That first XFL product, of course, was slathered in WWE sauce, with the use of wrestling announcers on play by play, implied storylines between cheerleaders and players, a fair amount of raunch, and ultimately poor football. Hell, this was the opening moment of THAT version of the league....
It was all downhill from there.
So here we are in 2020, and while Vince McMahon is still the financial engine making this thing go, he is allowing respected sports executive Oliver Luck to construct and form the product, and oversee the fan experience. In Houston, we got our first sample of XFL football on Saturday afternoon, as the Houston Roughnecks started off 1-0 in their history with a 37-17 win over the Los Angeles Wildcats.
I watched Saturday's game and came away feeling pretty good about the product, and its short-term viability. By "short term," I'm talking the next one to three years. That seems to be about the limits to the amount of money McMahon has set aside to fund this iteration of the league. Beyond that, who the hell knows, but here are some things that I liked about Week 1, as pertains to the future of the league....
The quality of play was certainly good enough
The league's presentation matters, for sure, including all of the interesting places the XFL takes fans, places where the NFL will NEVER, EVER go in their broadcasts. First and foremost, I'm referring to the sideline where you can plainly hear the play callers send in plays (with the cryptic nomenclature and everything), and the replay official talking through the thought process of his decisions. However, if the quality of play is poor, then the presentation doesn't matter. In other words, if you're serving horse meat on fine china, it's still horse meat. This football product was definitely not horse meat. It wasn't a fine Porterhouse steak either, but it was probably a decent ribeye at a dive bar steak night. Good enough for me!
The style of Roughnecks play was entertaining
The head coaching hires are important for a fledgling league like this, and I would be lying if I could name all eight head coaches around the league. The only one I care about for local purposes is Roughnecks' head coach June Jones, a staunch disciple of the run and shoot offense. This most assuredly matters to casual fans who want to try to stick with this product. Casual fans (and most diehard fans) want to see offense, and most of them want to see it generated through the air. It wasn't an aerial circus on Saturday, but the Roughnecks did generate 37 points, and their starting QB P.J. Walker will probably get some Player of the Week love, assuming they hand out accolades like that.
"My biggest takeaway was how advanced this offense really was. They were light years ahead of everybody else on Saturday."@TheCoachrules breaks down our dominant win over LA yesterday #ForTheH pic.twitter.com/YoXi4S5wR3— Houston Roughnecks (@XFLRoughnecks) February 9, 2020
The TV announcers assigned to the game were "legitimizers"
As I mentioned above, the first iteration of the XFL had Matt Vasgersian (WAY before he ever mattered) and Jesse "The Body" Ventura (former WWF star and, back then, governor of Minnesota) as their number one announce team. It was not good. So McMahon's remedy was to promote his announce team for Monday Night RAW, Jim Ross and Jerry "The King" Lawyer, to announce the marquee XFL game each week. Ross was actually very good — he is a diehard football fan, to this day — Lawler was a circus, and most casual fans were chased off with the thought being "This is basically just a football version of WWE." On Saturday, FOX had the Roughnecks game and the announce team was Curt Menefee on play by play, Joel Klatt on color, Brock Huard on the sidelines, and Dean Blandino on the replay review analysis. These are all legit, big names in NFL and college football broadcasting circles, voices associated with big events, and their presence gave the game a legit big event feel.
In Houston, the tailgating experience for the Roughnecks might exceed that of the Texans
Last one, and this is VERY specific to Houston — one reason I think the game day experience will thrive (by XFL standards) here in town is that we love to tailgate. In Houston, we are GOOD at tailgating. We are good at eating, drinking, and carousing outdoors, and there is no better time of year to do just that than February, March, and April. The weather will be great football weather, but more importantly GREAT gorging and "gettin' drunk" weather. I would submit there is a better chance the Roughnecks' tailgating experience meets and maybe exceeds that of the Texans, based solely on the lack of butt sweat.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.