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After 19 long years since its last attempt to wrestle the football crown away from the NFL, the XFL is finally back and giving football fans something to cheer for.
The resurrected league, personally financed by World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) CEO Vince McMahon, is hardly comparable to its 2001 past iteration which even McMahon himself and current XFL CEO and Commissioner Oliver Luck admit was a flat out failure.
This time around, however, Luck tells Yahoo Finance that every aspect of the league — from more polished play on the field, to broadcast partnerships, to business fundamentals — is stronger and ready to weather the inevitable stumbles that have overwhelmed attempts to launch competing football leagues in the past.
“There's going to be inevitable stumbles in year one ... and it’s inevitable because it’s a startup,” Luck told Yahoo Finance’s YFi PM. “But Vince has made it very clear to all of us at the league, that he's in this for the long haul and he's shared that same spirit with our broadcast partners and other commercial partners.”
That assuredness is necessary, to its media partners in Fox and Disney’s ABC and ESPN, but also to fans, given that the XFL itself only lasted one season in its last attempt and that this year’s attempt comes less than one year removed from the folding of the Alliance of American Football league just eight games into a 10-game season, despite week-one viewership ratings that rivaled NBA games.
For Luck, who joined on as commissioner in mid-2018, McMahon putting up millions of his own dollars to back the league is the single most important differentiator for the XFL to succeed where others hadn’t. Unlike the prior iteration, which was co-owned by McMahon and NBC, Luck says the league has been able to move swiftly ahead with creating a faster paced game that’s capable of winning over traditional NFL fans.
“I think once people settle in and watch us and give us a good hard look, I think they'll be impressed with the quality of our coaches with the quality of our players with the game that we've designed,” he said.
How is the XFL different?
There are plenty of rule changes that will separate the XFL from the NFL when it kicks off this weekend. For starters, there will be no extra-point attempts. Instead, teams are forced to try for conversions at different yard distances that correspond with one, two, or three points, respectively. Multiple forward passes in a single play will also be allowed and receivers will only need one foot in-bounds for a completion as opposed to the two feet required by the NFL, all in order to encourage a higher-scoring more action-packed game of football. But above all the rule changes, Luck says he’s most excited about a much shorter play clock. Offenses will only be afforded 25 seconds instead of 45 to keep play moving.
“That just means you’ve got to play fast enough,” Luck said. “We tried to inject as much strategy as we could into some of these situations because at the end of the day, I think our fans love strategy. They love to second guess the coach. That's what we do as a nation, we're all Monday morning quarterbacks.”
As much as the rule changes are meant to instill a certain level of drama, the XFL has stopped short of some of the gimmicks that attracted attention back in 2001.
Gone are the made up names players were allowed to don on the back of their jerseys (like Rod Smart’s famous “He Hate Me” moniker) and the overly outlandish team names (a la the New York Hitmen.) Instead, Luck explains the league’s goal is to let the story lines develop naturally on and off the field, which he’s already seeing play out with an unexpected rivalry.
“We are beginning to find even a fan rivalry between, of all things, St. Louis and Tampa Bay,” Luck said. “They don't like each other.”
But skirmishes on social media between the St. Louis BattleHawks and the Tampa Bay Vipers aside, the XFL has interestingly embraced gambling in a way most leagues haven’t. Ahead of its first games, the XFL announced partnerships with betting platforms DraftKings and FanDuel, and announced it endorsed displaying betting indicators during game broadcasts on major networks. The move is a break from other more established leagues that only recently have warmed to partnerships around gambling, but only long after establishing credibility with much less to risk when it comes to appearances of impartiality.
“We're embracing the gambling community with both arms, if you will,” Luck said. “The gambling community is an important part of our fan engagement strategy ... if you bet $5 or $10 or $100 on a game, I would think you'd watch it.”
Admitting it might not translate directly into more viewers, Luck conceded viewership numbers will be closely watched by partners as a measure for the XFL’s early success — but not so much internally. Instead, the league will more closely scrutinize the play on the field. It’s not only the most important piece that will impact all other parts of the business, but it’s also paramount for the players and Luck personally, whose son, former Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, retired early from the NFL after a career plagued by injury.
“Our players are our human capital and we want to make sure that, while football remains a pretty rough, tough game, that we're doing all that we can to make sure that they're as safe as possible in terms of equipment and penalties,” Luck said. “I'm a former player, I've got a bunch of friends that I played with over the years and I've seen the toll that playing football can have on their bodies. And of course my son was a player as well.”
Despite the rule changes built around that emphasis on safety, like a shortened kickoff to avoid high-speed collisions, Luck laughed off the prospect that his new league would be able to entice his son out of retirement.
“He has served as a little bit of a sounding board for me,” Luck said about Andrew, who retired in 2019 and shortly after became a father in November. “I don't anticipate him returning, you know, to the NFL or to us for that matter. I think he's very content with the decision he made.”