- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 6, 2020

During the XFL’s first go-around, WWE majority owner Vince McMahon played up some wrestling-style flourishes and gimmicks to differentiate his new football league in the market. For its comeback 19 years later, that isn’t the idea. The XFL is simply the latest enterprise trying to do what’s never been done — establish a popular, profitable spring football league.

The new iteration of the XFL will kick off in the District on Saturday when the DC Defenders host the Seattle Dragons at 2 p.m. at Audi Field. Some local fans have latched onto quarterback Cardale Jones and the Defenders as their favorite team. But after last year’s failed Alliance of American Football experiment, the most pressing storyline will be black-and-white: whether the league can last.

Interviews with a dozen players, coaches and executives portrayed an optimistic group of men confident that the XFL won’t meet the same fate as the AAF, which folded several weeks shy of the end of its first season in 2019 due to financial trouble.

Some pointed to the XFL’s motto, “For the love of football,” as a tidy encapsulation of why they’re trusting another new spring league. Players, many of whom spent a short amount of time in the NFL, are willing to take a chance on the XFL in hopes of getting some new game tape and extending their careers.

Defenders coach Pep Hamilton admitted it wasn’t a breeze at first to hire staff members willing to take a chance on the XFL.

“It started out as a sales job,” Hamilton said. “And I think over time we all recognized that when you look at the ownership in Mr. McMahon and the commitment that he made to the second iteration of the XFL, that it was something that we could rest assured that would be here for a long time, potentially.”

Defenders wide receiver Simmie Cobbs, who spent part of 2018 with the Redskins, said he had no qualms about joining the league.

“I heard about (the AAF) before,” he said. “I don’t think that they would let it happen again. So I think it’s gonna be secure and we’re gonna have a successful season as an overall league.”

Following the Alliance

As a business, the XFL looks, at first glance, similar to the AAF. It’s an eight-team league, starting its season right after the Super Bowl with some high-profile coaches and executives from the NFL and college football. The AAF had respected football exec Bill Polian and famed college coach Steve Spurrier; the XFL brought in commissioner Oliver Luck and longtime Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops.

Like its predecessor, the XFL has a single-entity ownership structure — as opposed to the NFL, where the 32 teams are separately owned.

The primary difference appears to be financial.

The underfunded AAF shut down after prospective angel investor Tom Dundon, owner of the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes, balked at pouring $250 million into keeping the league afloat.

McMahon, though, has said he is willing to spend as much as $500 million of his sizable fortune on the XFL. In 2019 he liquidated about $272 million in WWE stock and put the money toward the XFL.

Long before it folded, the AAF was disorganized and unable to provide standard amenities, according to some XFL players who also played in that league. Defenders linebacker A.J. Tarpley played for the AAF’s San Diego Fleet, which at first didn’t have any private facilities like weight rooms arranged.

“I think when I went down to San Diego at first, I don’t even know if we lifted, but then we were lifting at, you know, 24-Hour Fitness or something during camp,” Tarpley recalled.

It was a world of difference in the XFL. “Everything’s more set in stone, if that makes sense,” he said.

The AAF and XFL were announced within two months of each other in 2018. The difference was, the AAF got on the field first while the XFL took its time to get ready.

“This is really no criticism of the Alliance, but we had more time,” Luck told The Washington Times. “I think we had more resources, really. One of the things I really believe in … when you’re a league like ours that is launching, you want to treat your players like the professionals that they are.”

A more organized approach may even lead to a better product on the field.

“There’s more work here,” said receiver Rashad Ross, another former Redskin-turned-Defender who also played in the AAF. “We got more time here. With the Hotshots (in the) AAF, it was just a little three-day minicamp in December. This time it was like a whole three weeks so we had way more time to learn the playbook.”

Advertisers, sponsors and TV

The XFL has all the familiar trappings of pro football. Gatorade, Anheuser-Busch InBev and FanDuel recently signed on as official sponsors. The TV package with Disney and Fox puts almost every game on either ABC, ESPN, Fox or FS1, with the championship game on April 26 shown on ESPN.

There won’t be players of NFL star-caliber, as in 1983 when the United States Football League (USFL) grabbed names like Herschel Walker and Jim Kelly. But a chunk of the XFL’s players spent a year or more in the NFL or starred at the Division I level. For example, Jones, the Defenders’ quarterback, is best known for jumping from third-stringer to starter at Ohio State and leading the Buckeyes to a national championship.

His talent, combined with his personality and how he gets along with fans and the media, could set Jones up to be one of the league’s biggest stars.

“We’re looking forward to having (Jones) as the face of this team,” Defenders president Erik A. Moses told The Washington Times in December. “If he also ends up being the face of the league, I think even better, because I think he’ll represent all of us in the way that we want to be represented as a brand-new league.”

The Defenders did not release season-ticket sales data, but a few Sundays before Week 1, they hosted a flock of new fans at Audi Field to officially introduce the team — all 52 players attended, plus Hamilton and some coaches. The event doubled as a ticket drive; fans were given the unique opportunity of walking out into the MLS stadium’s stands for views from the seats of their choice.

Kyle Retallick and his family were among those that checked it out. Retallick and his wife love football so much, they traveled from their home in the Washington area to see AAF games in Memphis last year.

Now his family holds season tickets for the Defenders, which started as low as $100 per fan for the five regular-season home games.

“As soon as they announced Cardale Jones was the quarterback of the team, I knew that this league was going to be much better,” Retallick said.

Could the Defenders even become a better watch than the Redskins?

“I think, too, the area is latching on just because of the lack of success for the other football team,” Retallick said. “They’re looking for something else to cheer for.”

In with the new

The old XFL’s gimmicks included scantily-clad cheerleaders and a more violent game with fewer rules about safe tackling. One example: Instead of a coin toss, first possession was decided by an “opening scramble” where two opposing players ran side-by-side to try to grab the ball at the 50-yard line — which resulted in at least one player’s season-ending injury.

Now forget all of that. The new XFL’s rule changes are only as good as the underlying rationale for them, Luck said.

To try to make the XFL more exciting and faster-paced while keeping player safety at front of mind, the league introduced elements like a 25-second play clock as opposed to 40; “shootout-style” overtimes; and an easier catch rule requiring just one foot needed inbounds rather than two.

Point-after kicks were eliminated in favor of a three-tiered system — one point if you reach the end zone from the 2-yard line, two points if you score from the 5 or three points if you score from the 10.

“We still have a little bit of anxiety, of course, because we’re gonna be trying some of these for the first time with 100% live football being played,” Luck said.

Then there’s the legalization of the “double-forward pass.”

Tanner Engstrand, the Defenders’ offensive coordinator, said fans won’t see teams base their offense around the double-forward pass — in which the ball can be thrown forward a second time if it’s still behind the line of scrimmage after the first completion.

“Those are accessories to your offense, ultimately,” Engstrand said. “But you can take advantage of those rules too, and that can really be an eye distraction for a defensive player who, their whole life, however many years they’ve been playing football, when the ball’s passed forward, it can’t be thrown again in every other league of football.”

XFL staff and football media have descended on the District to watch the league debut. The Defenders-Dragons game will be broadcast on ABC, which could help it draw a sizable audience against little Saturday afternoon competition. The AAF’s debut game last year drew 2.9 million viewers to CBS, outperforming an NBA regular-season game up against it.

McMahon, Luck and the league office will measure the XFL’s success in a number of conventional ways, from TV ratings to ticket sales and the like. But the product on the field, Luck said, is what will drive the rest.

“Can we play that type of football — up-tempo, fast-paced, ideally high-scoring, all done in three hours — can we create that kind of a game consistently throughout the season, and as we go along get better?” Luck said.

“If we can create that, then I think everything else will fall into place. Not initially, but over time, because Vince really is committed to building this thing for the long term.”

• Adam Zielonka can be reached at azielonka@washingtontimes.com.

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