The concept of spring football is an elusive and tempting proposition for many that have wanted to capitalize on the untapped market of viewers craving more of their favorite sport after the NFL’s Super Bowl. Many have tried and failed in varying degrees for decades on end, but none have been truly successful at a consistent and longstanding product that can thrive on its own merits.
The XFL 2.0 story is one that stands out entirely from its other spring counterparts not only in the way it ended, but also its rebirth. The atmosphere of the football world has allowed it to be given a second chance like no other in its category as we now know Dwayne Johnson, Dany Garcia, and RedBird Capital will be carrying the torch that Vince McMahon relit and progressed with over the last two years. With this passing of the torch comes the many lessons of spring football’s past that the new ownership of the now dubbed XFL 3.0 can take with them. For this write up, We’ll be using the United States Football League (USFL), XFL 1.0, and the Alliance of American Football as studies of what choices should or should not be made with the XFL’s latest revival.
Lesson 1: Know Your Salary Limits
The phrase “You have to spend some to make some” is an all too common proposition and necessary evil for any business, and spring football is no exception. Financial ruin is the culprit of the demise of the majority of these, but scratch just below the surface and it’s never that simple.
Take the United States Football League (USFL) for example. By the end of its run in 1986, the league was $200 million in the hole, and though the league had won portions of its monumental antitrust lawsuit against the NFL, it was unable to win its $1.7 billion in trebled damages to keep the league afloat.The situation had only reached this apex of colossal debt and desperation because of their abandoning of the spending plan that it’s founder stressed to stay close to.
At the time of its inception, the original founder of the USFL, David Dixon, had brought in individual ownership groups, and set spending practices that were practical and efficient including a $1.8 million salary cap to not only help with competition, but also to control costs in the leaner beginning years of the league (something that the NFL would not institute until 1994). This salary cap would be blown out of proportion by owners in the league’s inaugural season in 1983. Though players signed with these record salaries of the time (such as Hershel Walker signing a 3 year, $4.2 million deal directly out of college) brought a spotlight to the league, it also set its trajectory on a dangerous course of constant rising debt throughout its three season existence.
Spring football leagues since the days of the USFL have taken the route of limited players salaries with incentives or tiers of payscale based on position. This was the stance that Vince McMahon took when he relaunched the XFL and geared up for its initial relaunch this past February, but there are still those that argue this to not be effective. Take this quotes from Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk back in February just before the Week 1 launch of XFL 2.0 as he makes his case to pay out for stars.
To survive, the league needs to attract or cultivate star players that will compel fans to tune in. Johnny Manziel still moves the needle, but the XFL has inexplicably ignored him. Colin Kaepernick would be worth every penny that he’d command. And Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who still must wait one more year before entering the draft, should be making $1 million (or more) to be the face of the XFL for the next two seasons before entering the draft.
He continues later in the article with this point as well.
To get the most out of that money, however, McMahon should be spending it on players that people will tune in to watch. And the easiest supply of players who will move the needle comes from the college ranks, where guys who already have developed a reputation for being quality players aren’t getting paid and aren’t allowed to get paid until they are at least three years removed from high school.
To these points, I point back to the strategy of the USFL as a counter argument. However, the current state of College Football could change that.
Conclusion: XFL 3.0 ownership should look to continue the pay tier system from XFL 2.0 and avoid the tempting allure of paying out large sums for eye-grabbing names.Only when the league can generate long term success and increasing revenues that the discussion of increased salaries (and potential franchising of teams) can begin.
Lesson 2: Mid-Tier Market Magic
Spring leagues have looked to tap into not just the populous that can’t have enough of America’s favorite sport but also the areas of the country that lack the access to the live experience of the contests. For this reason, many midsize sports markets have been able to have the allure of potential for starting points for spring football. Markets that have repeatedly opened their doors to spring football have included the likes of Birmingham, Memphis, San Antonio, Orlando, and Las Vegas
The XFL can take its lesson on looking into several of these midsize markets in part to the short-lived but intriguing Alliance of American Football as its strategy was to aim for markets that hit the happy medium of population and absence of sports competition, and it paid off. San Antonio, Orlando, and Birmingham held three of the top four highest average attendance numbers for the league, and all three have been linked in some way to either relocation or expansion for XFL 2.0 and now XFL 3.0. Birmingham in particular has been actively pursuing another spring team with the XFL which has to do in large part to its success while having the Birmingham Iron in the Alliance and its history with other professional football leagues. Birmingham City Council President William Parker had plenty of insight on their city’s pursuit for an XFL team when interviewed by WBRC Birmingham.
“Over the years, we’ve worked hard to position Birmingham as a sports destination,” President Parker said. “By having the XFL at Legion Field, we’d be able to keep major sporting events at the historic stadium year round since the league plays in the spring. I will be reaching out to the leadership at the XFL to schedule meetings in which we can discuss the ways that both the league and Birmingham can mutually benefit from this exciting new venture.”
That is not to say that more crowded sports markets can’t make for successful fan support. It just needs to be passionate. As we’ve seen with XFL 2.0 (and most likely XFL 3.0), Seattle was one of the breakout stars for the league while already hosting homes for four other major sports leagues and being a top fifteen media market. Among the group that calls the city home are the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks which are known to draw ravenous committed fans looking to be part of the 12th man experience. Houston and Dallas were top ten TV markets, but were smart decisions based on the diehard football culture of the state of Texas.
Conclusion: XFL 3.0 should explore midsize markets to draw fans looking for a team to call their own. They should also still be considering many former Alliance of American Football cities for relocation or new expansion opportunities.
Lesson 3: Dare to Differentiate
Spring football has been a bastion of innovation and inspiration to improve upon and adapt the game of football. Innovation and experimentation are ways that past leagues have been able to intrigue and capture the imagination of what the sport can be not just fundamentally but also in the sense of how we interact and view the game we love. The XFL in both of its previous forms has been an innovator in these categories, and XFL 3.0 will need to take its heritage of innovation forward into 2021 and (hopefully) beyond.
This past spring, XFL 2.0 captivated audiences with innovations to the core game of football itself. Many of these changes come during a time where football is approaching a crossroads with safety for those involved and review for a sport increasing in pace with every new generation of stronger and faster athletes. In particular, the concept of the kickoff in
In terms of how we view the game, both former iterations of the XFL under Vince McMahon changed the way we viewed the game for the better. XFL 1.0 introduced SkyCam and onfield camera angles that are staples of all major football broadcasts today. XFL 2.0 expanded on its predecessors concepts of access for fans by adding in-game sideline interviews with players and coaches, locker room interviews at halftime, and a social media following that not only was a driving force for fan engagement but also revolutionary
So far, XFL 3.0 ownership has hinted at continuing many of the principles that were working with XFL 2.0 and looking to innovate on the entertainment front with the potential for shows and experiences that encompass a full 365 day experience for fans to engage with. This would be monumental for the league as it would potentially lead to some unique opportunities for new takes on sports entertainment for the enjoyment of fans and the exposure that players and coaches want as they look to get back to the NFL.
Conclusion: XFL 3.0 must become a league of experimentation. Spring football has been the main catalyst of innovating and changing the sport for the better. It is now time for the XFL to once again continue that trend.
In the end, spring football’s many trials and errors have led up to this now or never moment for the XFL. Tom Veit, formerly the vice president and general manager of the Orlando Rage during the days of XFL 1.0, had an intriguing quote on the subject of spring football ever succeeding.
“Spring football will work when people learn not to screw it up.”
As simplistic as this quote seems, it also highlights how the code for success had not been cracked yet. Leagues of the past experimented and displayed do’s and don’ts for future leagues. XFL 2.0 launched and solidified that there is still potential. XFL 3.0 now has the task that no spring league before it must accomplish: breaking the cycle.