XFL 2020: A Roadmap to Success for the XFL

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Vince McMahon, of WWE fame, recently announced what some have expected for a few months: a reboot of the XFL. The previous iteration of the XFL lasted one season, in 2001, struggling to capitalize on early interest in the league. I believe there exists an opportunity for the XFL to exist as a successful organization. After watching Mr. McMahon’s press conference and thinking on the possibilities, there appears to be a real, if narrow, lane for the XFL to capture market share and build a fanbase.

First, I will recap some of the things we learned in Mr. McMahon’s press conference on the league – what is good, what could be improved, and how some ideas could be implemented. From there, I will discuss some other ideas for the XFL that could lead to better outcomes for the league.

Press Conference

The press conference started with a “hype video” of sorts, presenting a sharp difference between the “past” and the “future” of football – for the XFL, the future “moves fast.” There is a key emphasis on speed from the playing side, and technology from the enjoyment side. The video features what appears to be a fantasy football platform, as well as a betting mechanism. These are both key aspects of fan retention, giving the fan a reason to feel involved in the game and to tune in. The opening video strikes all of the right notes.

Faster Pace

Mr. McMahon began with a few principles for the league, one of the first of which continues on the “future moves fast” theme from the video: the XFL will be a faster-paced league than current iterations of big-time football. This is good – one of the main reasons baseball fell from grace was its excessive time of play.

Fortunately for the XFL, the minute length of quarters and the institution of halftime is not as sacrosanct as the institution of “nine innings” is. Today, college football and the NFL have droned on past three hours, partly because every sponsor has to get their recognition and commercial time. If it is to be a faster game, the XFL must leverage a more integrated approach to sponsorship; instead of television timeouts for commercials, having the logos of sponsors on player jerseys and the field of play is a fine alternative.

Another way to reduce the time of play in a credible manner is to pull from soccer and rugby, instituting a “running clock.” The XFL could experiment with four 12-minute quarters or two 30-minute halves, stopping the clock only within the last two or four minutes of the half. Mr. McMahon proposes the elimination of halftime – I would disagree with him here, countering that a short “halftime” break actually enhances the viewing experience (in that fans are used to having a defined stop point in the middle of the game, if they want to get concessions while at the game or change venues while watching at home) and preserves the quality of play (giving players a much-needed period of rest).

Broadcasting and Content Distribution

Mr. McMahon continued, discussing the “multi-platform” nature of the content distribution. This is very important – any serious league makes its true money from broadcasting. There exists today a major gap in accessibility of live NFL game content. From blackouts to mobile phone inaccessibility, the NFL has more or less restricted its content to a very specific subset: traditional viewers with televisions and cable subscriptions. The XFL should present a contrast to this model, prioritizing the ability of anyone who wants to watch the games being able to watch the games.

Over the last couple of years, the NFL has dipped its toes in the water with streaming its games on Yahoo! and other digital platforms. Going full throttle on this front would be a good move for the XFL. The great value of sports to advertisers is that fans must watch them live (therefore forcing them to consume advertising, because they cannot skip past it). Anything can happen. The XFL should not pursue broadcast deals that restrict the accessibility of its content to viewers, because it will have a detrimental effect on building the fanbase.

In addition to places like Yahoo!, I recommend the XFL partner with media like Barstool Sports to reach target demographics and craft marketing initiatives that will break through. Barstool, as an example, is beginning to become a force in the exact space that the XFL should live. I predict Barstool would pay a decent amount for the broadcast rights to some of the XFL’s content, and this would be beneficial to both parties.

Not Quite “Spring” Football

Another thing we learned from Mr. McMahon’s opening comments was his belief in producing football during the “seven months when there is no football.” Mr. McMahon declines to call it a “spring league,” but do not forget that the USFL carved out a nice niche as a spring league. The decision to play football during this timeframe is a wise one – competition for football fan eyeballs is much different when competing against the NBA and not the NFL/college football. In addition, it allows the XFL to borrow concepts that work in the NFL, instead of being forced to constantly contrast itself with the league if it seeks viewership.

League Structure (the Single-Entity Model)

After the opening remarks, Mr. McMahon took questions from reporters on a conference call. One of the first questions asked about league structure, and Mr. McMahon said the league will be a “single-entity” as opposed to a franchise model. The single-entity is a legal structure in which a league operates all of its teams from the league office, as opposed to eight individual franchisees. It was invented to address the antitrust law concerns that arise from a traditional franchise-structured league, where 32 (for example) teams compete against one another on the field and negotiate as a collective off the field (for things like apparel, broadcast, etc.). This is a smart, strategic decision on the XFL’s part, as a strong league office is vital for early financial success (via some of those collective negotiations previously discussed).

The XFL should prepare for a player’s union (an XFLPU, if you will), and welcome negotiation with this union. The single-entity structure has not been fully tested in court, and collective bargaining with a union would likely pre-empt some of the obvious antitrust challenges that could sink the league early. The Supreme Court has established a “nonstatutory antitrust law labor exemption,” which essentially gives relief from antitrust scrutiny (on the labor side) to those organizations who proactively bargain collectively with a union-like entity. There are a number of caveats, but engaging a union for antitrust relief is a tried practice in professional sports. Additionally, having a union would allow the XFL to set informed guidelines on player safety, codes of conduct, and (most important to financial success) a salary cap.

Cities (and a Discussion of the XFL’s “No Politics” Pledge)

Another reporter asked a question about cities – it is imperative that the XFL get this one right. In the XFL’s first try, the league operated in eight cities: Birmingham, Chicago, New York/New Jersey, and Orlando in the Eastern Division, and Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Memphis, and San Francisco in the Western Division. In the XFL reboot, balancing a presence in major media markets with an appeal to target demographics will be key.

Mr. McMahon has said there have been no decisions made just yet on the eight cities that will get a team this go-around. I propose that there is a tremendous opportunity to engage fans of the military with the XFL. Mr. McMahon said the league will have nothing to do with “politics” and will not get involved in social issues. Without saying it outright, Mr. McMahon also alluded to players being required to stand for the national anthem. The military enjoys broad support in America and many lovers of the military feel turned off by the NFL in recent years.

Placing a few teams in “military cities” may make some sense for the XFL. Think Fayetteville, North Carolina, near Fort Bragg, and Navy-heavy San Diego, California (which just lost its NFL team, by the way). In so doing, the XFL could have a built-in fanbase if it plays its cards right. To accomplish this, the XFL should prioritize militaristic displays like jet flyovers and marching bands before the games (in addition to major American flag displays). During halftime, doing charity events to support the troops and reuniting deployed soldiers with their families on the field would create a boatload of shareable, retweetable, feel-good content that could give the XFL a major boost. Of course, any serious proposal for a league’s cities should include markets like New York City. These major media markets still drive the day.

I therefore propose the following cities as the eight cities for XFL teams in the new reboot:

Eastern Division
New York, New York
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Fayetteville, North Carolina
Pensacola, Florida

Western Division
Los Angeles, California
Chicago, Illinois
San Diego, California
San Antonio, Texas

Chicago in the Western Division is a bit of a weird fit – I know this. In an ideal world, that would be either Las Vegas/Denver (major media market) or Colorado Springs (military city – Air Force connection). The Chicago market (and Midwestern connection), however, is just too good to pass up. The market keeping them in the West, however, is Philadelphia, whose fan traditions make it a perfect XFL fit. The rough-nosed nature of Philadelphia fans fits in perfectly with the league.

The other two major media markets, New York and Los Angeles, are easy – there appears to be no such thing as “saturation” in these markets. The likelihood is that the New York team ends up in New Jersey, and it is possible that they end up being the New York/New Jersey [TEAM NAME], as they were the New York/New Jersey Hitmen in the league’s 2001 edition.

For Fayetteville, Pensacola, San Diego, and San Antonio, the XFL taps into four major military cities with a striking amount of geographical (and, to a lesser extent, branch of service) diversity. Fayetteville’s Fort Bragg covers the Army, Pensacola boasts a Naval Air Station, San Diego has the Navy and Marines, and San Antonio features an Air Force base.

From a stadium/facilities standpoint, Mr. McMahon appears to say that the teams should play in NFL-style stadiums. I would argue this is misguided. Playing in smaller stadiums would create a more “packed” feel on television, where most of the perception is driven. The XFL should strive to have zero empty seats. With less tickets available, if the experience at the game is good, a ticket to an XFL game becomes a hot commodity and it drives interest.

Criminality

A reporter asked about former Texas A&M star (and NFL flameout) Johnny Manziel – a player who has been mentioned as a potential XFL star. Mr. McMahon responded that no criminals will be able to play in the league. On principle, Mr. McMahon’s decision here would create a unique brand for the sport in which players are not viewed as they are in the NFL (where domestic violence has created a real challenge for the league). On this subject, I would only recommend that Mr. McMahon consider individual waivers with a zero-tolerance policy. I would love to see Manziel play. If no one convicted of a crime is allowed to be in the league, does that mean Michael Vick is also out, because of his charge for dogfighting many years ago? I would argue for a Vick waiver, as he has dedicated himself to a positive life since leaving prison and he would also be fun to watch.

Additional Thoughts and Ideas

Mr. McMahon answered some other questions, but what I have written out above are my initial thoughts from the press conference. As I was watching, I also had some ideas about the league that did not quite fit into something discussed at the press conference. I have written those thoughts below.

Gameplay

Over the last four decades, the NFL has cornered the market on high-octane passing offenses. The evolution of the forward pass has come to define an NFL in which success is largely determined by who the team’s starting quarterback is. Also, college football has probably creatively engineered option-style football past the point of other leagues being able to come up with more innovative formations. Recognizing these realities allows the XFL to find its niche: old-school football. Reimagining football is as simple as remembering what it once was: a game in which success was more team-oriented and the power run game was everything.

Watching electric players outrun other speedsters is fun, but there is a nostalgic beauty in three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust football. With this type of play style, XFL success (and public perception of quality of play) is not solely dependent on eight quarterbacks who may have an “off day” here and there. An NFL quarterback having an “off day” would be covered in the media as an unfortunate performance for the individual player, but an XFL quarterback having an “off day” (in an XFL with NFL-style rules for passing) would be covered as a sign of the league’s low quality of play and inability to recruit the best players.

I therefore propose the XFL dramatically scale back pass interference rules, allowing cornerbacks and receivers “to play.” Advantage: cornerbacks. I further propose that the XFL require all non-punt plays to begin under center, therefore banning the shotgun formation. I recommend that the traditional “four downs” be reduced to three. Giving the defense the advantage, as opposed to the NFL’s current set of rules designed to encourage high-flying offense, will give the XFL a retro and hard-hitting feel without removing the “player safety” rules that could inspire a public backlash.

I would also recommend that the XFL do research on whether implementing leather helmets, as opposed to the current helmet style, would actually reduce concussions. This would be more of a retro look, but it is in line with how rugby is played today. I do not know the answer to this, but it is worth researching and could give the league an even more distinct and “throwback” feel.

Talent Acquisition

When it comes to XFL players, much of the focus has centered on NFL flameouts or recently retired greats, from Johnny Manziel to Terrell Owens. One major talent pool that appears to be largely ignored is that of top-flight college players who are banned from making money. The NCAA’s “amateurism” rules prevent athletes (whose high quality of play has earned the league billions of dollars) from being compensated for their play. Many of these players come from difficult socioeconomic backgrounds and struggle to afford playing for free. This is a system that is about to come crashing down, and the XFL can and should exploit, to its own benefit, the market gap of high-quality players receiving no compensation in the NCAA while it still exists.

In the 1980s, the USFL successfully raided the college ranks, giving itself great publicity and serious credibility. Heisman Trophy-caliber players were bypassing the NFL to play in the USFL. The XFL should keep a close eye on the NCAA over the next two seasons, endeavoring to offer contracts to superstar freshmen with high name recognition. This would generate a real buzz, especially if a freshman wins the Heisman and decides to forgo playing in college for free, making money in the XFL instead. The NFL, which currently bans players from entering the league less than three years out of high school, would be caught flat-footed. Having a team in Pensacola, where many top high school players are from, is also a strategic play for this aspect.

Another pool of talent from which the XFL could draw is former service academy players. With the new rule mandating players from service academies complete a tour of duty before being eligible to play professional football, there will exist an opportunity for the XFL to sign a bunch of players returning from service. These players are former Division 1 athletes flying under the radar, and the offensive players at places like Army and Navy operated power running attacks in college like the style of game suggested before. They would be instant fan favorites.

The XFL should also not underestimate the international talent pool – specifically rugby. Plenty of rugby players would make great football players. Jarryd Hayne, once a San Francisco 49er, comes to mind. Bringing in rugby stars would give the XFL some latitude to expand its marketing overseas, allowing for a more global fanbase.

Video Games and Technology

Fantasy gaming and betting are important, but so is having a video game. EA Sports’ Madden NFL franchise has undoubtedly grown the pro football fanbase, and licensing XFL content to a video game designer would give the league a new platform. ESPN could be a good partner for this venture, as it used to produce a competitor to Madden, but no longer does. The NFL has an exclusive license with EA, opening the door to competition from the outside.

With the NFL going “all in” on its partnership with Microsoft, the XFL should also reach out to Apple and see if there are any opportunities to come together. Having Apple technology on the sideline could help the league achieve its goal of being futuristic, and it is likely that Apple has an interest in taking on Microsoft in this space.

Traditions

In college football this year, Miami Hurricanes fans enjoyed the team’s “turnover chain” bit, in which a player would get to wear a chain with the Miami “U” logo if he forced a turnover on defense. This became a phenomenon, leading to a great deal of merchandise sales and fan interest. College football has set the standard for these traditions, from the turnover chain to Notre Dame’s “Play Like a Champion” sign and Clemson’s “Howard’s Rock.” The XFL should attempt to establish its own traditions to get fans engaged and excited.

Conclusion

The XFL can succeed. There are many different paths to this success, but Vince McMahon has given the league enough time to contemplate all of these paths and get started the right way. I recommend a more “old school” type of league focused on the run game, which supports the troops and thinks critically about its audience. For one, I am excited about the prospect of the league.

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