Many of you are familiar with the story about how WWE chairman Vince McMahon decided to expand his empire into the football realm in 2001 by starting up an eight-team league called the XFL. If you're familiar with the story, then you also know what the XFL was all about. Yes, it was about some revolutionary, viewer-friendly advancements — huddle cam, expanded audio, to name a couple — some of which the NFL now use today. But not all of the changes the XFL brought forth advanced the game (or much of anything).
The problem and ultimate undoing of the XFL in 2001 was that there was just too much of Vince McMahon's "other world," professional wrestling, blended into the product. Football fans may have wanted more football, and they may have wanted something different than the NFL in some respects, but they didn't want wrestling-style storylines between, say, cheerleaders and players.
The league back then was co-owned by NBC, and NBC executive Dick Ebersol (a longtime friend of McMahon) was the internal champion with WWE's television partner. Eventually, though, the plug was pulled after just one season and millions in losses. So, it was a surprise, to say the least, when McMahon suddenly announced earlier this year that he would be rebooting the XFL in 2020:
In 2001, a rogue football league didn't quite make sense, especially one directly challenging the NFL. However, here in 2018, the NFL has found itself somewhat vulnerable, with a notable portion of its fanbase feeling disenfranchised largely over the league's inability to quell players protesting during the national anthem. Addressing THOSE fans is clearly part of McMahon's strategy, as he has made no bones about XFL players standing and respecting the anthem.
However, the big question for many, given how intertwined the XFL and WWE were in 2001, is "Will this be just another campy wrestling skit disguised as football?" or will this be "real football." If you needed a clear answer to that question in the form of action, you got it on Tuesday, with the announcement that Oliver Luck would be the new league's first commissioner and CEO:
The @XFL2020 has named former NFL and NCAA player and executive Oliver Luck as its first Commissioner and CEO, sources tell ESPN.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) June 5, 2018
Luck is leaving the NCAA and Indianapolis, where he was able to be around his son, Andrew.
Luck, a former Houston Oiler quarterback in his playing days, has a long and distinguished career running various sports enterprises. He was president of NFL Europe before becoming CEO of the Houston Sports Authority, which helped bring the Texans to Houston. From there, Luck went on to become the president of the Houston Dynamo in their first few seasons in Houston, before moving onto West Virginia as that school's AD. Most recently, he'd moved into an executive role within the NCAA in Indianapolis, where he was able to live near his son, former Stratford High and current Indianapolis Colts QB Andrew Luck.
Per an email sent to ESPN.com, Luck is thrilled with his new venture:
"The XFL will be a labor of love as I get to combine my experiences as a player and executive," Luck told ESPN in an email. "I'm thrilled to have this unique opportunity to reimagine the game that has been a constant in my life for 40 years."
In a statement, Vince McMahon expressed similar enthusiasm for Luck's decision to climb on board:
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"Oliver and I share the same vision and passion for reimagining the game of football," XFL founder and chairman Vince McMahon said in a statement. "His experience as both an athlete and executive will ensure the long-term success of the XFL."
The message with the hiring of Luck is clear — the XFL will be about football, and JUST football. The league will be facing immediate competition from a fellow startup, the Alliance of American Football, ironically founded by Ebersol's son, Charlie. That league is slated to launch in 2019, a year ahead of McMahon's league, and presumably in similar markets and stadiums as the XFL might be seeking. The AAFL has also signed some big names in executive and coaching capacities, inducing former NFL GM Bill Polian and former college and NFL head coach, Steve Spurrier.
At age 72, McMahon is still a fierce competitor, and those who know him are certain he is relishing this football challenge on all fronts. The hire of Oliver Luck proves that, if nothing else, he certainly learned from his football failures the first time around.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.