On April 10, the XFL announced they suspended all league operations marking the second year in a row a football league has folded before their season’s end.
Last year it was the Alliance of American Football (aka the AAF) that folded due to a shortage of money and an inability to pay players. This year, the XFL ran into a much bigger problem; the Covid-19 pandemic.
The pandemic pushed the XFL’s inaugural season to a screeching halt after just five weeks. TV ratings for the new league was strong Week 1 but saw a small but steady decline in viewers each week.
However, there was plenty of optimism that the league could survive from a financial standpoint for up to three years without making a profit. League owner Vince McMahon had invested a large chunk of change this time around and took two full years to plan everything out before the first season. He even brought along high-level executives Oliver Luck and Jeffrey Pollack to help run things more fluidly this time around.
It’s tough to say whether or not the XFL would have had long-lasting success and returned next season had their not been a pandemic, but when the news broke, I had to admit I wasn’t surprised by it. It had me pondering about the possibility of another football league finding success while competing against the NFL.
Almost right on cue, I read a tweet that captivated me with its’ message.
Andrew Samson brings up some really good points here. “Nobody owns the concept of football,” yet it sort of feels that way with how popular the NFL is. The NFL’s success as one of the most viewed sports in the United States makes it a daunting task for anybody to try and compete with that via another football league.
I’ve never been a league executive but I understand how marketing works and what catches people’s attention. Trying to compete with the NFL using left-over players that could not make it in that same league is a recipe for disaster. We love the NFL for players like Barry Sanders, Patrick Mahomes, Adrian Peterson, Terrell Owens and Deion Sanders just to name a few. Players that are exciting to watch on the field and that can make those astonishing plays that seem unreal to the ordinary person.
You can’t achieve that level of success with guys like P.J. Walker, Garrett Gilbert, Christian Hackenberg or Landry Jones (no offense to those guys). Not all 32 NFL teams have that ‘elite’ level quarterback so what makes you think an alternate league could sustain success with sub par quarterbacks? Let alone, not all 32 NFL teams have quality starting left tackles, tight ends, corner backs or kickers leaving leagues like the AAF or XFL with very slim options at those key positions.
A long time ago, the USFL (United State Football League) drew big names like Jim Kelly, Reggie White and Herschel Walker away from the NFL. But it’s almost unrealistic now to imagine a top-level college player like Joe Burrow, Kyler Murray or Lamar Jackson to choose to play for a league other than the NFL. Their is so much more money in the NFL than ever before.
But I want to remain optimistic about an alternate football league. I love football, it is by far my favorite sport. And with the way the NFL has mishandled certain issues (Kaepernick, domestic violence, long-term player safety), I wish another league could come in and take their #1 spot.
That being said, I have a few proposals on what a successful alternate league could look like.
Proposals for Alternate Football Leagues
The Condensed Version
You know there have been examples of this working before. The Arena Football League had a 32-year run with a shortened field (50 yards), eight player line-ups, some weird looking field goal posts and a five-foot (approximately) padded wall that surrounded the field of play.
Here are my twists on the idea:
1. Ditch the field goal posts entirely forcing teams to attempt some sort of point after conversion.
2. Extend the field out to 80 yards, allowing for punt returns and big plays and keep the wall around the field.
3. Cut the number of players on the field down to six. Why six? It gives the quarterbacks and offenses more space to work with.
4. Speaking of space, there must be two down lineman on offense and defense. The other four players can be lined up however they please. This allows for linemen coming out of college not good enough to make it in the NFL to get in on the action as well.
Not my best of ideas but I think the changes would provide more highlight reel plays while still including the signature wall that made the AFL famous. Quarterbacks are better protected from a skill standpoint with more space to operate with. You have the option of using the remaining three offensive spots however you please and can be a run heavy team with a running back and two tight end-type guys, spread it out with three receivers or find some sort of hybrid.
If you follow college basketball you know the sport’s landscape was shaken up this past week with the news of top high school prospects Jalen Green and Isaiah Todd selecting to play for the G-League rather than at a University. Why not replicate that same model but for football?
High school basketball players now have the option of going to play at a college, in the G-League or somewhere overseas while football players are stuck with the lone college route if they want to make it pro.
Set up a developmental league that competes with the corrupt NCAA and give 18-20 year olds the option to get familiar with not only the NFL-style coaching but include workshops on how to choose an agent, marketing yourself, setting up alternative streams of income and much more.
Yes, college does provide a lot of those resources to students. But the fact that the NCAA doesn’t pay players really puts those athletes who come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds in a tight bind to leave before they get a degree. Give them a chance to earn some money – doesn’t have to be millions – and incorporate ways to teach them skills that will best benefit their future after their football career.
One more thing too, incorporate pro-style offenses and really try and develop kids to get ready for the next level. Too many times do you see young athletes not get taught the proper mechanics or fundamentals in college as some head coaches have their priority in winning games rather than helping a player.
The most appealing catch with this model is you don’t have to change the rules much or the style of play. Just good ‘ol 11-on-11 football with athletes fresh out of high school earning a few bucks still hungry to get to the next level.
Passing League Model
Let’s face it, 7-on-7 style of football is becoming increasingly popular at the youth levels. And with the continuous information being poured out there about CTE and the long-term effects of brain trauma, tackle football is becoming less and less popular to parents and children.
Rule changes have been made to all levels of football but when it comes down to it, their are only so many ways you can make the game safer. It is a naturally violent sport and the violence is what a lot of people love.
However, even myself who tries to remain optimistic about everything, I don’t foresee a future where tackle football is available to kids before high school. And with kids growing up playing 7-on-7 only, joining 7-on-7 teams rather than playing tackle in high school and electing to not play tackle in college, the talent pool for tackle football players will drastically take a hit in 10-20 years.
Eventually the NFL will be pushed to a drastically safer version of football that it will no longer become the sport everyone knows and loves today. (My theory is the CTE discoveries are only going to get worse and worse).
So why not beat the NFL to a 7-on-7 style football league. There are already leagues across the United States in bigger cities that draw high levels of talented players and even crowds. Sure, you may not be able to fill a 70,000 seat stadium with 7-on-7, but I think there is a market for it to succeed. Plus, equipment costs will be much lower allowing team owners to spend money on other areas.
Imagine a 7-on-7 team in every state, maybe multiple in states like Texas, New York and California. Flag football is also big in countries like Mexico, Canada, the United Kingdom and more so their is a chance to expand internationally with it too.
Again, I’m no league executive and I am sure putting any of these ideas into motion would take a lot of planning and resources. However, I think all three of the proposals are better options than trying to establish another 11-on-11 professional football league. If you are trying to compete with the NFL, let’s face it, you’re probably going to lose.