Last winter, a Connecticut businessman had a new idea. Rather, he had an old idea again. Vince McMahon, the colorful professional wrestling magnate, saw an opportunity to take another stab at launching a pro football league, and he was determined not only to correct his past mistakes but also to fix football’s.
The sport was still wildly popular but ripe for change, he figured. McMahon wanted to take a product that had been treasured by generations of Americans and reimagine it entirely. When he tapped Oliver Luck, a longtime college administrator who had previously dabbled in the pro game (and whose son Andrew is one of the sport’s most celebrated quarterbacks), to lead the project, nothing was off the table.
Nearly a year later, the XFL is close to finalizing a rule book that will introduce new wrinkles to a familiar game. One start-up football league just crashed and burned in spectacular fashion, and on the heels of the Alliance of American Football’s demise, the XFL is hopeful a fresh approach not only will be a key to its survival but ultimately provide a road map for the sport — a game that’s safer for players and more engaging for fans.
The football world can be resistant to major changes, but the XFL is making innovation a cornerstone of its business plan. It wants shorter games with less downtime and more impactful plays. The traditional kickoff won’t resemble anything seen before. The overtime will look more like a hockey shootout. There could be nine-point scoring opportunities, multiple forward passes on a single play and a shorter play clock.
“I think there’s a really fine line between innovating and being gimmicky, and we’re trying to stay on the proper side of that,” Luck said recently. In another conversation, he said: “We don’t want to do gimmicks. Gimmicks in XFL 1 didn’t work very well. These are legitimate improvements to the game.”
The first iteration of the XFL was launched in 12 months with more attention paid to the marketing than the on-field product. On the giant heap of failed football leagues, it’s perhaps the most notorious, remembered for its brash launch and whimpering demise. Eighteen years later, XFL officials are betting that the landscape has changed and, by reimagining the game, they can both avoid the AAF’s fate and improve America’s most popular sport.
The new league presents not only economic challenges — the AAF pulled the plug midseason last month and listed more than $48 million in liabilities in a bankruptcy filing — but also daunting obstacles inherent to many start-ups: How much can you innovate without harming the core product? Are fans hungry for more or different? Does football even need fixing?
This time around, the XFL didn’t race to market with colorful packaging. Instead, it opted for a methodical approach, applying principles borrowed from Silicon Valley on launching a start-up business and fine-tuning a product to suit customer desires.
The intended result, which fans will see at the eight-team XFL’s planned launch next February, probably will entail about a dozen changes that range from subtle to game-changing, all designed to make football feel both familiar and new.
‘I want to reimagine the game’
Nearly every new outfit in the football marketplace tries to differentiate itself. The new leagues can’t offer the NFL’s level of talent, so they tweak the format and presentation. When McMahon handed Luck the reins in June 2018, the XFL already had posed questions to focus groups, gauging fans’ feelings on what worked and what didn’t.
“He basically said to me, ‘I want to reimagine the game,’ ” Luck recalled. “That’s a broad mandate, right? I said, let’s not tinker with what’s working well — the game overall, the athleticism, the scoring — let’s not worry about that. But let’s try to correct or improve the things that fans have told us they want to be different: fewer stoppages, better rhythm, more flow.”
They felt if there was ever a time to make meaningful changes, it was now. Controversies continually highlighted concerns with NFL rules, and former players cast a spotlight on health and safety issues associated with a bruising sport.
Luck assembled what he called a “Football Reimagined Committee” with nine members from several walks of life. Among them: former NFL head coaches John Fox and Jim Caldwell; Kevin Guskiewicz, a sports medicine researcher who has served on the NFL Head, Neck & Spine Committee; former quarterback Doug Flutie; and Bill Squadron, special counsel for Genius Sports, the sports data and analytics company.
He also would have individual discussions with football lifers such as Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh, flying to Ann Arbor to ask, “Given a blank slate, what would you change?”
After three months of conversations, the XFL began compiling data and charting ways to improve. To speed up the game, they considered a running game clock and a play clock as short as 25 seconds (compared with the NFL’s 40-second clock). They targeted a game time of 2 hours 45 minutes, with three times more action than an NFL broadcast.
For more meaningful action, they studied a CFL rule that granted a punt returner a five-yard halo — prohibiting defenders from getting too close and requiring the receiving team to return the ball rather than call for a fair catch. They’re considering incentivizing fourth-down attempts by putting the opposing team on the 35-yard line in the event of a touchback on a punt. (In the NFL, teams get the ball at the 20.)
The group agreed that extra points have become too predictable. It’s considering a menu of options:
— Following a touchdown, a team can earn one extra point by converting a score from the 2-yard line.
— It can get two points by scoring from the 5-yard line.
— Or it can add three extra points by scoring from the 15 — making a touchdown potentially worth nine points.
“Think about it: If a team is down by 18 with three minutes left, you won’t change the channel because it’s still a two-possession game,” said Sam Schwartzstein, the XFL’s director of football operations and a former Stanford offensive lineman. “It’d be hard, but it’s possible.”
The XFL wanted an overtime that was short on time and high on drama, settling on a shootout-style format. Each team will line up 10 yards from the end zone and attempt a scoring play. Both squads get five opportunities, and the team that converts the most scores wins the game.
While some proposals are focused on injecting excitement — such as allowing the offense an unlimited number of forward passes behind the line of scrimmage — others center on safety. On kickoffs, the XFL wants to place the kicker on his own 25-yard line, with his coverage unit lined up on the opposing team’s 35. The returner would be near the goal line, but his blockers would be lined up on the 30. No one except the kicker and the kick returner can move until the ball is caught, and because the two units are only five yards apart, there won’t be as many full-speed head-on collisions.
“We want the first thing when you turn a game on is to know you’re watching football and the second thing is to know you’re watching XFL,” Schwartzstein said. “But it’s football first.”
‘It’s a good opportunity for football’
The next step for XFL officials was to put it all into action, seeing which rules worked, which needed more thinking and which should be abandoned. They went to Mississippi in December to test with a pair of junior college football teams and then Jacksonville in February to try out some rule proposals with a low-level professional league.
They started ruling out some possibilities. A running game clock wasn’t realistic, for example, and a one-yard neutral zone for defenders was a safety consideration but gave the offense too big of an advantage on third-and-short situations.
Finally, in April, the crew gathered in Round Rock, Tex., to conduct test games with the Spring League, which features dozens of players trying to claw their way to the fringes of the NFL. Fox and ESPN showed up, too, producing mock broadcasts a month before announcing their respective agreements for the XFL’s inaugural season. They wanted to test camera angles and find out whether announcers could handle the faster pace and explanations of new rules. A sideline reporter interviewed players on the field immediately after scoring plays.
The games clocked in at around 2 hours 40 minutes, and they squeezed 169 plays into one game, which is what the NFL might see in a game that ran 30 minutes longer.
The league’s coaches were on hand to get their first glimpse of XFL football. Before he agreed to coach the Dallas franchise, former Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops had lengthy discussions with Luck about what the XFL’s brand of football might look like. He was promised it would still be “solid, good football that our country is used to watching,” Stoops recalled, though with some adjustments.
“I just wanted to make sure that what I was going to be coaching was what I was used to doing — running and passing and tackling and doing things the right way in legitimate football,” Stoops said. “And I was assured of that.”
The XFL will no doubt face litmus tests that have crushed so many similar ventures in the past. Will fans watch second-tier players? Does anyone really want football in the spring? Can the XFL become economically viable?
Not surprisingly, the NFL is keeping an eye on all of it. Kevin Boothe, the former New York Giants and Oakland Raiders lineman who serves as the league’s manager for football operations strategy and business, attended the XFL’s testing sessions, and the NFL routinely studies all levels to see what works and what doesn’t.
“I think it’s a good opportunity for football, just the football ecosystem,” said Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay, chairman of the NFL’s competition committee. “I like the different variances. At least what we’ve seen from the AAF, we know there’s others, the XFL is coming. We just think it’s good for football.”
The AAF, the brainchild of Charlie Ebersol, whose father, Dick, launched the original XFL alongside McMahon, failed to complete a single season. The XFL monitored its efforts closely and is convinced the AAF’s struggles were financial and not related to the public’s appetite for the game.
McMahon has pledged $500 million to help reboot the XFL and has reportedly cashed in nearly $400 million of his WWE shares to fund the effort. The money is, of course, vital, but the league’s success will probably hinge on the game it tries to sell fans.
Still nine months away from a kickoff that matters, Luck likens the XFL’s evolving rule book to a working thesis. It will host a final round of testing in June with the Spring League and then compile feedback from its coaches, general managers and broadcast partners before writing the rules in ink.
“Together, we’ll hammer out what we’re actually going to do,” Luck said. “I think we’ll end up doing most, if not all, of these things. But we want to get a bunch more eyeballs on it.”