How XFL 3.0 can (finally) work in New York

Third time’s the charm? Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s new endeavor could bring the XFL back to the metropolitan area…again.

Fans of the prematurely axed XFL are loving the smell of what The Rock is cooking.

On Monday, Dwayne Johnson announced that he and businesswoman and film producer Dany Garcia have united with RedBird Capital LLC to purchase the XFL, the football brainchild of WWE chairman Vince McMahon. Johnson, a WWE wrestler, and star of several blockbuster films and franchises, is set to oversee the third attempt of the star-crossed league. He made several guest appearances during the league’s first, professional wrestling-styled incarnation that ran for a single season in 2001.

McMahon later revived the league, aiming for a more traditional football experience. The reboot’s 12-week season kicked off in February but was cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic. Bankruptcy and employee layoffs followed, and Johnson, Garcia, and their partners made their $15 million purchase shortly before a bankruptcy auction was set to be held.

With gratitude & passion, I’ve built a career with my own two hands and will apply these callouses to our (XFL) brand,” Johnson said in a statement on Twitter. “Excited to create something special for the fans!”

The more recent attempt at the XFL had little in common with the previous incarnation, though a franchise in the New York City metropolitan area was rare middle ground in the Venn diagram. East Rutherford, NJ has played host to both versions, with the New York/New Jersey Hitmen at Giants Stadium in 2001 and the New York Guardians residing at MetLife Stadium for two games. The fate of the XFL’s eight active teams is ambiguous, but it stands to reason that Johnson’s version would also include New York in the proceedings, either through the Guardians or a replacement.

How can the XFL and New York survive in yet another relationship? ESM investigates…

Red Bulls Give You Wings

It’s fair to say that the cathedrals of New York football are disappearing. Giants Stadium stood for over three decades, hosting the Giants, Jets, and plenty of startups in between (i.e. the Hitmen, the New Jersey Generals, the New York Sentinels). Fallen baseball locales in The Bronx and Queens likewise hosted the NFL. Giants, Jets, and their garish recent ledgers aside, the biggest football event in the metropolitan area would probably be the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium. It’s safe to say that the annual matchup between mid-tier invitees from the ACC and Big Ten pales in comparison to the games hosted at its predecessor, which often hosted games of utmost national importance.

The Guardians were the first non-NFL team to call MetLife Stadium home. Setting up headquarters on Route 3 was understandable. It’s the New York area’s current hub of pigskin activity. But side effects included the optics of a mostly empty stadium. The last XFL incarnation drew its share of fans, but backdrops of empty seats are never ideal, even by necessity (which is why you see modern MLB games play with cardboard cutouts. That’s why any potential metropolitan reboot of XFL football should stay in North Jersey but migrate to Harrison.

Red Bull Arena has played host to the titular New York Red Bulls of MLS since 2010 and was set to welcome the NWSL’s Sky Blue FC this year before their season was shortened to a Utah-based tournament earlier this summer. The stadium has earned mostly positive reviews from MLS supporters and media. In a 2018 ranking of the league’s stadiums (then numbered at 21), Jamie Goldberg of The Oregonian placed RBA in sixth place, remarking that there “is no bad view in the house and the proximity to the field creates an amazing experience for fans in the lower bowl”. A report from Ben Fischer of Sports Business Journal indicated that the Guardians were looking into playing at RBA in 2021, though sources with the team denied this was the case while the season was ongoing.

The perfect case study for a different kind of football in Harrison comes in the case of the DC Defenders. Though several larger outdoor venues were available in the capital area, the Defenders played their home games at Audi Field, the newly formed home of the D.C. United soccer club.  The Defenders were able to create a decent homefield advantage in the confined settings of about 20,000, earning one of the most loyal fan followings in the XFL, perhaps evidenced by the massive “beer snake” created during their final showing in March. New York can create a similar advantage in the more confined settings out in Harrison.

Jersey Core

One thing that could truly make this potential incarnation of New York XFL football standout is perhaps focusing on a new aspect of the metropolitan area: New Jersey. If one were to simply say “New York”, you’re presented with a plethora of teams, several of whom (including the two football teams that bear the title) play in the Garden, not Empire, State.

Embracing the team’s Jersey roots, should they make a return to play, would truly work in the XFL’s favor and help them work the best of both worlds: they could make an impact in an essential media market while also standing out in cramped sports scene. A “New York” squad not only had to compete with their NFL counterparts but also the ongoing seasons of the area’s NBA and NHL squads. Meanwhile, only one Jersey-branded remains in the four major sports, the struggling Devils of the NHL. It’s perhaps a small thing, but could a long way in terms of marketing and outreach. The Alliance of American Football appeared to have the right idea, particularly in the form of the San Antonio Commanders and Orlando Apollos. The short-lived league saw was able to situate two of their most successful teams in well-populated states that adore football and were packed to the brim with NFL squads (Texas and Florida).

The state has previously produced some of the more popular and successful attempts at alternate professional football. Antics of the USFL’s New Jersey Generals are still fondly spoken of to this day (the exploits of owner and future U.S. President Donald Trump notwithstanding). Former Giants Joe Morris, Harry Carson, and Carl Banks oversaw the New Jersey Red Dogs at the height of the Arena Football League’s popularity at the turn of the century.

Dwayne Johnson

(Photo by Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images)

Don’t Be Afraid to Think Beyond the Metropolitan Box and Embrace the Fun

One thing the powers that be at the new XFL tried to do was try to establish some local connections among the new personnel. The Guardians, for example, made longtime Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride their head coach. The Dallas Renegades went with a coach known for his victories in the area, former Oklahoma boss Bob Stoops.

But if another metropolitan squad wants to give hope to its pigskin faithful, they should focus more on building a winning team instead of turning things into a local tribute band.

At the same time, the New York XFL squad should certainly embrace the inherent sense of fun when it comes to spring football. Their predecessors in alternate professional pigskin certainly knew how to do so. This doesn’t mean you have to try and “poach” elite talent from the NFL, but the door is certainly open to hiring some new, interesting talents that can build a winning football team. If you want to truly start fresh, perhaps we could see yet another new name in New York football.

With a man like Johnson at the helm…New Jersey Scorpions, anyone?

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

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