8 reasons to watch the XFL
By Paul Mueller
Since the original United States Football League dissolved in the mid-’80s, the NFL has had a monopoly on professional football. In recent decades, multiple spring football leagues have sprung up to capitalize on Americans’ appetite for the game, including the United Football League (2009-12), the Alliance of American Football (2019), and the XFL (2001 and again in 2020).
With so many failed attempts, it begs the question: Can spring football really work?
With Super Bowl LVII still fresh in fans’ minds, the third iteration of the XFL, led by co-owner Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and partners, is out to prove it can.
The XFL kicks off this weekend and features a 10-week, 40-game regular season, culminating in a two-week playoff and a champion crowned on May 13. The league features eight teams: the Arlington Renegades, DC Defenders, Houston Roughnecks, Orlando Guardians, San Antonio Brahmas, Seattle Sea Dragons, St. Louis BattleHawks, and Vegas Vipers. Described as “a modern league of the future” by XFL chief marketing and team business operations officer Janet Duch, the fan-centric league aims to set itself apart from other spring football leagues with increased access to players and personalities and a focus on content and on-field innovation.
Whether you’re a die-hard or a casual football fan, here are eight reasons to watch the XFL in 2023 and give spring football a chance.
1. The Kickoff
Kickoff and punt returns are among the most exciting plays in football. But due to injury concerns, the NFL has changed its kickoff rules in recent years to limit high-speed collisions. As a result, during the 2022 NFL season, only 38% of kickoffs were returned.
During the XFL’s 2020 season, featuring rules that it will retain for 2023, 97% of kickoffs were returned.
With the XFL’s kickoff rule, each team kicks from its own team’s 30-yard line with the returner lined up on the other end of the field to receive the kick. In between, near midfield, the other 10 players from each team line up 5 yards from each other. No player except the kicker and returner can move until either the returner has touched the ball or the ball has been on the ground for three seconds. This lessens the likelihood of high-speed collisions, making it comparatively safer than the traditional kickoff while still preserving one of the most exciting plays in the game.
2. The 9-Point Touchdown
The XFL isn’t just reviving the kickoff. It’s also making the extra point more interesting. Rather than line up for (what’s supposed to be) a gimme kick for an extra point, the XFL will feature a tiered system that gives teams an option to run a play from three different spots with three scoring options:
? From the 2-yard line = one point
? From the 5-yard line = two points
? From the 10-yard line = three points
So a touchdown can be worth as little as 6 points and as many as 9.
The league will innovate in other ways, including an onside kick alternative option that features a 4th and 15 from a team’s own 25-yard line (beginning in the fourth quarter) and a revamped overtime format in which teams take alternating attempts at a two-point conversion from the opponent’s 5-yard line. Each team will get three attempts, after which they will continue until a winner is decided.
3. Less Time, More Action
The average NFL game lasts around three hours. But with more than 100 commercials and just 11 minutes of actual gameplay per game, there’s plenty of wasted time. The XFL will address this by operating with a 35-second play clock (as opposed to 40 in the NFL) and by not stopping the clock following incomplete passes and out-of-bounds plays prior to the two-minute warning of either half. The game will slow down during the final two minutes of each half with the clock stopping after incompletions, out-of-bounds plays and first downs, magnifying the game’s most critical moments, while the first and second halves will be split by a 10-minute halftime, compared to the NFLs’ 12-minute halftime.
All of this means more football per minute of your time.
4. Familiar Faces
While XFL rules will make the on-field product different from the NFL’s offering, the sidelines may look more familiar. Hall of Famer Rod Woodson will lead the Vipers as head coach while two-time Super Bowl Champion Hines Ward coaches the Brahmas. Former University of Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops, former NFL coaches Wade Phillips and Jim Haslett, and NFL veterans Terrell Buckley, Anthony Becht, and Reggie Barlow round out the XFL’s roster of head coaches.
You’ll see some familiar faces on the field, too, as former NFL wide receivers Josh Gordon and Martavis Bryant are XFL-bound, and former NFL quarterbacks AJ McCarron and Paxton Lynch, a former first-round pick of the Denver Broncos, will lead the BattleHawks and Guardians, respectively.
5. A Reimagined Fan Experience
The XFL will look to enhance the fan experience by bringing them closer to the players and to the field itself. That includes “anywhere from 200 to 800 fans on the field for warm-ups,” says Duch. Some stadiums will feature sideline seating in addition to traditional seating in the stands. In San Antonio, there will be tailgate seating in the end zone for fans.
Access to players and coaches will also be a hallmark of the XFL. Behind-the-scenes autograph sessions, meet-and-greets, and game-day photo ops will be standard, bringing fans closer to their teams and players as they get to know them while creating a live experience that’s rare among major U.S. sports.
6. Content Innovation
Just this week, the XFL debuted an original docuseries, Player 54: Chasing the XFL Dream. Directed by Peter Berg, the series follows the creation of the XFL under its new ownership and will highlight the unique stories and development of its players and coaches throughout the entire season. (“Player 54” refers to co-owner Dwayne Johnson, who played college football at the University of Miami but never made a 53-man roster in the NFL.)
This is in line with the league’s belief that reaching its fans through social media and on digital platforms with original, engaging content will be a key driver in cultivating fandom and community.
“What we’re doing with the XFL is really all about creating this integrated story that we’re telling with the dynamic play on the football field and the connection that we are looking to make between our players and our fans,” said Duch. “I think [ownership’s] vision is really elevating the storytelling behind our players in a more modern way. Our chief content officer is working on very unique original content and programs that connect with a fan base, really leaning into introducing our players and their stories and connecting with our fans on an emotional level.”
The league’s content innovation is fueled by the XFL Hub, its league headquarters in Arlington, Texas, where all eight teams live and practice from January to May. This gives the league’s content team 24/7 access to all players and coaches to create immersive content experiences, which it will release throughout the season to continually engage fans.
7. Mainstream Betting
The NFL has historically been averse to embracing sports gambling. But with an estimated $100 billion wagered at licensed sportsbooks during the NFL season, and online sports betting setting records in 2022 with more than $80 billion wagered digitally, it has become an undeniable part of American sports.
The XFL is leaning into this. Television broadcasts (which will be live and streamed on ESPN networks) will showcase the spread and over/under during games, as betting lines will be as common on screen as the score itself.
“We’re going to grow sports betting with the XFL as Vegas grows,” ESPN coordinating producer Bryan Jaroch said Wednesday in a conference call with reporters. “Our understanding is that Vegas needs to see a few weeks of football before they expand to prop bets and live lines and other things. . . . As Vegas expands, we will expand as well. We will be very aggressive in talking about sports betting during the games.”
The XFL also recently announced a partnership with Genius Sports, a data and technology company, for data distribution and fan engagement, granting Genius Sports exclusive rights to distribute official data from every XFL game to its global network of media and betting partners and in launching a new free-to-play “XFL Pick’Em” game.
8. More Football
The NFL has become a year-round sport. With the NFL combine in February, the draft in April, and free agency in the summer, the league has mastered the media machine and manufacturing coverage to remain relevant even during the depths of the off-season.
It works because Americans love football.
The NFL accounted for 82 of the top 100 most-viewed broadcasts in 2022 with Super Bowl LVI between the Rams and Bengals taking the top spot with nearly 100 million viewers. Super Bowl LVII between the Chiefs and Eagles this past week registered 113 million viewers, according to Fox Sports, making it the third most-watched television broadcast in history. Even the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft drew more than 10 million viewers.
The appetite is there. And now that the XFL has an exclusive agreement with ESPN/Disney to broadcast and stream all 40 of its games plus the playoffs, along with a calendar that will make players available to transition into NFL off-season programs at the start of May, the league just might be able to make this spring football thing work.
“We’re quality football at a time of year when football isn’t played,” said Duch. “And we are integrating that football product and our players in a unique storytelling opportunity that creates an immersive and personal experience for fans. That’s what I’m most excited about.”
A founding editor of The Players’ Tribune, Paul Mueller is a freelance writer and content strategist based in Florida.