Of the many, many far-fetched facts of 2019 you could have told someone in the year 2001, the revival of the XFL would still rank high among the most absurd. But what the league is calling Version 2.0 will not look all that much like its predecessor as it tries to finally do what a host of others have failed to: get spring football right.
The D.C. area public will get its first glance at the operation via a player showcase on Saturday beginning at 10 a.m. at The St. James in Springfield, Virginia. XFL Commissioner Oliver Luck will be on hand, as will D.C. head coach Pep Hamilton and about 100 hopefuls who have been invited to take part in combine-like drills and some light 7-on-7 work.
But despite the January, 2018 announcement that the XFL would return, play for the eight-team league won’t actually begin until February of 2020, after the next Super Bowl. The Alliance of American Football (AAF) didn’t announce its launch until after the XFL did, and has already spanned its full life cycle well before even this weekend’s combine.
Despite the failure of past spring football leagues, those in charge of XFL 2.0 here in Washington — which will call Audi Field home — are confident that they have the most important issues taken care of.
“We have a solid business plan that’s backed by a single financier who has the economic wherewithal and has already publicly said he’s willing to put $500 million into this so that we can stand this league up,” said Erik Moses, team president of the new Washington XFL franchise.
Moses is, of course, referring to Vince McMahon, who has pledged up to a half-billion dollars over the first three years of the operation to get everything off the ground. That financial security, and the fact that McMahon’s already seen what doesn’t work, helped sell Moses on the idea.
“Most billionaires don’t fail at the same thing twice,” said Moses. “This guy’s the preeminent sports/entertainment entrepreneur of his generation, and if anybody can get this done — spring football on a professional level — it’s gonna be him.”
The AAF, which folded in April, had a lot of good ideas, but they failed in two crucial areas — they didn’t have the money, and their television contract wasn’t what it appeared to be at first blush.
According to an ESPN feature that dropped Thursday, the AAF had revenues of $12 million against expenses of $100 million. Even for a fledgling league that doesn’t immediately expect to be profitable, that means far too much money heading out the door, especially without strong commitments, which the AAF did not have.
They also failed to secure leaguewide insurance, something a good number of fans likely never consider, which the XFL already has in place.
But the AAF’s TV deals, while guaranteeing exposure, proved to be shortsighted as well. Rather than most professional sports deals, in which the networks pay for broadcast rights, helping provide key revenue for the league, the AAF was buying time on the air, also footing the bill for production.
The XFL will not be charging broadcast rights fees at first in its deals with ABC, ESPN and FOX, at least until the league shows it can draw ratings, but networks will cover production costs so at least the league won’t be spending any money on its television arrangements.
There are parts of the AAF model that seemed to make sense, aspects which the XFL are happy to merge into their own league. There’s the single-operator model, with the league controlling salaries, which keeps payrolls in check and prevents the kind of unchecked open market of the USFL, which led to wild free agent expenditures by select teams while others ran as cheaply as possible. The league expects roughly a $4 million salary cap per team, with $88,000 average salaries for the 45-man rosters.
The AAF also showcased innovations in terms of the gameplay itself which caught Moses’ eye.
“They let you listen in on the instant replays,” he said. “I think that’s the kind of thing that pulls fans in, that gets them more invested.”
The XFL will also look to mine good ideas from other leagues, like potentially a 5-yard halo for punt returners, rather than fair catches.
Unlike version 1.0, the XFL isn’t presenting itself as a competitor to the NFL. And unlike the AAF, the XFL doesn’t see itself as a developmental league for the big boys, either.
“We’re not competing with the Redskins. We’re not competing with the NFL. We are becoming part of the football ecosystem, that community, but we’re additive to that,” said Moses. “We are not a developmental league. We are a professional league for guys who are not willing to give up on their dream to play professional football.”
Ultimately, the XFL’s potential success will come down to whether or not they can mine the appetite that they and every other fledgling league have seen for football in the NFL’s offseason.
“It starts with there being 90 million football fans in the United States, 38 million of which are avid fans,” said Moses. “Those folks get depressed when the Super Bowl is over and football season is over and they don’t gravitate in the same numbers to the other sports that are taking place during that time. They view it kind of as a lull between one football season and the next.”
Those numbers aren’t nearly as eyebrow-raising as the ones put forth by Charlie Ebersol and the AAF — 150 million football watchers, half of which don’t watch other sports after football season. Given the measured approach, more stable financial grounding, and more reasonable expectations, XFL 2.0 may actually be the more conservative of the two leagues, despite its audacious past.
Given the fly-by-night history of spectacular failures that has been spring football, a strong financial footing and diligent planning might just be the most extreme approach imaginable.
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