The XFL kicked off its second inaugural season on Saturday afternoon and the general consensus from the football viewing public was that the first day of the new season was a resounding success.
The question facing the XFL is how can it make people care about and stay engaged with a spring football league, something that’s simply never been executed successfully, from the USFL to the first iteration of the XFL to the recently departed AAF from a year ago. Threading the needle between doing something fresh, not trying to be a direct competitor of the NFL, and not appearing to be too gimmicky is a very difficult thing, but the XFL is off to a good start.
For the most part, the new rules they instituted, some of which I was questionable on, have panned out well, most notably the kickoff rule and extra points system. Kickoffs, with the players lined up five yards apart at the 25 and 30 respectively, are interesting without the fear of someone one either team ending up motionless on the field due to a high speed collision.
The extra points bring an added level of strategy into play with the ability to go for one, two, or three points from varying distances, even if coaches still haven’t fully figured out there is almost zero reason to go for one instead of two, especially if you are throwing the ball. The penalties for touchbacks did have the intended effect of having teams going for it more often and, even as a fan of great punting, I can admit it made for more excitement.
The quality of the football being played was also much better than I think most anyone expected. The offensive line play, always an issue at lower levels of football from the NFL, was far better than anticipated, with cohesive units doing well to protect the quarterback and run the ball. The quarterback play has been impressive, led by the likes of Cardale Jones, and the overall speed on the field makes you feel like you are, indeed, watching a high level professional football game.
All of that is contributing to the positive reviews of the XFL, but the biggest benefit to the league thus far has been the broadcasts by ESPN and Fox. Access is something the original version of the XFL did well, too, but this new iteration takes it to a different level. The coaches are mic’d up and the broadcast can cut to the plays being called in live and to conversations during timeouts. Quarterbacks are also mic’d and they’ll go live to the huddle or them making checks on the field.
It’s an unprecedented level of access for fans who, if they never played football, have never heard what goes on in those conversations and should, in theory, help make for smarter football fans. When you hear a playcall and see it in action — and then have quality analysts like Greg McElroy or Joel Klatt explain what each part of that call meant — fans will learn more and gain a greater understanding of how that all works. In timeouts on Saturday, we heard Pep Hamilton, the D.C. Defenders coach, talking with his staff in the booth about what they wanted to do out of the timeout and explaining that they shouldn’t go back to a certain formation and look too soon because they wanted to save that for later because of something he saw the defense do. The depth with which the broadcasts can go and show fans how much goes into these decisions — far beyond just picking a play off the call sheet — is really cool and peels that curtain back for fans that don’t get anything close to that from the NFL.
It’s where the XFL has stood out most, and where being a startup league is an advantage. Secrecy is too ingrained in the NFL (and most other pro sports) to allow this kind of access to play calls and sideline conversations, but for the XFL they could be up front from the beginning that this is how it’d be and coaches that signed up were going to have to be fine with it. It’d be foolish to think the NFL will adopt this anytime soon because of that, but there are definitely areas where they could learn from the XFL broadcast experience: Most notably, the XFL shows, live, the conversation between the referee and the replay booth to show exactly why calls are being overturned or will stand.
It is far superior to having the booth talk about the replay and bring in an “expert” who is also simply guessing. There’s no reason the NFL can’t and shouldn’t do this, and it would at least lead to a greater understanding from fans on why the decision was made — and why it takes so long sometimes.
And then, there are the interviews. The sideline reporters aren’t just there to provide reports on “the vibe” on the sideline and relay information, they are interviewing players immediately after key plays — good and bad — and the results are fascinating. In the opener, Dianna Russini chatted with the Defenders kicker after he hooked a 35-yard attempt wide left — and then followed that up with a walk-off interview after he drilled a 55-yarder to end the first half.
ABC also learned the hard way that interviewing players immediately after big plays can result in some strong language, as they had to smash the dump button as an offensive linemen that had just gotten a personal foul call dropped an f-bomb.
It is, genuinely, an incredible football viewing experience and may very well be the main thing that allows the XFL stick around this time. The rule changes are good and the quality of football is solid, but they have made for a unique viewing experience that is better than just about any sporting event due to the combination of access via live mics and interviews and the investment of the broadcast partners to putting some of their best analysts on the call.
The true test will be viewer retention, but as far as a first impression goes, it would be hard for the XFL to have done better. One would expect the quality of the actual football to improve as teams get more comfortable playing together, but out of the gate they already have the best broadcasts in all of football.