Ready to give spring football — and XFL— another try
Some people can never have enough football.
And, yes, I am one of those people.
So when the XFL kicks off at 2 p.m. today, I will be watching.
It’s not that I like its owner, the WWE’s Vince McMahon. It’s not that I think the winter/spring league has much of a chance for long-term success.
But it’s the week after the Super Bowl.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have won 13 games in another laborious season. To be fair, they have won seven more times than the Browns did.
Pitchers and catchers report to baseball’s spring training next week. Opening Day for the Indians is March 26.
But it’s been a disastrous offseason for baseball, with stories about minor league fans being abandoned and cheating scandals. And no one in the league seems to care about making contact with the ball anymore, unless it can be launched over the outfield fence.
The Indians payroll is at about $90 million, which probably isn’t enough to do any serious winning. It’s hard to get too excited.
So maybe I am a little pumped for the XFL.
Those of us old enough to remember the first incarnation of the league will remember the failure it was.
Substandard football, with bad announcing (wrestler Jesse Ventura was a color commentator, as well as governor of Minnesota at the time. I’m still not sure which job he was less qualified for), and bad ratings.
The league was probably doomed regardless of those things. Spring football has been tried many times before. The most notable of those leagues was the United States Football League of the early 1980s. It lasted a few seasons before folding.
The original XFL was the brainchild of McMahon, though by most accounts, there wasn’t a ton of thought put into it.
His wrestling company — then called the World Wrestling Federation — was on fire in 2000, when the league was announced. But McMahon only gave himself and his partners about a year to prepare.
The league, sold as a violent, sensationalized football/pro wrestling hybrid, did get attention.
I was a big pro wrestling fan at the time. I still like pro wrestling to a degree, but don’t really follow the current product anymore.
But even then, I was skeptical. It wasn’t that football in the spring is a bad idea. It’s just that McMahon had — to that time — failed in every non-wrestling entity he had tried.
This is a guy who once thought having bodybuilding competitions on pay-per-view would work.
But for all my reservations, I watched most weeks. The football wasn’t good. The production wasn’t good. And as the ratings dropped throughout the 2001 season, the feeling of failure was inescapable.
The league folded after that first season, a costly blow to McMahon, and NBC, which co-owned the league.
Major spring football didn’t return to the airwaves until last year, when Charlie Ebersole launched the American Football Alliance.
Ebersole had some big football names behind the project. Hall of Famer Mike Singletary was a coach, while front office guru Bill Polian had a role.
Most impressively, the brand of football was good — much better than the XFL. There also was a local interest: Heidelberg University graduate Donteea Dye, who played receiver for the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, found a home with the Orlando Apollos.
It was fun, and I watched every game I could.
Sadly, it didn’t last the league folded before the first season concluded.
That left this spring open to the XFL.
McMahon has done plenty right this time around. He formed his own company apart from WWE, and is financing the league with his own money. By doing that, he’s also created a wall between the league and his publicly traded pro wrestling conglomerate.
He announced the league’s formation in 2018, giving him two years to put things together.
At that introductory press conference, he said he didn’t want to be front and center in the league, and that presser might be the last time we saw him.
Those of us who have followed McMahon’s career had a good laugh.
McMahon, who has made himself and his family a staple of WWE programming for decades, was sure to be all over the XFL promotion.
But he hasn’t.
He hired Oliver Luck to be the league’s commissioner. Luck, a former quarterback at the University of West Virginia, has an impressive background in sports management. The father of former No. 1 overall NFL Draft pick Andrew Luck, he gave the league a credibility the first incarnation never had.
The coaches are familiar names. Former Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops leads a team in Dallas. Veteran coordinator Kevin Gilbride coaches the New York team.
Even the players have credibility. The quarterbacks include Ohio State national champion Cardale Jones, who plays for Washington, as well as former Steelers’ backup Landry Jones. Jones is with Stoops in Dallas.
There are even local ties. Dye is on the Tampa Bay Vipers’ roster. Willie Mays, who was a standout defensive end for Gary Goff and Tiffin University in 2016, is playing for the Los Angeles Wildcats.
McMahon also is going with a more nuanced production. In 2001, the games looked like glorified high school contests, narrated by wrestling announcers. But now, ABC, ESPN and Fox are handling production.
That means professional broadcasters presenting professional football.
What a concept.
Will it have a substantial fanbase?
Well, out of all the people I know, only one has XFL season tickets. My friend Joe lives in Orlando. He’s long been a proponent of winter football — he went to see the AAF’s Apollos last winter.
His wife got him season tickets for the XFL.
“I’m still not sure what to expect,” he said.
I think that’s how many of us are feeling. I don’t expect the league to last more than a few seasons. I doubt McMahon will pull the plug after one year, if only to avoid the stigma of doing that twice.
But he has history — his own and others — against him.
But he’s will to give it a try.
And so are we.
Zach Baker is the sports editor for The Advertiser-Tribune.
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