Jessell | At First Glance, XFL 2.0 May Score On TV

Rule changes, mics on coaches and in the faces of players on the sidelines bring viewers a fresh perspective, creating an intimacy more akin to what you find in televised baseball, tennis or golf.

Harry Jessell

So, what do you know? There was pro football on ABC over the weekend, something we haven’t seen since its corporate cousin ESPN absconded with Monday Night Football in 2006. In the inaugural game of XFL 2.0, the DC Defenders trounced the Seattle Dragons, 31-19, at Audi Field in the Buzzard Point (love that name) neighborhood of Washington.

ESPN/ABC, which along with Fox holds the TV rights to the XFL’s resurrection after 19 years, were blessed with a competitive game and put on a fine show. Having lived in Washington for many years, I rooted for the Defenders and was rewarded with scores on a pick six, a blocked punt and, would you believe, a double reverse flea flicker. When’s the last time Dan Snyder’s sorry crosstown crew pulled off something like that?

It’s what can happen when you have the league, the teams and the network fully cooperating on a broadcast.

And I was not the only one who liked the broadcast. The game averaged 3.3 million viewers peaking not at the beginning, but at the end. That’s what you like to see. Games on Fox, ESPN and FS1 posted similar numbers.

Audi Field was electric, and I don’t mean just the crowd. They had mics on the head coaches and the QBs, they had crews chasing down players as they came off the field and they had cameras in the locker rooms at halftime.


The effect was to reduce the distance between the fans at home and what was happening on the field. It created an intimacy more akin to what you find in televised baseball, tennis or golf.

In the NFL, you don’t get many closeups of unhelmeted players, let alone any clue as to what they might be thinking during the game. In the XFL, the players emerge quickly as real folks due to the relentless sideline coverage. One reporter was practically knocked aside as the Defenders showboated in the endzone after an interception.

When Defenders kicker Tyler Rausa botched a 35-year field goal, he had to face a reporter immediately afterward. You could see he felt bad, but because of that moment I was able to fully enjoy his redemption when he later nailed a 55-yarder.

The funniest thing was Dragons Coach Jim Zorn covering his mouth during his play calls, even though they were being broadcast. Old habits.

The XFL is a production of Vince McMahon, pro wrestling’s answer to Donald Trump, and it’s a mark of his business savvy that he was nowhere to be seen this time around. He turned management and marketing over to sports pros like Commissioner Oliver Luck. Gone were all the wrestling gimmicks that made a joke of the original XFL in 2001 and led to its speedy demise. Not only were there no scantily clad cheerleaders, there were no cheerleaders at all.

“You can throw out the records, there are no record, it’s a clean slate,” crowed game co-announcer Steve Levy as he welcomed viewers with all the enthusiasm he could muster. “If all you know about the XFL is “He Hate Me,” forget about it, long gone. This is the brand spanking new XFL.”

So, what you got in the four games aired Saturday and Sunday was football — basic and unadorned. The teams comprise has-beens and wannabes playing for an average salary of just $5,000 a week. The league has eight teams playing a 10-week schedule plus playoffs that culminate with the championship game on ESPN on April 26.

Like USA Today said, the league is going with innovation rather than gimmicks this time around, reimaging the extra points, the kickoffs and other long-standing rules and practices. The staid NFL could learn a lot from the league.

For kickoffs, the receiving team lines up on the 30-yard line and the defenders just five yards away on the 35. The league is selling it as a safety measure (no more players crashing into each other at top speed). But I can see it leading to more TD returns. The kicking team has only one thin line of defense, if you don’t count the usually tackling-challenged kicker.

And there’s no cheap extra points via the kick. You have to run or pass it in. You get one point if you do so from the two-yard line; two points, if from the five, and three if from the 10. Those two- and three-point options didn’t come into play in the Defender-Dragon game (both teams struggled with the one-pointers), but I can see how they would add a lot of interest at the end of close games and drive gamblers crazy.

The league has also instituted some measures to quicken the pace — an official dedicated to speedy ball placement and a 25-second play clock. I hope the rules committee of the NFL is watching. The game still went over three hours, but somehow it felt faster.

Norm Chad, writing in The Washington Post yesterday, pointed out that America doesn’t need more football. He’s dismissed the new league as “Xtraneous, Xcessive, Xasperating.” He must have missed the Super Bowl, which has metastasized into an overlong, bloated Xcuse for football. You know you’re in trouble when they turn the coin toss into its own mini-event with its own pre-toss ceremony and the commercials overshadow the game for many.

Speaking of advertising, the league has plenty — to start, at least. Last Friday, we reported that ESPN had sold 75% of the inventory for the ESPN and ABC broadcasts and that the percentage was rising quickly. The spots came from top-tier advertisers like Michelob, Mastercard, Comcast Xfinity, Geico and Safeauto. Progressive was the big sponsor and it had its logo painted on the field. ABC got time for Oscars and primetime promos.

I should note that the Defender game looked like lot of fun for the 17,000 who showed up at the relatively tiny 20,000 soccer stadium in D.C.’s Buzzard’s Point. They generated a lot of noise and provided a perfect setting for the broadcast as did the sunshine and moderate temperature. And at just $24 a seat, I think they’ll bring some friends or their kids next time.

Look, I know the history. The odds are the new XFL is going to go bust, despite the impressive opening day ratings and those ad sales. The original XFL and last year’s Alliance of American Football started out strong, but couldn’t sustain the loses as interest from fans and viewers quickly dwindled. The former lasted just one season; the latter called it quits seven games into its 10-game season. Part of the problem is that nobody is going to watch a losing team and we know that four of the eight teams will not make the final four.

But sports is all about upsets. Who doesn’t like to root for the underdog?

Harry A. Jessell is editor at large of TVNewsCheck. He can be contacted at 973-701-1067 or here. You can read earlier columns here.

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