By Steve Keating
(Reuters) – For anyone suffering from withdrawal symptoms after the Super Bowl, Vince McMahon and Oliver Luck have your football fix — welcome back XFL 2.0.
Nineteen years after the original XFL spectacularly flared out after one season, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) impresario McMahon is back financing a rebooted league featuring retreaded NFL players and a reworked rule book that will see nine-point touchdowns and shootout-style overtime.
A week after nearly 100 million Americans tuned in to watch the Kansas City Chiefs beat the San Francisco 49ers in a Super Bowl thriller, the eight-team XFL relaunches on Saturday with the Seattle Dragons at the DC Defenders and Los Angeles Wildcats visiting the Houston Roughnecks.
Admitting his previous attempt to grab a piece of the NFL’s action was a “colossal failure” McMahon is nonetheless doubling down on the very same bet he made in 2001 — that there is a ravenous appetite for gridiron in America.
The man in charge of delivering McMahon’s vision will be XFL commissioner Oliver Luck, a former NFL quarterback who knows the perils of sporting start-ups having been general manager of the Frankfurt Galaxy in the now defunct World League of American Football and later president of the long-departed NFL Europe.
Not every new venture has ended in failure, Luck tasting success in another type of football after becoming the first president of Major League Soccer’s (MLS) Houston Dynamo and building it into a powerhouse, winning titles in 2006 and 2007.
“I have faced some serious football challenges,” Luck told Reuters in a telephone interview. “This certainly is challenging there is no question about that.”
That would be an understatement.
The sports graveyard is littered with an alphabet of failures: the WHA (World Hockey Association), NASL (North American Soccer League), NFL Europe to name a few.
A more ominous reminder of the bumpy road ahead came last April when the Alliance of American Football (AAF), launched as an NFL alternative, did not finish the season, ceasing operations after eight weeks.
The new XFL has distanced itself from that doomed experiment, Luck maintaining the only connection to the past is the name and that all involved have learned from mistakes.
“No one has a trademark on good ideas, we can learn from everybody,” said Luck. “One thing I think that is different is Vince McMahon and the lessons he has taken away from 2001.
“His WWE businesses are doing extraordinarily well.
“The resources that he has committed, as we like to say, he’s got a full tank in the car.”
With a net worth put at $2.2 billion by Forbes, McMahon has the capital to indulge his pursuits and will need deep pockets with sporting start-ups regularly burning through cash.
The XFL will benefit from a relatively cheap skilled workforce, with the average player salary, according to media reports, set at $55,000.
A few names will ring familiar but there are no Patrick Mahomes on the rosters.
There are also no plans to take a page from the MLS playbook and introduce a designated-player rule that would allow teams to go outside operating budgets and sign household names.
The biggest moment in MLS history came when the Los Angeles Galaxy signed England midfielder David Beckham, bringing a buzz and publicity that helped it get fully established.
Two of the NFL’s great quarterbacks, New England Patriots Tom Brady and New York Giants Eli Manning, who between them have eight Super Bowl rings, are free agents but the XFL will not be making any overtures.
“We’ve not focused on guys in that category, whether it is Tom, Eli or whoever,” said Luck. “I think if we were ever to do that, a high profile guy, it wouldn’t be an older NFL guy.”
At the end of the day, the XFL will be judged by the product on the field.
In “re-imagining” the game, the XFL found through research that fans wanted added pace and excitement but it had to be careful, as Luck said, “not to wander too far off the reservation”.
The XFL relaunch will also benefit from the muscle provided by broadcast partners ESPN/ABC and FOX, who also had strong opinions about what could draw ratings.
“I don’t think there has ever been a sports league, let alone a football league brand new, that launches with the power of Disney, ABC, ESPN and FOX,” said Luck. “Those are networks that know how to do football, know how to broadcast football.
“He (McMahon) realizes this is not something that after one season we can say we have arrived, we’re established.
“Like any start-up it is going to take some time.”
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Ken Ferris)