The XFL 2.0 debut last weekend was surprisingly good, leaving me wanting more. It was a much more satisfying viewing experience than watching the Alliance of American Football, which folded in 2019 about two months into its inaugural season.
Many of the XFL’s on-field tweaks and innovations hit the mark, and the all-important TV ratings were solid. The four games -- one on ESPN, one on ABC and two on Fox -- averaged 3.12 million viewers, roughly a million more than watched Lakers-Warriors on ABC on Saturday night.
But the launch wasn't perfect. Here are my biggest takeaways from the opening weekend:
Kickoffs were great
One overarching theme of the new XFL is innovation. The league will never get the best players, so trying to enhance the on-field product with rules innovations is the best chance it has to capture viewers. No rule tweak worked better than the XFL kickoff rule, which mandates the kicker boot from his own 25 while his 10 teammates stand at the opponents' 35. The opponents' 10 non-returners were positioned five yards from them, with the returner farther back. It was a more exciting, interesting, and safer play than what we see in the NFL, which should adopt this rule change for 2020. Yes, it would mean the end of onside kicks in the NFL, but they are rarely successful; in the 2018 and 2019 seasons combined, only 12 of 114 attempts were recovered by the kicking team.
Hearing the play calls added to experience
Avid and casual NFL fans alike crave information and getting a behind-the-scenes look at the sport. That’s part of the appeal of CBS' Tony Romo’s work as an analyst. He is so accurate calling plays before they are executed that fans almost feel like they’re in the huddle or the coordinators’ booth. Hearing the play calls during the XFL broadcast, even without knowing what they mean, was a neat window into the process.
Hearing from players immediately after a play did not
Slick production values and recognizable names in the broadcast booth and on the sidelines help convey an air of legitimacy to the XFL. Still, too much access is a bad thing. An F-bomb made it through censors during the Seattle Dragons-D.C. Defenders game. Blame whoever was working the delay, but the idea of interviewing players in the heat of the moment is just asking for trouble. Even the more entertaining, composed sideline interviews felt superfluous. Interviewing coaches on a limited basis might work, but if the league wants to develop its own stars and get fans to connect with players, the best avenue is through on-field performance, not sideline wisecracking.
Transparency is a good thing
Watching and listening to the instant replay review process from a fly-on-the-wall perspective was fantastic. It showed actual human beings doing their job, which made the whole thing seem far less nefarious and mysterious. The NFL might like the fact that its current challenge system creates plenty of dramatic tension, but my guess is that fans would much rather watch things unfold in real time rather than wait nervously for what might still be the incorrect call.
Quality of play must get better
It wasn’t the NFL, but it was better than the majority of major college games. Any of the teams playing Week 1 would have drubbed a middling Power 5 school. Still, the games must be crisper. The XFL doesn’t have the built-in hook of nostalgia like college football has, and it doesn’t have the NFL’s bully status either. NFL and college football fans usually give sloppy play a pass, but the XFL will have no such luxury; the burden of proof is on the league to prove that its product is worth watching. The best way to ensure that viewers keep coming back for more is for all teams to perform at a higher level.
Biggest names need to dominate
The XFL’s most daunting challenge will be creating a true emotional connection with fans, not just locally, but nationally. That effort will be complicated by the elephant in the room: the fact that every XFL player’s goal is to make it to the NFL. The league’s best chance to resonate rests with players such as quarterbacks Cardale Jones (D.C. Defenders), Landry Jones (Dallas Renegades) and P.J. Walker (Houston Roughnecks). Those former NFL backups are known quantities with many fans already, and if they put up big numbers and are clear-cut stars, it will give the league an identifiable power structure and create rooting interests.
Leaning into gambling is a good idea
Putting the point spread and over-under in the score bug was a subtle stroke of genius by the league. While the NFL searches for a VP of sports gambling, the XFL has fully embraced betting and ensured fans are armed with the info they need. It’s a simple concept, but if the league succeeds, gambling will likely be a major reason why.
Will league find its niche?
This is by far the biggest question after one week, and history would suggest that while it might last more than a season, the odds are stacked against the XFL becoming a long-term success. Will the league court college underclassmen? Will it break with its salary structure -- the average player pay reportedly is $55K -- to keep a breakout star from bolting for the NFL? Will it form a working agreement with the NFL, perhaps one that allows practice squad players the chance to get game action in the XFL? How commissioner Oliver Luck and league owner Vince McMahon navigate an unpredictable landscape, and how realistic they are about their league’s place in it, will go a long way toward determining whether the XFL becomes a two-time dud or appointment viewing on the football calendar.