Can the XFL really make spring football work? How its draft showed the way

STAMFORD, Connecticut — The clock hit 10 a.m., and the side discussions stopped. The window blinds were closed. Oliver Luck took his seat at the table in a conference room decorated with artificial green turf and guarded by a sign that read “XFL Draft In-Progress. Silence Upon Entry!” Luck cleared his throat to kick off the most important event yet in the birth of a new football league.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he intoned toward a camera. “Welcome to the XFL draft. This is a historic moment for all of us, and we appreciate the hard work that’s gone into getting us to this point. Good luck to everybody.”

And that was it. There were no fireworks. No music. No cheering crowds. Not even a live internet stream. Just 35 words of serious business from the league commissioner followed by two days of drafting 561 players — the starkest indication yet of the XFL’s determination to avoid buzz and project itself as a serious football enterprise. The XFL draft, which began last month and will continue Friday with a supplemental round, was structured for maximum efficiency and parity, at the expense of pageantry and recognizable names that would have drawn more attention.

“Football is kind of a serious game,” Luck said, “and what I’ve been saying all the time, so much that people think it’s tongue-in-cheek, is that we’re doing this for the love of the game. It’s for the love for football. And that really is it. That’s what we want to be for. I’m not a gimmicky person.”

When he launched the league in 2018, XFL owner Vince McMahon made clear that he would not replicate the renegade conceit and general swagger of the XFL’s first incarnation, which folded after its only season in 2001. A day spent in the XFL’s offices last month, observing the draft and talking to executives, demonstrated how buttoned-up this league intends to be.

The draft established, for instance, that the XFL will not market itself using big names. Its signature signing was quarterback Landry Jones, a backup for parts of six seasons in the NFL. The league was thrilled to sign quarterback Cardale Jones, best known for leading a 2015 championship run at Ohio State. Most recently, Jones was released from the Seattle Seahawks’ practice squad. Many of the recognizable names in the player pool — from running backs Trent Richardson and Matt Jones to quarterback Zach Mettenberger — went undrafted. And the league had no interest in Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, a 2014 NFL first-round pick with experience in the CFL and AAF.

Among the top XFL player profiles, Luck said, is a sizable chunk who spent multiple years on an NFL practice squad but failed to earn a promotion. Those players could use the XFL as a springboard to better opportunities. As an example, Luck pointed to the path of a cornerback named Keith Reaser, who spent parts of 2017-18 with the Kansas City Chiefs, starred in the AAF last spring and then re-signed with the Chiefs for a guaranteed $75,000 bonus. (Reaser is currently on injured reserve after tearing his Achilles in training camp.)

“That’s what I think we can do for players,” Luck said. “There are plenty of talented players out there for us who are a hair too short or get an injury here or there that sets them back. But I think arguably that’s more attractive than saying, ‘Hey, there’s Jim Kelly playing for the Houston Gamblers or Doug Flutie playing for New Jersey.’ The USFL, back in the day, they had some players as their calling card. That was their strategy: to get a star or two on each team. For us, it’s going to be more about the collective.”

The league’s focus on process over stars was evident in the smallest details of the draft. Rather than a traditional round-by-round sequence that would have immediately identified its best players, the XFL used position-specific rounds with a “snake” order that was more difficult for fans to follow but almost certainly better for dispersing talent equally.

In the preceding days, executives from the league office and each team had practiced and polished the wording of each draft announcement, repeating it over video conference software to ensure accuracy and efficiency. A pick wasn’t official until Doug Whaley, the XFL’s senior vice president of football operations, intoned “confirmed” after team representatives repeated their selection.

This sober approach to the draft, the most NFL’s most popular event with fans other than the Super Bowl, served as confirmation that there will be little tangible connection to McMahon’s swaggering World Wrestling Entertainment. Speaking from a red-brick office building across the street from WWE headquarters, Luck said he expects little to no crossover promotion. In the absence of a crosswalk between the buildings, the company hired an off-duty policeman to escort employees safely across East Main Street in Stamford — an appropriate metaphor for the separation of the two enterprises.

There are certainly ways to draw short-term attention, but the XFL appears intent on avoiding that kind of market disruption. Compensation levels are low enough for non-quarterbacks — a base salary of $27,000 for 10 games, with available bonuses that could bring it to $55,000 if a player is available for every game and his team has a 5-5 record — that at least one drafted player, defensive end Corey Vereen, decided to stay in his current job (software developer) rather than play.

Although the league’s rules allow it to recruit college stars who are less than three years removed from high school, and thus ineligible for the NFL, Luck has downplayed that tack. There was only one player in the original draft pool who had college eligibility remaining: West Virginia safety Kenny Robinson, selected by the St. Louis BattleHawks. Robinson is essentially using the XFL as his combine for the NFL, a path the league would like to popularize. It is possible that there will be more college players in Friday’s supplemental round.

To this point, the XFL’s play has been as unassuming as McMahon promised, with a focus on the football product, one it believes will sustain the interest of serious football fans through a series of tweaks that will minimize objectionable delays. Some, such as an official whose only job is to spot the ball, will go unnoticed by most fans. Several more radical ideas were shelved, including one that would have made every offensive player an eligible receiver. Perhaps the most noticeable change from traditional football will be a kickoff alignment in which the coverage and blockers must stand still until the returner catches the ball, an approach the XFL hopes will minimize touchbacks and promote a return on nearly every kick.

“We’re going to have a fast-paced, action game, but it won’t be basketball on grass,” said Whaley, who served as the Buffalo Bills’ general manager from 2013 to ’17. “If we can get a 34-28 game and get you in and out in under three hours, without the stalls and the replays and timeouts that can kind of dishearten you about the game, that’s the kind of game that we want. It has to be real football, but it has to be something that people are enjoying watching and are entertained by.”

Is there truly a national market for football performed largely by unknown players, starting in mid-February, when fans typically take a post-Super Bowl breather? The XFL’s future largely depends on the notion that there is.

McMahon’s $500 million investment is based in part on a McKinsey Global Institute study that suggested that there are 40 million people who crave more football after the Super Bowl. Although Luck’s background as an NFL and NCAA executive led him toward a traditional approach, the XFL’s focus on game quality is also backed by data. According to Luck, the average television viewer of the ill-fated AAF was approximately 50 years old — hardly the demographic that would respond to loud buzz or radical changes to the game.

“My sense of our opportunity,” Luck said, “is that it comes from two buckets. One is people who love football. The second will be people in places like Dallas who can take their family to a three-hour event for $100. That’s where we have our chance. I hope people will want to see good football played during an up-tempo, fast-paced game that’s done in three hours or less.

“That’s what we think will work.”

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