We are all feeling the effects of the coronavirus, if not the direct effects of the virus itself then more likely the economic and psychological effects of a near shutdown of the entire economy. In the sports world, the pandemic nuclear bomb has put multiple leagues into limbo, thousands of radio hosts broadcasting from home (assuming they're still employed), and television networks searching maniacally for content.
For some, though, limbo turns into death, and that's what happened on Friday, as the XFL announced that were suspending operations, laying off virtually all of its employees, and that they have plans to return in 2021. In other words, the second iteration of Vince McMahon's vision for spring football is done, like the first one, after just one season.
This league closure is particularly disappointing for multiple reasons. First, locally, one of the eight teams was Houston-based — the undefeated Houston Roughnecks! — and this is one less figurative landmark on our Houston sports topography, Second, this version of the XFL was far more meticulously planned and constructed than the first version back in 2001. This time, Vince McMahon hired highly respected sports executive (and longtime former Houstonian) Oliver Luck to run the league.
Luck spent two years doing extensive research and development on rules, negotiating excellent television partnerships, and marketing the league, all leading to a product that was the most polished alternative to the NFL that we've seen since the USFL in the mid-'80s. Let's start there with some thoughts on the demise of XFL, 2.0....
You can't compare this failure to other previous alternative league failures
At the end of the day, this version of the XFL wound up in the same place as all of the other attempts at a spring alternative to the National Football League, including 2019's Alliance of American Football — defunct and swimming in red ink. However, as league failures go, this one skews far to the "not their fault" end of the scale of reasons why.
McMahon seemed committed and in it for the long-term, and Luck was as invested as any league commissioner in marketing his product and launching a viable league. I think the XFL lasting into season number two was highly likely before this virus began to creep onto our shores. Unfortunately, of all the scenarios McMahon and Luck had on the board for the inaugural season of the league, a global pandemic that would slice off the second half of the season was probably not on the list.
Conversely, just go read about the AAF, which failed part way through its first season because the people running it could barely balance a checkbook. History will say both leagues failed before finishing their first season, but not all failures are created even close to equal.
So what will survive as a spring league?
Honestly, unless Vince McMahon (or someone with similar sized figurative testicles) wants to take another run at it and gamble that the world doesn't enter into a virus-induced gridlock, I don't know that a spring league survives without some sort of affiliation with the NFL as a developmental league. I think the FNL could benefit greatly, and create even more content for its TV partners with a league whose thinly veiled mission is to develop quarterbacks, and give fans who can't afford NFL tickets a cost effective way to go watch some future NFL players at a price point where they can bring their families. Basically, something like the XFL 2.0 appeared to be evolving into before COVID-19 hit.
What will the NFL take away from the XFL?
Even the campy, cheesy, first version of the XFL in 2001 has some aspects of the presentation that the NFL decided to adopt, largely in the area of production with new camera angles and microphones. This time around, I could see the NFL actually adopting some of the rules the XFL put in place. Maybe two right away, but I could see the NFL Competition Committee taking a year to think about the XFL's kickoff rules (a much safer version of the conventional kickoff play) and extra point rules (XFL had no PAT kicks, and had three different levels of play from scrimmage a team could run to get one, two, or three points.).
One thing the NFL will probably not adopt, but would be fascinating if they did, is the in-game sideline interview with players and coaches who just failed in their in-game duties. At this point, the only way Bill O'Brien gets fired is if he murders somebody on the sidelines, and that would appear to be our best chance to get that to happen.
Houston, let's claim a title!
Hey, let's push aside all of the sadness over the XFL's demise and never forget that the Houston Roughnecks were undefeated for the entire history of their franchise, and to that end, I am declaring them XFL Champions! I am declaring quarterback P.J. Walker league MVP, June Jones XFL Coach of the Year, and proclaiming there will be a parade on the first day that we can penetrate the mythical six foot radius of our fellow man. Savor it, Houston, the Roughnecks are XFL World Champions because I said so!
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