Hey football fans, we’re baaaaaaaaaaaaaaack! And, just like the producer of that infamous quote, Texas Longhorn’s quarterback Sam Ehlinger, “I’m here to disappoint!” Seriously, it has been almost three months since my last article, and I’m excited to be back and talk about football with y’all.
During my hiatus, a plethora of things have happened within the football world, many of them important enough to warrant entire articles of their own. However, in an attempt to not further oversaturate an already incredibly crowded sports media market, I will discuss the one occurrence in football that I believe has been criminally underhyped — the kickoff of the revamped XFL. Now, it is very easy to pay little attention to this league, as the likelihood of it not lasting the season is admittedly pretty high. However, where other leagues like the USFL, the AAF, and even the 2001 iteration of the XFL have failed, I believe this modern XFL might actually succeed. The league has a real chance to hold a significant place in this generation’s football zeitgeist, serving primarily as: a potential feeder league for young or overlooked players to make it to the NFL, a place in which new rules and regulations can be tried out before they get implemented in the big leagues, and as a holdover league that might actually succeed, providing entertainment for those of us not thrilled at the prospect of no football for six months.
As of now, the XFL is populated mostly with old NFL cast offs and no-name players who, as of last year, were working in grocery stores and coaching high school football. While their talent is undeniable – they are all infinitely better athletes than you or I – the reason why they could not make it in the NFL is clear. While a few standout players may be picked up by NFL practice squads at the conclusion of the season, it is unlikely that we will see a large population of XFL players on NFL rosters next year. For high school players with NFL aspirations and talent, the XFL presents an intriguing alternative route to the traditional NCAA. Unlike the NFL, the XFL has no requirement for its players to have waited three years in between high school and the onset of their professional careers, allowing for recently graduated high schoolers to suit up for one of the XFL’s eight squads shortly after graduation. Instead of having to suffer under the NCAA’s harsh regulations and criminal lack of pay, young burgeoning talents have the opportunity to both hone their craft and get payed for the product they put out on the field. While XFL players make only an average of $55,000 annually, star players have the opportunity to earn much more (though 55K is nothing to scoff at). For those questioning the likelihood of this becoming a reality, I point to basketball, where a similar phenomenon is already happening. Tired of being exploited by the NCAA, young stars are choosing to play out their one year in between high school and the pros either by getting payed to play overseas, or by just not playing at all, hoping that their high school stock is enough to get them a high draft spot and a lucrative rookie contract. The XFL could become a legitimate option for young talent, a breeding ground for the next generation of NFL superstars.
The XFL could also serve as a testing grounds for new innovations and rules in the NFL. The XFL has introduced a plethora of new rules designed to cut down on the more mundane aspects of football, encouraging kick returns by heavily penalizing touchbacks and coffin-kick punts, as well as shortening the seemingly endless games by reducing the play clock and not taking every possible opportunity to insert an add break. Fan reception to these changes has been generally positive, and there is precedent for the NFL adopting XFL inventions. Prior to them becoming mainstays in NFL football, the skycam and micing up players was an XFL addition – the NFL is not afraid to borrow ideas from their less successful competitors. I would love to see the NFL adopt the change of increasing the visibility of referees, even going as far as to mic them up during important reviews, allowing for fans to hear the justification of certain calls in real time. This adoption would significantly reduce the amount of frustration with the zebras, which is never a bad thing.
Now, you may be asking, “Zeke, why should I pay attention to this league when so many like it have failed?” And you know what, you have a legitimate point. There have been a plethora of leagues that started off with astronomical levels of hype, only to fade softly into that good night. The USFL, NFL Europe, XFL v.1, the AAF — the list is seemingly endless. However, for some bizarre and uncharacteristic reason I have decided to be optimistic about this one, though not without reason. Vince McMahon, the founder of the league, has reportedly invested $500 million in this version of the XFL, quintupling his investment from the league’s first iteration. This infusion of cash will ensure that the league doesn’t go the way of the AAF, which among other things went belly up because it ran out of money. Another reason for my likely misplaced optimism is the fact that the focus of the league seems to be primarily on the football being played. In the 2001 XFL, football seemed to be the secondary focus of a league more interested in cultivating WWE style drama, as well as creepily oversexualizing its cheerleaders. This time around, players have been given longer times to practice and come together as a team, and cheerleaders have been eliminated completely, allowing fans to hope for a more football-centric experience.
Of course, at the end of the day the XFL’s success will be judged off of the viewership numbers it pulls in, which will be indelibly proportional to the product put out on the field. So far through the first week, the viewership numbers look good compared to the opening weekends of other defunct leagues, and the level and quality of the football being played is surpassing expectation. For all these reasons, I am cautiously optimistic about the future of this young league. But hey, this whole article is probably gonna age quite badly, because at the end of the day, what the hell do I know?