Why the 'no gimmick' XFL is different this time and D.C. could reap the rewards

Chris Lingebach
February 21, 2019 - 8:12 pm
Why the 'no gimmick' XFL is different this time and D.C. could reap the rewards

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"No gimmicks" was a thematic talking point for XFL commissioner Oliver Luck at Audi Field, the future home of D.C.'s currently unnamed XFL team.

"It's gotta be good football," the commissioner insisted. "It's gotta be good quality. But they want more football."

Luck has the benefit of hindsight on his side, lessons learned working in a previous failed league, NFL Europe, as well as a sense for the organizational structure required to operate at a high level. Luck served as athletic director for his football alma mater, West Virginia, where he played quarterback from 1978 to 1981.

There is no questioning Luck's credentials as commissioner. He understands the game at every level. The question is whether he can do successfully what so many other fledgling football upstarts could not.

"I know what I don't know, and appreciate what I don't know, because that's really what often catches you," said Luck, citing his decade-plus of experience at NFL Europe and other startups. 

The XFL is keeping a watchful eye on the Alliance of American Football, another startup league that's been billed as the minor league to the NFL, which, not three weeks old and already in need of a cash infusion, essentially sold itself off this week to Carolina Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon for $250 million.

"We'll take every lesson that we can from the AAF's experience," said Luck. "We've got a pretty good plan, and we're gonna focus on our plan and not worry too much about what's happening elsewhere. But obviously we're watching to make sure we learn as many lessons as we can from their experiences."

Variables upon variables will determine its outcome as the XFL looks to make its mark in Feb. 2020, when its eight teams dive into their respective 10-game schedules. Vince McMahon's XFL is tackling some of the biggest markets in the country out of the gate: Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, St. Louis, Seattle, Tampa Bay and the District.

Pep Hamilton, announced on Thursday as the D.C. franchise's first head coach and general manager, will be responsible for executing that strategy for success here, attracting players to form a product capable of filling Audi Field to its capacity of 20,000. No small task in a fickle market with plenty of other entertainment options available.

Hamilton, who quarterbacked for Howard (1993-96) before immediately beginning his coaching career here, knows this market, at least. And like Luck, he sure knows football. Luck targeted Hamilton for the position while visiting his son, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck. Hamilton was the offensive coordinator in Indy for three seasons (2013-15), following the younger Luck over from Stanford, where he held the same role.

"I'd ask 50 players," said Oliver Luck. "You know, 'What do you think about that guy?' And players will be pretty... to the point. And most importantly, honest. And the guys loved playing for him. They really enjoyed playing for him, at the college level and the NFL level, and that matters."

If there's any gimmick to be found in the new XFL, it's the voraciousness with which the league has consumed coaches and executives with NFL experience, and how it's modeled its infrastructure after its chief competitor.

Also on hand at Thursday's announcement was XFL  Senior VP of Football Operations, Doug Whaley, the former GM for the Buffalo Bills. Former NFL head coaches Jim Caldwell and John Fox have come on as advisors. So, too, has Doug Flutie, who, along with playing in the NFL, was also a draw for the Canadian Football League and the defunct United States Football League.

But just because the XFL seeks to emulate the NFL, that doesn't mean it wishes to repeat the prodigious league's failures. That's where concussions expert Kevin Guskiewicz comes in.

If this iteration of the XFL is to find success, the praise will ultimately rest at the feet of wrestling magnate Vince McMahon, who bet his own wallet – operating under his holding company, Alpha Entertainment – on the XFL for a second time.

"Vince is our one and only investor," said Luck. "He's never expressed any desire to look elsewhere to raise money."

The commissioner perished the thought of having to go out and ferret for investors, the real "time-consuming" part of running a startup, Luck says.

But he doesn't have to worry about that with the XFL. "Believe me, I'm glad I don't," he quipped.

Still, something significant must have occurred to compel McMahon to gamble again on a league that fell flat on its face, to exhume the XFL from its grave after 18 years. It was a consulting firm, McKinsey & Company, that turned the tide with its market research findings. And what they found is 85 million football fans – 40 million of them diehards – spread out across America.

"They want more football and they're willing to pay for it," said Luck. "And they're willing to go to games, they're willing to watch on television."

Luck teased a "very soon-to-be-announced" and "powerful" television package on the way, pledging that "two of our four games will be on terrestrial, over-the-air coverage" and "the other two games on fully distributed cable – brands that football fans in this country know, love and respect."

"I'll speak as much as I can for what I think was (McMahon's) motivation," Luck would say. "I think he acknowledged that the first time around, 2001, was not a good venture. I think the structure was poor. There really wasn't anybody in charge – it was WWE and NBC at the time. I think this structure is much different.

"He started a lot earlier, planning this. It was more or less a year ago when he announced that the league would be back in 2020. He's hired, quite honestly, folks with experience who have done this before – myself, as well as others. I think it's also a different time, in the sense that the economy is pretty strong right now. There's lots of private capital sloshing around. I think over the last 18 years, football has solidified itself as the number one sport in this country, college and pro. I mean, we just can't seem to get enough football, you know?"

McKinsey's research only supported that conclusion.

"I think all those things kind of coalesced," Luck said. "Vince likes to build things, too. He's a builder. He, I don't think, has any interest in like buying an NFL team or anything, you know, or a hockey team or baseball or whatever. He likes to build things and that's just the way he's wired. And I didn't quite realize this until I started talking to him, but he saw in me somebody that likes to build things, which was sort of an interesting thing.

"He's also got an incredible work ethic. I didn't know Vince before I started this job. He's got an incredible work ethic, even though he's a man of means, as they would say. He doesn't use the word 'summer' as a verb. He doesn't sail around Long Island Sound or play golf. He works. I mean, he goes to WWE events two, three days a week all over the country. He has this incredible work ethic and I think this was a project he really wanted to take on."

One year from now the XFL will be back, re-imagined without all the gimmicks that doomed it before. With a "zero tolerance policy" for domestic violence, everyone standing for the national anthem, and an all-around anticipation to keep politics out of sports.

"We play football. We entertain. We play football. Hopefully good quality games that are exciting," said Luck. "I don't think fans want to come to Audi Field and be engaged politically. They get enough of that in this town and elsewhere the rest of the time, so I think we want to be somewhat of a refuge from all of that. And I think that's been one of the beauties of sport over the years. Historically, at least."

If – and that's a big if – the XFL succeeds, D.C. sports fans may stumble into something they've been seeking for nearly two decades now: a fresh, exciting brand of football being played in a pristine new stadium, right here in Washington, D.C. for years to come.

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