During its short existence, the Alliance of American Football was often shrouded in secrecy. Nobody knew what to believe about the startup — until it suspended operations on April 2, less than three months into its first season.
But unlike the AAF, the XFL is embracing transparency, according to Oliver Luck, commissioner and chief executive officer of the new spring football league. That starts with how it recruits players for its inaugural 2020 season.
“In today’s world, it doesn’t matter what you’re talking about, transparency is everything. Part of this is the new world we live in is social media,” said Luck. “No matter what you’re doing, people want to know how you’re doing it, why you’re doing it. They have a million questions. It just seems to me to be good business sense to open all this stuff up — and show people what happens. The idea of closed tryouts? C’mon.”
The father of Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck is holding court here on the sidelines at one of the XFL’s eight “Summer Showcases,” this one being held at Montclair State University in New Jersey. Mingling with fans and players alike during the event, Luck and Jeffery Pollack, the XFL’s president and chief operating officer, certainly aren’t hiding.
Instead, the XFL has invited both the press and the public to watch players like former New York Giants star Hakeem Nicks run through drills. While that may upset control-freak football coaches, it’s all about making the XFL as accessible as possible to win over fans.
“I know coaches are paranoid sometimes. But we really want to make everything we do accessible to the fan,” Luck said. “We believe that the rationale for this league is those 40 million, passionate, diehard football fans who really want to see football after the Super Bowl.”
Unlike the AAF, which rushed to get on the field, the XFL will be taking its time – thanks in large part to its deep-pocketed owner: WWE Chairman Vince McMahon.
Nearly two decades after McMahon and NBC’s original XFL folded in 2001, McMahon is rolling the dice again. He sold $272 million worth of his own shares, then funneled it into a new XFL parent company called Alpha Entertainment. He’ll serve as the league’s founder and chairman.
Since McMahon announced the return of the XFL on January 25, 2018, the nascent league has embraced that slow and steady approach. Step one involved hiring coaches and front office executives with long football pedigrees. Step two will involve finding players. The recruitment process will really click into high gear after 32 NFL teams shed up to 1,000 players at their summer training camps this summer. Step three will feature the reborn league’s first player draft. Step four will involve finalizing and publishing a rule book that makes good on the league’s promise of “Less Stall, More Ball.” Step five will involve playing high-energy games with less play stoppages and simpler rules.
McMahon’s XFL owns all the teams. The backing of the deep-pocketed wrestling billionaire gave the startup league time to grow. But things are shifting into high gear this summer.
In January, the XFL announced sports industry veteran Pollack would come aboard as president and chief operating officer. Pollack’s challenge is twofold. He needs to have XFL 2.0 up running by next season. But he also needs to create a solid business that will be around five years from now. Looming over the new XFL’s shoulder are the ghosts of all the other spring football leagues that came and went, from the AAF to Donald Trump’s old USFL.
‘We have the blessing of resources. They’re not unlimited, but they’re substantial, and we have to make sure we have enough gas in the tank for the journey ahead and it’s gonna take years,” said Pollack. “Not a season, not two seasons, but a few seasons to really stand this up completely and get the industry fully engaged. And get fans fully engaged.”
MLS has built a base of 35 million million fans since its founding more than two decades ago, he noted. With more pro football than soccer fans in the U.S., Pollack’s optimistic.
“I think we can get there in 10 (years),” he said.
The Stamford, Conn.-based XFL will have clubs in eight markets: Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, St. Louis, Seattle, Tampa Bay and Washington D.C. The league will reveal team names and logos in July, then probably start selling tickets in August.
Starting in February 2020, there will be a 10-week regular season, followed by two semi-final playoffs April 18-19 and championship game April 26.
Along with transparency, the XFL will also focus on affordability, said Pollack. Tickets for a family of four will often cost less than $100.
Fans will get more access to players through meet and greets and on-field experiences. Since Pollack joined, the XFL’s staff has grown from 20 full-time employees to over 160.
On the media front, the XFL has signed TV deals with ESPN and Fox Sports to show 43 games next year. The games will air on both broadcast (ABC and Fox) and cable (ESPN, ESPN2, FS1, FS2). There will be back to back games Saturday afternoon starting at 2 p.m., along with two additional Sunday games. 24 will air on broadcast TV. ESPN will televise both the kickoff and championship game.
The XFL is not receiving rights fees but the networks are paying for production, which are estimated at around $400,000 per game, said sources. The networks will sell the TV commercials while the XFL will control the rights to venue sponsorships, said sources. ESPN and Fox control XFL streaming rights.
The league is meeting regularly with both networks to decide who will call the games. Since he attends his NFL quarterback son’s games on Sunday, Luck watches a lot of college football. He hopes ESPN and Fox will give college football announcers like Fox’s Joel Klatt a crack at calling XFL games. But he’ll leave that up to the networks.
With Tony Romo of CBS Sports entering the final year of his contract, FOS asked Luck if he could see the 39-year old “Romostradamus” becoming the broadcast face of the new league – bringing potentially another layer of transparency to the XFL?
“I like Tony…That would be good. He would know every play we’re running,” said Luck.