a more enjoyable game experience.

Wherever their rooting preferences were, the transparency was a stark contrast to the almost secretive operations of the NFL. Time will tell if some of the transparency innovations are adopted by football or other leagues. But when it came to getting fans involved in the game, the XFL was on the fast track to doing it best.

Other league legacies could lie in innovations that could keep the game safer and faster. While the AAF did away with kickoffs entirely, the XFL kept them in an attempt to make them safer. Rather than running starts creating the potential for devastating collisions, this system lined up competitors at five yards apart, with only the kicker and returner allowed to move in “lonely island”-like settings. Thus, the two vocal groups of football fans were satisfied: the purist who wants the kickoffs to stay and those who advocate for a safer game.

Rob Manfred, perhaps, would enjoy the idea of the XFL’s unseen overtime system, one designed to be done in a timely fashion. All 20 games of the new XFL’s tenure ended in regulation, denying the concept of their “shootout-style” overtime. Again, almost all groups of football fans would be satisfied in the sweetest of compromises: both teams would get a chance with the ball while the emphasis of a defensive stop remains intact.

Of course, the XFL wasn’t perfect. Typical pratfalls of spring football were surely on display, primarily a rollercoaster of quality play. But it was a thinking man’s spring league, a league that made far more of an impact than its “extreme” predecessor. We may never truly know how high the XFL was destined to fly. But to compare to the abject failures that came before is unnecessary at best and crass at worst.

A team of those who knew the game, led by commissioner Oliver Luck, had things going in the right direction. In a time period dominated by the exploits of basketball and hockey, we were talking about gridiron antics. It’s possible we’ll continue to do so as we try to inch back toward normalcy. Perhaps when there’s no spring football to fill the void. The XFL showed it could be done in a matter that was not condescending and could play a role in the sports spectrum beyond it’s February through April time period.

Not bad when you remember it was made simply for the fun of it…or for the love of football.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

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