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Oliver Luck wore a suit as he delivered his stump speech.
At a gathering in Los Angeles last month, the XFL commissioner stood at the front of the room that felt less like a news conference and more like a town hall, trying to ease the concerns of an uncertain football citizenry with a well-practiced message.
“We looked at all of the rules, and we said: How can we innovate? How can we tweak some rules to make the best game we possibly can, knowing that the game is pretty good already,” Luck explained, a banner with the words “FANS ABOVE ALL” hanging behind him.
“How can we take a great game,” he continued, “and make it just a little bit better?”
Luck has been at this for almost two years now, traveling around the football world on his own de facto campaign trail in an effort to win support for the league founded by WWE chief executive Vince McMahon and that holds its inaugural games on Saturday (including the Los Angeles Wildcats’ opener on the road against the Houston Roughnecks).
Selling football’s newest spring league, however, hasn’t been simple. There are skeptics who point to the repeated failures of past endeavors. The once-promising USFL. The debacle of last year’s Alliance of American Football bankruptcy.
Even the original XFL in 2001, which McMahon envisioned would bring WWE-esque entertainment to the gridiron — “If the National Football League stands for the ‘No Fun League,’ ” McMahon said at the time, “the XFL will be the extra fun league” — but folded after one season.
With Luck, a longtime NFL and college football executive who was hired to run the XFL in June 2018, as its front-facing figure this time, the revived league has tampered its tone. It hasn’t set out to revolutionize the sport or rival the NFL. This XFL simply wants to refine the football experience.
“Vince would say he’s doing this for the love of football,” Luck said. “If you took away a lot of the layers of Vince that are known as a wrestling guy, someone inside of him is a real love for the game of football. He recognizes how important the game is to American life. How important it is to our social fabric.”
The XFL consulted with such former NFL coaches as Jim Caldwell and John Fox. It sought input from former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Doug Flutie. It surveyed roughly 6,000 fans while writing its rule book. Then the league tested its ideas in junior college and semi-pro games.
The result is a higher-paced product the XFL hopes will stimulate action within the sport’s familiar structure and make a league short on star power — former Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops is its most recognizable member — a stirring viewing experience.
“Everything we did had the underlying rationale of: Will this allow our teams to play up-tempo, fast-paced football?” Luck said.
Some tweaks are designed to increase scoring. To encourage trick plays and reverse passing plays, double-forward passes are permitted as long as the first throw is caught behind the line of scrimmage. Instead of traditional extra points after touchdowns, teams can choose to run plays from the two-, five- or 10-yard line to score one, two or three points, respectively. No kicking plays are allowed.
“This is the one that has me most excited,” Luck said. “Because it’s all about strategy.”
Other adjustments were justified with safety reasons. Kickoffs and punts have been reimagined, with the coverage units lined up just yards apart and forbidden from moving until after the ball is kicked to eliminate full-speed, long-distance collisions between blockers and tacklers. When making a catch, receivers only need to get one foot inbounds instead of two.
Still, Luck said the most consequential changes were those to the clock. Instead of the 40-second play clock used by the NFL, the XFL play clock is 25 seconds. Outside of the final two minutes of a half, incompletions and plays that end out of bounds will only stop the game clock until the ball is spotted again (as opposed to the NFL and college, where the clock stops until the next play begins).
In the final two minutes of each half, the game clock will stop until the ball is spotted after every play, regardless of outcome, to improve teams’ chances for late-game scores.
“[It will be the] same number of plays you’d get in the NFL,” Luck said. “Same action. Same excitement. But pressed into a three-hour time block.”
Luck has slowly earned buy-in. In addition to Stoops, coach and general manager of the Dallas Renegades, the league’s list of coaches includes former NFL coaches Marc Trestman (Tampa Bay Vipers) and Pep Hamilton (DC Defenders). Even Wildcats coach Winston Moss, a long-time assistant with the Green Bay Packers, needed little convincing to take the L.A. job.
“These guys are all hungry,” Moss said of his team, which is headlined by former NFL quarterback Josh Johnson. “We are all in this because we love doing it.”
Johnson’s status for Week 1 is uncertain because of a thigh injury.
The league struck television agreements with Fox Sports and ESPN/ABC that will ensure every game is televised, including as many as 25 on national broadcast channels.
“When you actually see [the new rules] play out, all this talk about the play clock and when is it starting and when is it stopping, is all pretty much similar to what we all know,” Fox analyst Joel Klatt said. “Will we be talking about it? Yes. Will you be noticing it? I don’t think so. When I was doing the test game with [broadcast partner] Curt [Menefee], it really felt like football. … I do not feel like it will be a major departure for football fans.”
Which, at the XFL’s core, is the ultimate goal of the league’s reboot. It wants the focus to be on the field and wants its streamlined games to still look familiar. It’s the message Luck has been trying to pedal for almost two years. He’s finally about to find out if his politicking will pay off.
“I think we are at peak football right now,” Luck said. “I think that’s giving us great players and great coaches, even though we’re not the peak of the iceberg. I think there are a lot of folks, based on our research, who are self-identified, passionate, die-hard fans who want to watch. As long as we can provide that good, competitive, fun football, up-tempo and fast-paced, score some points, I really think we can build an audience.”