How the XFL Can Succeed Where the Alliance of American Football Failed

XFL Quarterback throwing the football
“There is no Big Lie,” says Don Draper. “There is no system. The universe is indifferent.”

It was hard not to think of that quote while watching the Alliance of American Football suddenly fold on itself like a flan in a cupboard.

Conspiracy theories abound. Dan Patrick believes that the CEO-culprit Tom Dundon simply wanted to get his hands on the gambling technology that allowed fans to place bets quickly from their phones. But I’m skeptical that a businessman – even an unscrupulous one – would really shell-out $70,000,000 just to trick a bunch of athletes, coaches and reporters for a few weeks so that he could buy-into an MGM tech project which really isn’t that special. People can already wager quickly using their phones. The AAF didn’t invent live-betting on mobile devices.

No, I think the revolving-door of failed minor football leagues is a product of good old human nature. The market for a new league is out there, and everybody knows it, but the NFL and the NCAA have such an iron grip on the psyche of America that other brands just get folded (literally) in the wash. It’s every sap for themselves when high hopes meet up with reality.

Wealthy people who buy, sell, fold, and manipulate sports franchises do often look at their “toys” as temporary investments. It can be cast in black and white terms – the evil “baron” upstairs who doesn’t care a whit about the feelings of hometown fans. But the perils of success in the social media age compels a lot of investors to give up trying to make the public always like them, in the same way that people give up digging to China.

The sleepy warmed-over vibe of Alliance contests had a lot to do with the collapse. Can you imagine Dundon showing-off the Memphis Express to some supermodel girlfriend? “Look, we rented the Liberty Bowl and hired the worst head coach in history!” No boss wants to be associated with a loser.

Forget a competitor to the NFL. Is it possible for a spring (or fall) start-up football league to even survive longer than a season?

XFL 2.0 in 2020: “Idea Man” McMahon Must Deal in Actual Substance

I wish I could blog that Vince McMahon, fresh from promoting Ronda Rousey in an all-female WrestleMania main event, will ride in a save the day for NFL-jaded pro football fans with an innovative new league in 2020.

Unfortunately the WWE owner’s first foray onto the gridiron didn’t go so well.

Keeping with the “it’s no one person’s fault” theme, McMahon’s failure to make the XFL-NBC partnership work during the league’s only season in 2001 stemmed not from a lack of business sense or a lack of good ideas. Things went south for Vince McMahon and the XFL when he treated football like it was TV wrestling.

No, I don’t mean the overall “macho” vibe or the stupid (and dangerous) scramble for the ball that began every XFL game. McMahon simply thought like a wrestling promoter. His television crew was sloppy and unprepared for live sports broadcasting, not only because he had brought too many WWE employees to the XFL but because there was suddenly a higher standard of performance.

Gaffes in wrestling become running jokes “aw shucks” legends for Superstars to shoot about. Broadcast blunders in “real” sports are not forgiven by the public quite as easily.

Most of the differences between TV wrestling promotions involve how performers are presented and filmed on camera. The WWE has thought of a thousand gimmicks and unique rules, but they’re all just window dressing on a headlock. It’s ultimately up to the WWE Superstar to “get over” on her own.

That’s a terrible concept to apply to American football, a sport in which team colors run deep.

McMahon brought wrestlers and celebrity strongmen who were not playing on XFL teams and showcased them in skits on the telecasts. (Jesse Ventura was fine, but we’re talking about the silly “backstage” stuff.) This was a 2-fold mistake – it made the players look less intimidating, and it made the games feel contrived, “scripted” just like wrestling.

The XFL, like the AAF, promised “innovative” football on TV. Instead, both leagues (including the XFL’s first try) gave us innovative television and forgot to make the games themselves fresh and exciting.

Avoid the “Perpetual Preseason” Nightmare

To do better this time, Vince McMahon must recognize and remedy the syndrome which has befallen all start-up leagues for decades now. It has nothing to do with modern camera angles (some of which the XFL did indeed innovate) or the opening attendance figures or the style of announcing.

It doesn’t have much to do with the rulebook. Heck, it doesn’t even have to do with the number of marquee talents (if any) that XFL clubs will be able to snag right away.

It’s the plays themselves. Fans collectively shut up and watch about 75 to 100 times during a football game, and that’s because the “ball” is being “snapped” to someone known as a “quarterback.”

(It feels weird to explain this to Mr. McMahon in such stultifying terms, but hey, his old habits could be hard to break. Somebody has to explain the difference between a turnbuckle and a pigskin.)

When these so-called football plays happen, well, if they always look exactly the same as a billion other plays that viewers have already seen, they’re not going to believe any talk about “new” and “different” in your start-up league.

The World Football League was a perpetual NFL preseason, played in funny uniforms in European stadiums for the only people on the planet who had never seen a generic 5-yard pass before. Soon, even the English and the Germans learned that they were watching the world’s fanciest National Football League practice session.

XFL and AAF games suffered in the same way. I can’t think of a single trick play that was run in an Alliance game that hadn’t already been woven into the standard NFL playbook. Even if the AAF teams had poured-on the razzle dazzle, the basic playbooks were so boring and vanilla that it again resembled a Hall of Fame Game and not a competitive meeting of proud teams.

Alliance rosters were far more talented, and XFL rosters will be far more talented, than the average college team. That’s why it’s a travesty that the Toledo Rockets should have a more unique, exciting and recognizable offense than any minor league football team. Even casual FBS fans know that the Rockets run 3 and 4-wides all game, loop backs and slot receivers in motion, and let the defense have it with a wide-open game plan.

Can you think of any such distinction in the tactics of an AAF or XFL team? Nope, and you wouldn’t have even if they had been around as long as Toledo.

Unless somebody got smart along the way.

XFL 2.0 is off to a better start in planning and preparation because the league is at least willing to look at regular season rules in other sports as a guide instead of building a vehicle for wanna-be NFLers to go through the motions.

The 3-Point Conversion

One interesting news nugget is the XFL’s stated goal of having a “progressive” set of options for teams to convert after-touchdown.

Reportedly, coaches will be able to choose from a very short conversion for 1 point, a slightly-longer attempt for 2 points, or a play from closer to the 10 yard line for 3 points. Teams losing by 18 or 27 points will be able to come back after scoring just 2 or 3 times.

The league will also tinker with a “shootout” OT format based on concepts from the NBA and the NHL.

That’s nice. But even if he doesn’t know his Student Body Right from Counter-Trey Left, there is one more thing Vince McMahon could do to help give the new XFL a set of coaches who will think outside the box…and give the league something actually different to offer the viewer.

XFL 2.0 Must Hire Coaches Instead of Copycats

Remember when the rock band KISS tried to invest in an Arena Football League team? The music superstars who aren’t used to losing got a crash-course in what futility feels like.

Gene Simmons used to stick his tongue out, but he didn’t stick his neck out when picking out coaches. The L.A. Kiss was steered by a group of cast-off NFL types who never had an original idea worth mentioning. Playing exactly like every other club in the AFL, the expansion franchise had no natural advantage to speak of, and was not only bad but rather boring to watch.

Minor leagues have been making the same mistake, only with 8 or 10 clubs at a time.

McMahon must avoid the temptation to out-source his opinions along with responsibilities. He knows that the XFL failed miserably the first time. A big part of that was players getting asked to memorize and practice basic, unremarkable systems in a short time frame. Why not change the basic product along with the TV style? Take the year of planning left to the league and let some coaches start drawing stuff up right now. New stuff, not the same old stuff.

XFL football can succeed if unproven NCAA coaches are given as many opportunities as Mike Singletary, Dennis Erickson, and other over-the-hill NFL guys.

Sure – encourage a few XFL teams to hire the old hands with the vanilla playbooks ordered out of SkyMall. But encourage another group to appoint hot-shots from the mid-major and Division 2 ranks, talented skippers whose only sin is their lack of a Power 5 or NFL contract.

Imagine if the XFL became ½ teams with running QBs that play a college style, and ½ pro-style teams who arrogantly thumb their noses at the idea that anything can top a good drop-back passer. What wars that a pro version of the Toledo Rockets could have against an NFL-lite offense led by traditionalists.

I’m sure the players on the latter team would eventually have something to say about the “kiddie ball” and low-bridge blocking tactics of the NCAA-style club. Feathers would get ruffled as the rivalry showdown loomed on the XFL calendar. Twitter would become consumed with sniping.

Heck – that almost sounds like a good wrestling feud.

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