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XFL Stays the Course Amidst Spring Football Craze

The XFL is biding its time and growing in a unique way amidst the closure of the AAF and two more spring football startups planning to launch in 2020.

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Photo Courtesy of XFL

Last year, Vince McMahon sold over three million shares of his WWE wrestling empire, freeing up around $270 million to help fund his new football league, a revival of the XFL. The idea raised eyebrows for several reasons, not the least of which was a doggedness to make spring football succeed after so many other attempts, including one of McMahon’s own, already failed.

But in the months since McMahon’s January 2018 announcement, several other competitors have pursued spring football ventures. Television producer Charlie Ebersol launched the Alliance of American Football in February, only for the league to fold two months later. Tom Brady’s agent Don Yee announced Pacific Pro Football, with a target opening date in summer 2020. An ownership group including former NFL stars like Ricky Williams, Simeon Rice, Jeff Garcia, and former Super Bowl MVP Dexter Jackson also plans to start a league next year.

All the while, the XFL has bided its time in preparation for its own 2020 launch.

READ MORE: AAF Files for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy 

“I take the interest that exists right now in spring football in terms of launching leagues as a positive,” XFL Commissioner Oliver Luck told Front Office Sports in February at the introduction of the Washington, DC franchise. “I think it’s sort of an affirmation of what we’re all seeing together, which is football being the No. 1 most popular sport and the other being some business opportunities in the spring.”

That crowded field is a little bit thinner following the AAF’s decision to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Reportedly, the league reached out to the XFL about a merger, but ended up folding.

“There’s no dancing on the grave of the AAF,” Luck told NJ.com. “We watched them, we’re going to take lessons from them. To a certain degree, it’s a cautionary tale.”

To that end, the XFL is confident it’s in an entirely different position from the AAF.

Unlike the first time around, McMahon has invested in football infrastructure. The league has already filled six of its eight coaching vacancies and brought in steady hands like Luck, who previously served as the NCAA’s executive vice president for regulatory affairs, and Doug Whaley, the former Buffalo Bills general manager who now heads up the XFL’s football operations. Those are the sorts of voices pushing steady growth over short-term splashes, such as a recent decision to delay a planned wave of player signings in the first quarter of this year. The AAF shutdown may have helped usher that decision along.  

“We’re going to push that back because of the developments of everything that’s been going on, not only with the XFL,” Whaley told Front Office Sports. “Because we think we have a better chance to add to that number of players and that quality of players if we hold off on the recruiting process and start that a little later.”

The XFL is also taking the opposite tack from the AAF in location. While the AAF mostly fielded teams in non-NFL markets, all but one XFL team will be in a city that already has an NFL franchise — and that one exception, St. Louis, hosted the Rams until the team’s move to Los Angeles in 2016.

With higher quarterback salaries, a presence in major markets and several new stadiums and a player- and coach-friendly approach, the XFL is hoping for the product on the field to offer an exciting new brand of football that is still attractive to hardcore fans of the sport.

The other ingredient XFL 2.0 has that the AAF didn’t is time. The XFL is using that longer runway to build out the rules of its game in a way that is more befitting a software company than a football league.

“The methodology is you ask customers what they want. You ask experts how to build it. You identify research and data about how you would fix it. And then ultimately, you build, test, repeat: The Lean Startup method,” Sam Schwartzstein, XFL Director of Football Operations, told Front Office Sports. “So we’re using the same thing but we’re applying it to football.”

If it sounds like Silicon Valley language, that’s because it is. Schwartzstein played football at Stanford, where he earned two degrees and captained a Rose Bowl- and Pac-12 championship-winning team in 2012. After his football career ended, Schwartzstein spent five years at Chegg, an education technology company based in Santa Clara, prior to Luck hiring him as the XFL’s first product manager.

“There’s an evolution of football that might need to take place with some of the more old school techniques,” Schwartzstein said.

His process started with a survey of football fans, seeking to identify potential changes they might want. They had their first chance to take those ideas to the field in Mississippi in December, with junior college players going half-speed. They went back to the lab in February, where they tested situational work and skills-based drills with professional-caliber players.

They just wrapped up a third testing session at The Spring League in Austin, Texas, where teams played four full games and had 12 practices. It gave them plenty of material to chew on, which has proved invaluable as they look to create an evolved-yet-familiar version of the game.

“That was the main focus is to thoroughly test everything, because we don’t have to change anything about football,” Whaley said. “It’s a pretty great game as it is. But if we were to change something we wanted to make sure it’s thoroughly vetted both from experts, from data, and as well as being able to test live.”

The league will be announcing its two broadcast partners within the next few weeks. Both were present at The Spring League to aid in the development of the at-home viewing experience.

“We also had a little bit of a tech science fair down there,” Schwartzstein said. “We want to make sure that we’re understanding exactly how we can put the best product on the field from a technology standpoint, so there were about 10 vendors down there that showcased player tracking as well as identifying how do we find the right talent pool, so unique ways to find the best talent using data.”

It will be a delicate balance to make changes to a game to a game so loved and revered, and so resistant to change. Not everyone is optimistic that overhaul will succeed, either.

READ MORE: Trio of NFL Players Work Together for A Dunkin’ Retirement

“The likely demise of the AAF doesn’t bode well for the XFL,” Daniel Durbin, director of the Institute of Sports, Media and Society at the University of Southern California told the Stamford Advocate. “McMahon may have more resources available than the AAF did. But, in the end, he will have to be willing to wait out possibly years of losses to develop a stable and successful league.”

Nevertheless, the XFL believes its football product will be a major differentiator.

“The biggest thing we always wanted to make sure of was to have tweaks that are simple and interesting, but as soon as someone turned on our game, they knew it was football,” Schwartzstein said. “Let’s start small, but let’s focus on things that make the game more exciting, faster pace of game, and evolve like the way people are starting to consume their sports and entertainment.”

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Meet the WNBA’s New Boss

Deloitte CEO Cathy Engelbert will become the first commissioner of the WNBA and the first woman to lead a Big Four professional services firm in the U.S.

Front Office Sports

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Photo Credit: Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

*This piece first appeared in the Front Office Sports Newsletter. Subscribe today and get the news before anyone else.

For the first time ever, the WNBA will have a commissioner. Before now, all of the league’s previous leaders like Val Ackerman and Lisa Borders were given the title of president. 

Cathy Engelbert, the current CEO of Deloitte, will take control of the role on July 17th and will report directly to Adam Silver. 

What should you know?

1. By the time she is done at Deloitte, Engelbert will have spent more time at the company (33 years) than the WNBA has been a league (23 years)

2. Engelbert is the first female to lead a Big Four professional services firm in the U.S.

3. She is the fifth person to lead the league after Val Ackerman (1997-2005), Donna Orender (2005-10), Laurel Richie (2011-15) and Lisa Borders (2016-2018)

4. Engelbert has spent the past four years in charge of Deloitte’s U.S. operation.

Basketball is in her blood…

Although she might be an accountant by trade, Engelbert is no stranger to the game of basketball. 

According to Bob Hille of Sporting News, she played at Lehigh for Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw and was a team captain as a senior. Her father Kurt also played and was drafted in 1957 by the Pistons.

What are they saying?

“Cathy is a world-class business leader with a deep connection to women’s basketball, which makes her the ideal person to lead the WNBA into its next phase of growth. The WNBA will benefit significantly from her more than 30 years of business and operational experience including revenue generation, sharp entrepreneurial instincts and proven management abilities.” – Adam Silver on the hiring of Engelbert

“I think that’s probably one of the reasons I was selected for this role, to come in and bring a business plan to build the WNBA into a real business and a thriving business, quite frankly.” – Engelbert to ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel

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Adam Silver Wants More Gender Diversity

The NBA commissioner states his desire to get more women into the sports industry. The NBA currently has a 31.6 percent ratio of women in team management.

Front Office Sports

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Photo Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

*This piece first appeared in the Front Office Sports Newsletter. Subscribe today and get the news before anyone else. 

If Adam Silver has his way, 50 percent of the new incoming NBA officials will be women.

That number applies to coaches too, Silver said speaking at the Economic Club of Washington.

How do the leagues stack up?

The following numbers, outside of MLB, come from 2018 reports put together by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida. MLB is the first league to have a report done on it this year.

1. NBA – 31.6% of team management are women / 37.2% of team professional admins are women

2. NFL – 22.1% of team senior admins are women / 35% of team professional admins are women

3. MLB – 28.6% of team senior admins are women / 26% of team professional admins are women

4. MLS – 26.5% of team senior admins are women / 31.6% of team professional admins are women

5. WNBA – 48.6% of team VPs and above are women / 58% of team managers to senior directors are women

6. NHL – No report done

Quotes from Silver… 

“It’s an area, frankly, where I’ve acknowledged that I’m not sure how it was that it remained so male-dominated for so long. Because it’s an area of the game where physically, certainly, there’s no benefit to being a man, as opposed to a woman, when it comes to refereeing.”

“The goal is going forward, it should be roughly 50-50 of new officials entering in the league. Same for coaches, by the way. We have a program, too. There’s no reason why women shouldn’t be coaching men’s basketball.”

That’s not all Silver wants to see change…

Silver, who has been adamant about getting rid of the one-and-done rule, provided some clarity as to when that might be achieved.

According to the commissioner, the 2022 NBA Draft will likely be the first one since the 2005 NBA Draft to allow high school players to go straight into the league rather than playing a season in college first.

Citing “active discussions” with the NBPA, Silver noted that they are still “a few years away.”

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“I Thought This Was a Good Deal”: AAF Vendors Speak Out

Amidst the spring football league’s collapse, countless vendors are still waiting to get paid for services rendered.

Robert Silverman

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Ultimately, it was the little things that best told the story of how dire things had gotten for the Alliance of American Football (AAF), an ex-team social media manager said. Starting in Week Five, social media managers no longer traveled with the team for road games. Even before, they’d doubled up on hotel rooms. The final bit of penny-pinching was the most bizarre: For the eighth and final AAF game, social was told Getty’s photographers would not be in attendance. Instead they would have to rely on “generic images,” making the job vastly more difficult.

Less than a week later, on April 2, the chaotic, short-lived lifespan of the spring professional football league, launched in March 2018 by filmmaker Charlie Ebersol, the son of venerated TV producer Dick Ebersol, came to an abrupt end. A little over two weeks after that, the AAF filed for bankruptcy, as first reported by Front Office Sports.

In the aftermath, stories like the social media manager’s have become ubiquitous. A  former player was sent a medical bill for treatment received during training camp. Scores of others reportedly had to cover their own airfare or were sent four-figure bills for hotel rooms. There was the class-action lawsuit filed by two players, claiming that ownership misled them about the league’s long-term fiscal solvency. Founders pointed fingers at one another after the debt-ridden league came crashing down. All manner of now ex-employees, from team officials to players,  learned they were out of a job thanks to social media.

The league’s bankruptcy filing revealed that $48.3 million was still owed to a variety of creditors against a $11.3 million in concrete assets, a scant $536,160.68 of which remained in the league’s bank accounts. Moreover, the AAF informed the thousands of creditors that any attempts to recoup their losses would be pointless right now, because, per Sports Business Journal, its coffers are entirely bare… “If it later appears that assets are available to pay creditors, the clerk will send you another notice telling you that you may file a proof of claim and stating the deadline,” the filing states.

But like the social media manager, many of those selfsame creditors began to suspect the AAF was on rocky financial ground long before the league officially pulled the plug.

Shortly after Tom Dundon, the majority owner of the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes, who built his financial empire on the backs of subprime auto loans, bought a majority share of the financially-strapped league, he started to cut corners, looking to pare down expenses by any means necessary according to a report by Sports Illustrated. “As soon as Dundon took over, our f——— expense reports were getting approved out of Dallas,” where Dundon Capital Partners’ office is located, a former mid-level AAF employee told the magazine. (Dundon did not respond to multiple requests for comment sent via the Carolina Hurricanes. The form to contact Dundon Capital Partners on their website was removed at some point in the past few months )

With the AAF bleeding millions each and every week it remained in existence, per USA Today, Dundon deemed it necessary to scrimp and save wherever possible including on the margins. So vendors—companies that supplied locker room supplies, traveling equipment and more—were approached hat in hand and offered less than the full amount owed by the AAF.

READ MORE: AAF Files for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy 

While AAF officials served as the point of contact, two sources involved with the negotiations told Front Office Sports that the debt-clearing plan was conceived and ordered by Dundon’s financial team. If that meant exploiting AAF officials’ pre-existing relationships with vendors and playing on the faith placed in the league, so be it. As one former AAF official told Front Office Sports, it was “just a shit situation.”

Some of the companies did take the lowball offers, but others refused to accept less, insisting on full payment. It didn’t matter. Both paths led to vendors getting stiffed by the AAF. Dundon’s financial team kept stalling, promising the equivalent of “the check’s in the mail,” right up until the moment when the AAF closed its doors for good.

Now those vendors have been reduced to poring over the bankruptcy filings. They know all too well that, despite being out five or six figures, they’re way at the back of the line, trailing giant conglomerates like MGM and Aramark which are owed millions. And they’re not happy about it.

“I definitely feel scammed,” one vendor said.

(more…)

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