The announcement of Seattle’s selection as one of eight inaugural XFL franchises was made Wednesday during a suitably ostentatious presentation in New Jersey.
I’ll admit it, this week’s announcement of the brand-new pro sports franchise coming to Seattle still has me buzzing with excitement. The long wait is finally over!
What’s that? No, I’m not talking about the as-yet unnamed NHL hockey team that will start play at the about-to-be revamped KeyArena (which will almost certainly have a different corporate name by the time they drop the puck in 2021). The NHL made that news official to great fanfare Tuesday.
I’m talking – yes, a bit facetiously – about the as-yet unnamed XFL football team that will start play at CenturyLink Field on Feb. 8 or 9, 2020, one week after Super Bowl LIV. The announcement of Seattle’s selection as one of eight inaugural XFL franchises was made Wednesday during a suitably ostentatious presentation in New Jersey.
Yes, that’s the same XFL that debuted with massive commotion and glitz in 2001 but disbanded after one season, dubbed “a colossal failure” by its founder, pro wrestling promoter Vince McMahon.
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Now McMahon is back for more, backed by his own $100 million investment, convinced he’s learned from the mistakes of XFL version 1.0. He’s banking on this country’s insatiable desire for football – and a brand they promise will be crisply (and safely) played by upstanding athletes with no protests or political agenda – to carry the day. It will be “football re-imagined,’’ XFL commissioner Oliver Luck promised.
Will it fly in Seattle’s crowded sports marketplace, which some believe is already being stretched too thin by the inclusion of the NHL? Ralph Morton, executive director of the Seattle Sports Commission, believes the answer is yes. He represented Seattle on stage Wednesday during the XFL’s great unveiling at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
“It comes down to whether football fans, after the traditional season is over, will be interested and ready to consume more football,’’ Morton said by phone. “I think they will. The XFL not only believes in it, but is investing in it.”
Morton said the commission has worked often with WWE on other events and believes in its ability to draw crowds. And he pointed out that the XFL will be more affordable, which should help lure fans.
“We felt with them as a partner, it was a great opportunity to extend the football season in a community that loves football,’’ Morton said.
In an email to Commissioner Luck (yes, Andrew’s dad), I asked him what drew the league to Seattle, and why he believes it will find a niche in our marketplace. His response:
“Seattle is just a great sports town. It was not a hard decision. You have incredible fans, a world-class facility in CenturyLink (not to mention the loudest!!) and our partners there were just great from the get go. I have watched football games at UW and CenturyLink, soccer games at CenturyLink, baseball at Safeco, and I have always come away impressed with the passion of Seattle fans.”
All eight teams will be owned by McMahon but will have management teams in place to operate them. I’ll be interested to see who they choose as Seattle’s team president and its coach (the latter doubling as general manager) — perhaps individuals with strong local name recognition.
I’ll be far more interested to see how they fill out the roster, which will go a long way toward determining the league’s success. The staff as well as quarterbacks and other impact players – and the team name — are supposed to be announced in the first quarter of 2019.
“There’s an enormously big player pool we plan to recruit our players from,’’ Luck said at the news conference.
He said there will be minicamps, tryouts, and even a draft, and that the “hundreds of players cut every year from the NFL will be invited to try out for the XFL.” He cited Doug Flutie as the type of player the XFL seeks – “someone who had immense talent but was overlooked for a number of reasons.” Such players, Luck said, “would survive and thrive in our league.”
The cynic in me wonders if players cut from the NFL would consider themselves better off pursuing a practice-squad gig or futures contract than cast their lot with the XFL. The direct competition of another startup league – the American Alliance of Football, which kicks off in February 2019, a year’s head start – could also be problematic.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll sees the XFL as a potential outlet for developing quarterbacks and other players – though the XFL is not trying to position itself as an NFL developmental league.
“It’s a great place to bring guys up that need the work, need the time,’’ Carroll said Thursday. “It’s great for quarterbacks, in particular. We’d love for (Seahawks practice-squad quarterback) Alex McGough to have a place to play where he could develop. That would be awesome for him when he doesn’t get the reps this year. For a lot of guys, it would be a benefit.”
Carroll said he was “fired up” when he heard the XFL was coming to Seattle.
“The first thought I had was the following for the Sounders … any sport we play here, fans go crazy. I hope they’ll really enjoy it and embrace it. The fact it will be here in town, I’d love to have that. Watch guys and see guys develop and all that stuff.”
Carroll then asked, “The XFL is not wearing the thorns on helmets and stuff like that, right?”
Nope, this XFL is billing itself as wholesome family entertainment – a far cry from the old XFL that exuded violence, sex and a pro wrestling sensibility. Remember the trash-talking public-address announcers? Remember the scantily clad cheerleaders, who were encouraged to date players? Remember the “Human Coin Toss” that began games — a player from each team racing to pick up a football dropped at midfield. It was a ritual that resulted in a season-ending dislocated shoulder for Hassan Shamsid-Deen of the Orlando Rage?
In that XFL incarnation, even the team names — the Rage, Xtreme, Enforcers, Hitmen, Thunderbolts, Demon, Maniax and Outlaws — conveyed the renegade image they were seeking.
Now the XFL 2.0 promises to emphasize the health and safety of players. Why will the XFL succeed this time after being such a dismal failure in 2001? I put the question to Luck.
“While they gave it a really good try the first time around, I don’t think they had the gift of time that Vince has given us to really do it right. We have a great runway to get everything right to modify the game, to test various rule changes that we like, to create a structure where there is a great rhythm and flow that the players love and the fans can enjoy.
“Our number one priority is to put great football on the field. And we plan to do what it takes in the next year plus to do just that.”
It all sounds great, but the sports landscape is littered with startup football leagues that never gained traction. The XFL knows all about that. We’ll soon find out how well they’ve learned their lessons.