The Revamped XFL Off to Promising Start

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Roughly a year ago, on the Alliance of American Football’s debut weekend, there was a sense of relief that a digestible football product had been placed on the field (against all odds). But from the team’s promotional arm, there was a bit of nervousness due to the lack of social media tailwind; the kind of viral swoon that seems to turn curiosity into appointment viewing.

That’s when, at the 10:42 mark of the first quarter in a game between the San Diego Fleet and the San Antonio Commanders, Shaan Washington blitzed off the left side of the line completely unchecked and destroyed Fleet quarterback Mike Bercovici. Bercovici’s helmet flew off, the ball popped in the air. Ironically, the social media team that worked for a league praising high-minded ideals of player health and safety, breathed a sigh of relief as the video of a dangerous hit racked up millions of views and tens of thousands of retweets. You probably saw it. For the moment, their haphazard beginnings and ultimately hollow financial structure were placed on the back burner. They were on the map.

Around the office, they began saying to one another half-jokingly: “Mike Bercovici died for our sins.”

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I was reminded of this bit of reporting I did for a series of pieces on the Alliance’s downfall this weekend as Vince McMahon’s XFL debuted with two games apiece on Saturday and Sunday. The league did not seem to have that singular moment of virility—or perhaps we’ve grown a little bit more cynical since the last spring football league lobbied for our attention. But after watching a handful of games this weekend, I left believing that the XFL would probably survive, even without one of their poor quarterbacks being flogged for the sake of free advertising.

At its best, the XFL will snuggle neatly into the rotation with non-playoff hockey and non-tournament college basketball. It will exist within the football infrastructure and appeal to the offseason fan by not taking itself too seriously, which is noticeable in the way they broadcast live play calls, stream the booth review process and experiment with rule alterations that would have made the NFL’s cadre of dusty owners clutch their pearls. 

Coaches are interviewed during the game and not ushered into dark tunnels by FBI caliber body men like they’re secret government assets. The parallels between Triple-A baseball or perhaps its more experimental independent league arms are there, and they’re comforting.

There is a market for all of this when it is packaged neatly and financed responsibly. The NFL needs a pipeline to support the hundreds of college football players who are cast away from their draconian (and sometimes destructively political) selection process. Fans need the year-round possibility of stumbling across some high-scoring shootout that commands their attention whilst waiting for the white-knuckle finale of The Masked Singer™. And those of us who have become a little disengaged with the game need a little weird. Weird kickoffs. Weird double passes. Weird quarterback substitution patterns. A little dose of imagination.

A year ago, the Alliance needed the Bercovici hit to jumpstart its product because it spent so much time trying to be everything else—a technology company, an egalitarian football utopia, a gambling company and a software producer. The XFL spent the better part of two years refining its existence from Trump-branded Anthem Stander Football League to on-the-rails, appropriately-quirky spring football.

That’s all we ever asked for in the product. And now, it seems, we’re finally going to get it.