While watching this year’s Super Bowl, between ads featuring Ellen DeGeneres for Amazon, Post Malone for Bud Light and Lil Nas X for Doritos, you might’ve missed the one for football. This commercial didn’t feature Patrick Mahomes or Lamar Jackson or any other NFL player. In fact, it wasn’t even promoting the National Football League, this commercial was for the XFL.
The commercial featured a “doctor” discussing the all-too-well-known state of depression football fans across America fall into post-Super Bowl, as devotees realize that they just watched the last game for the next six months. When asked what the cure might be for what the doctor called ‘football-withdrawal-syndrome’ he responded, “watching football wouldn’t hurt.”
Watching football wouldn’t hurt, and if you don’t want to hurt, you’re in luck: the XFL kicks off this Saturday. The second iteration of the league will begin its 10-week schedule at 5 p.m. on Saturday, meaning there won’t be another weekend without football until May.
Back in 2001, the XFL premiered (for the first time) the weekend after the Super Bowl under the helm of Vince McMahon, but for a whole host of reasons the league only lasted for a single season. McMahon, who was (and still is) the owner of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) designed his football league to look like a tougher, sexier version of the NFL, and it didn’t work.
At first, the league fared well, drawing an impressive viewing of more than 50 million viewers during the first weekend. However, the XFL saw its viewership decline steadily over the course of the season as fans came to view the league as tacky and the players as disappointingly terrible. Fans’ disinterest in the league was reflected in the attendance at the games. Of the 10 teams, only half were able to fill up more than 35% of their venue, on average. Bob Costas summed it up well, describing the league as “Mediocre high school football combined with a tawdry strip club.”
The XFL is not the first league attempting to appeal to America’s love for football during the NFL’s offseason. Since the 1970’s, 18 different leagues have tried and failed at cementing themselves as competitors, let alone compliments, to the NFL. Most recently, the Alliance of American Football was added to the list of defunct leagues in 2019.
It is not surprising that so many leagues have attempted to find a foothold among football fans. If a league was able to maintain their position for several seasons without going bankrupt, the operation could turn tremendously lucrative as there are billions of potential dollars in marketing and advertising.
Unlike its predecessors, McMahon hopes that his second go at the XFL will make it to a fourth season, when the league would begin to make a profit. The track record of startup football leagues, though, is less than hopeful. Of the 18 defunct leagues, only three ever made it to a fourth season.
But this league is going to be different, or so McMahon has promised. In this spirit, the businessman placed Oliver Luck as commissioner of the league. Luck, an ex-NFL quarterback himself and the father of the first overall pick back in 2012 (ex-Colts quarterback Andrew Luck) has stressed multiple times that the number one priority of the XFL is the quality of the product on the field. In an attempt to distance this league with the first iteration, this league will focus on promoting a family-friendly game that emphasizes player safety.
But Luck also understands that the XFL has to be notably different from the NFL if it hopes to gain the attention of the American public and any sustained traction. To this end, the XFL has created a notably different rule book than any other startup league has put forth. Unlike the rules that often seemed gimmicky featured in the 2001 version of the league, Luck said new rules are designed to create “a game that’s fast-paced, high-octane, up-tempo, with a great rhythm, a great flow, [and] fewer stoppages in play.” per Forbes.com’s J.P. Pelzman.
To this end, there will be no coin toss; two timeouts per team, per half; a shorter halftime period; and a running play clock for the entirety of the game, outside the last two minutes of each half.
To make the game more exciting, rules have been created to make for a shootout style overtime, with each team rotating single-play possessions from the five-yard line; a one, two or three point option for the play immediately following a touchdown (rather than an extra point); and a rule that allows for multiple forward passes on each play, among others. Additionally, punts and kickoffs have been reimagined to promote excitement as well as player safety. Luck has reiterated that he is not trying to reinvent the wheel but rather “take a great game and make it a little bit better.” per ESPN’s Kevin Seifert.
At the end of the day, whether or not the XFL succeeds or fails comes down to whether or not the league can garner attention that translates into viewership and attendance. The games will be broadcasted on FOX, ESPN and ABC; whether anyone will tune in to watch them, we’ll just have to wait and see.