Andrew Hammond of The News Tribune caught up with Oliver Luck on Wednesday to talk about his hopes for the new XFL, and his thoughts on the league planting its flag in Seattle.
Among the topics were TV deals, team names/colors, ticket sales and more. Read below for the full exchange.
Andrew Hammond: Take me back to last year: You’re in Indianapolis working for the NCAA and you get a phone call from Vince McMahon and he’s pitching the idea of bringing back the XFL with you as commissioner. What was that like?
Oliver Luck: “I got a call from one of Vince’s guys and he said, would you be willing to take a meeting with Vince McMahon? I said sure, I’d be happy to. I love football, I was fortunate to be apart of the NFL Europe launch and helping launch an MLS franchise in Houston. I’m kind of familiar with start-ups in sports. There’s not to many true start-ups out there if you think about it. So, I spent a couple of Saturday’s with Vince and some of his folks at WWE. I asked a lot of questions, got a lot of answers. I felt very comfortable that Vince wanted to build this league the right way with the right sort of values and people.
“I felt comfortable with his capital commitment, he’s a very wealthy man. Quite honestly, I think football as a sport is as popular as its ever been, whether it’s at the NFL or major college football or small college football. That’s not to say that there isn’t any challenges, there are. … At the end of the day, I think it’s at an all-time high in terms of popularity and I figured it would be a neat opportunity having done this previously.”
AH: When McMahon made his “return of the XFL” announcement, one of the league selling points was shorter, faster paced and easier to understand game. Yet it’s still football. For some fans out there, they don’t know exactly what all that will look like. Can you expand on those points?
OL: “Sure. So, when I took the job one of the things Vince wanted me to dive right into is re-imagining the game. So that basically means uptempo game and you know we’re seeing that in both the college and pro level. An uptempo game, more plays, fewer stoppages and few breaks. I think people understand that, and you know there’s a few breaks for TV commercials, timeouts — the reviewing of plays other things like how long is halftime. What we wanted to do is have a game that’s a tempo game and we’re thinking of things like having a 30-second clock as opposed to a 40-second clock. …
“If you go back to the 70’s, 80’s and even the 90’s, you will see that most games were finished in under three hours. That was the traditional broadcast window. As evidence of that, think about unusual nature of the “Heidi Game” back in the day. That’s how big of a deal it was to see a game go over three hours. I saw some data recently that NFL game times have gone down by a minute or so that folks at the NFL and the NCAA where I worked for a couple of years are trying to figure out how to drive that number down more closer to three hours. We’re trying to get it under three hours.”
“And again, reduce the amount of dead time and also do some smart things and increase the number of meaningful plays. One play that has become viewed as meaningless is the kickoff. Whether it’s at the pro level or college level, it seems like you’re seeing all of these touchbacks and there’s a reason for that with all the health and safety that’s very legitimate—we’re worried about that too. We think we have a solution we’ve been testing right now and will reveal when we launch in 2020 is bringing the kickoff back into football because I think and many people would agree with me that it’s one of the most exciting things in football.”
AH: Explain why one of the first things you did as commissioner is develop a committee that will make “XFL 2.0” much more football centered as compared to its 2001 counterpart.
OL: “We’ve had a number of meetings so far with our committee, there’s formal members of that committee like John Fox and Jim Caldwell and Doug Flutie have been advisers for us. There’s a number of tech people that some may not know that have been involved with television and production. Some sports tech-like things. There have been some health and safety folks who have been advising us as well so we’re there to watch the health and safety for our players.
“The big thing is we’ve asked these folks to give us their ideas to give us consider the things that we’re now looking at and testing with real players. We want to do things differently but not be ‘gimmicky.’ People looked at the XFL in 2001 and saw two things that the football population might’ve viewed as gimmicky and weren’t accepted were the skycam and on-field reporters. Nobody was doing that stuff back then and now it’s commonplace.
“We wanted to get the wisdom of these folks, many of which have spent their entire lives around sports and around football. We got really tremendous input from those folks.”
AH: Seattle has a reputation as a city that supports its sports from football to baseball to women’s basketball. What can the XFL do to gain that support, yet stand out in its own way?
OL: “I think Seattle is perhaps the best sports town in the country, I’m being dead serious. When I ran the Houston Dynamo, I came up when they played the Sounders and CenturyLink was rocking. They’ve done a remarkable job. The Seahawks? I mean what more can I say, they’ve got one of the most difficult places to play in the NFL.
“I’ve been up to UW to watch games when my son was playing at Stanford. You mentioned the WNBA and the Storm does remarkably well and they’ve got a NHL team coming there. You know the Mariners haven’t been the most successful franchise as of late but that’s a well supported team. There’s something, I don’t know what it is, but there’s something special about Seattle and the passion people have for their sports teams. I think we want to tap into that, we want to create our own identity. When you look around and look at the passion that people have for all things Seattle, I think we’ve got a great chance there.
AH: One thing about the Seattle sports teams is their iconic colors. There’s always some elements of blue or green or something that you know is a Seattle franchise. Is that something that the league is considering when creating the team logo and colors?
OL: “We’re in the process right now—really halfway through of putting team colors, a team name and logos together right now. So I’m going to stay away from giving any indication on what team colors and logos are going to be (laughs). You’re right, there’s a Seattle ‘look’ that’s been pretty successful if you think about it.”
AH: Can you explain the relationship with Optimum Scouting and the process of how players will be selected?
OL: “Optimum Scouting is a group that we’ve partnered with and they’ve got, I’m not sure, maybe a dozen scouts in their group. They fairly well known in terms of their capabilities—not necessarily in getting first-, second- and third-round guys but getting those sixth-, seventh-round and free agent-type guys. We believe, to some exception, that’s going to be the core of our league. So we thought it was important to gain the ability to get insight and information, the intelligence-whatever you wanna call it.
“They’re our in-house scouting department, they’re our at the Shrine Game, the Senior Bowl and the NFLPA bowl out in Los Angeles. We were working the college and pro scene all fall so they’re giving us the intel we need and help develop our draft pool.
“Players will be distributed via a draft, we will not have some sort of a geographical restrictions, I am a believer of a marketplace that has the fewest restrictions in terms of distributing talent in terms of our eight franchises can succeed. If you played at the University of Florida doesn’t mean that you have to play in the market that is close to Florida. We want to skew some of the competitive equity within the league, we want our draft to be transparent and every fan can say, ‘Well, that’s how player a got to team B.’ The coach will ultimately be the head coach and general manager and will have the ability to put together that roster.”
AH: The media landscape has changed since 2001, we’ve got mass media that’s accessible from your TV to your laptop to your smartphone. Vince McMahon has done what most sports leagues have done in embracing the digital platforms with the WWE but does that still give room for a new league to seek a lucrative television deal?
OL: “You’re right, WWE’s got an amazing platform, they’re really a media entertainment company more so than any other descriptor. But one thing we’re going to focus on and one word we’ve focused on is exposure. We think the single most important thing to help us grow is exposure and we can develop a good, high quality product. We’re probably three weeks away from announcing our broadcast agreements and we focused on traditional, linear broadcast television. We looked at distributing cable partners as well.
“We’ll have streaming as well because that’s what everybody has these days. I’m 58 and I watch games on smartphone devices and streaming so I get it. I think our key is to get the best exposure possible and even with the world changing as you’ve referenced, linear television is still powerful.”
AH: The Alliance Football League is starting in February and it appears that both leagues will up and running competitively in 2020. How does the XFL stand apart from the other league?
OL: “We consider ourselves as a compliment to the NFL or the CFL. I think a vast majority of our players will have had some experience in either or both leagues — that may be on the practice squad or the 53-man roster. Guys who tend to go in and out of those leagues. I’d rather not speak on behalf of the other league. I’m not the spokesman for the other league and we’re kind of focused on what we’re doing here in our league and getting our business plan together. … We’re going to be announcing our broadcast agreements, we’re very close to getting that done. We’re starting to sign coaches and sign players.
“We envision 2019 as a long runway. We want to use every inch of that runway to make sure we’re building our team the appropriate way so that come 2020 we’re able to play crisp football and that’s obviously going to be a huge step for our league. So I can’t speak to anything that the other league is doing, we’re focused getting our business plans and our markets together for 2020.”