The new eight-team league will kick off this weekend, targeting the hardcore audience that would otherwise have begun a late-winter hibernation. What follows is everything you need to know about the XFL, from its talent level to game philosophy to its quirky post-touchdown and overtime rules. And once you're prepped, be sure to watch the league's first game on Saturday, when Seattle faces DC at 2 p.m. ET (ABC). OK, let's get started.
We've seen these new leagues come and go for years. Why should anyone think the XFL will survive?
Who knows if it will? Last year's Alliance of American Football (AAF) catastrophe was yet another reminder of how difficult it is to build a football league. But the XFL does have one advantage that the AAF and most other alternative leagues have lacked: real money. It is backed by WWE chairman and CEO Vince McMahon, whose personal net worth is estimated by Forbes magazine to be $2.2 billion. In theory, the XFL will have the financial cushion to develop its product over multiple years.
But what makes McMahon think his money will be well spent?
The foundation of the XFL's resurrection is a study performed three years ago by the McKinsey Global Institute. It suggested that some 40 million hardcore NFL fans want more football after the Super Bowl. That study prompted McMahon to pursue the antithesis of the 2001 version of the XFL. He wanted a serious, football-focused, gimmick-free league, and he hired one of the country's most respected sports administrators -- Oliver Luck -- to run it as the league's commissioner.
OK, tell me the basics.
Teams are spaced around the country. Seven are in current NFL cities, and the eighth is in St. Louis, which hosted the NFL's Rams from 1995 to 2015. The teams will play in a combination of NFL, NCAA, Major League Soccer and Major League Baseball facilities.
Each team will play 10 games on Saturdays and Sundays between Feb. 8 and April 12. Four teams will advance to the playoff semifinals April 19-20, and the XFL Championship will be played April 26 -- the day after the 2020 NFL draft concludes. Ticket prices vary, but generally speaking, XFL executives have hoped to cap a trip to the game for a family of four at $100.
What are the XFL teams? Where will each play?
Dallas Renegades (Globe Life Park, former home of MLB's Texas Rangers)
D.C. Defenders (Audi Field, MLS)
Houston Roughnecks (TDECU Stadium, NCAA)
Los Angeles Wildcats (Dignity Health Sports Park, MLS)
New York Guardians (MetLife Stadium, NFL)
St. Louis BattleHawks (The Dome at America's Center, NFL)
Seattle Dragons (CenturyLink Field, NFL)
Tampa Bay Vipers (Raymond James Stadium, NFL)
You said this will be gimmick-free? What are the new XFL rules?
According to Luck, focus groups revealed that fans prefer the NFL game's structure but "want it at a bit more of faster pace with more excitement, less downtime and less interruptions." Fans also made clear that they didn't want to be "complicit," Luck said, in watching a game with new rules that would further endanger player safety.
For that reason, the XFL dismissed more radical changes, like making all 11 offensive players eligible to catch a pass. "That's not football," Luck said, "and people would know it." After more than a year of testing in junior colleges and semipro leagues, the league settled on about 15 tweaks. Those changes focused mostly on pace of game and a boost in scoring, while discouraging punts and overtime but encouraging kickoff returns. An ideal XFL game, vice president of football operations Doug Whaley said last fall, would have a 34-28 score and be played in two hours, 45 minutes -- about 25 minutes shorter than an NFL game.
The NFL has been trying to speed up the game for years. How will the XFL do it?
It has emphasized a reduction of time between plays. There will be an eighth official on the field whose only job is to spot the ball. Once spotted, a 25-second play clock will begin. The XFL estimates there will be an average of 32 seconds between plays. The game clock will run after incompletions and plays in which the ball went out of bounds -- until less than two minutes remain in each half. The league has also experimented with inserting speakers into every helmet so plays can be called while players approach the line of scrimmage.
Coaches will also have two timeouts per half, rather than three, and halftime has been cut to 10 minutes. Finally, there will be no coin tosses. The home team will choose whether to kick off or defer at the start of the game, and the visitors will have the choice in overtime.
How does overtime work?
It'll be different from the NFL, for sure. If teams are tied at the end of regulation -- and for reasons we'll soon discuss, that's unlikely -- there will be an overtime period that the XFL estimates will take no longer than seven minutes. Each team will get five one-play possessions to score from the 5-yard line and will continue playing until someone is mathematically eliminated.
XFL's overtime rule installs winner-take-all football
Steve Levy discusses the XFL's overtime rule, where it's a five-round shootout, teams alternate plays and each conversion is worth two points.
Why is overtime unlikely?
The XFL has instituted three post-touchdown options that would give teams more opportunities to win in regulation. There are no extra point kicks. Instead, teams will have the option to go for one point from the 2-yard line, two points from the 5-yard line or three points from the 10-yard line. "Having a nine-point touchdown option in the fourth quarter can be significant," Luck said.
What will teams likely do with those points-after options?
"We don't know," said Sam Schwartzstein, the XFL's director of football operations and point person on the rulebook. The league has supplied coaches with data that projected conversion rates of 50% from the 2-yard line, 30% from the 5 and 20% from the 10.
"If all situations are equal, the most efficient option over time is to go for two points," Schwartzstein said.
One coach, Schwartzman said, planned to go for three points after defensive touchdowns to capitalize on perceived momentum.
So has the XFL eliminated kicking?
No. There are still punts and kickoffs, with disparate views of each. The XFL wants kickoff returns but has disincentivized punts in hope that more teams will go for it on fourth down.
Kickoffs have been reimagined to move most players down the field so that they aren't hitting each other at full speed. The kicker will kick off from the 30-yard line, 5 yards further back from the NFL, in an effort to limit touchbacks. And most players will line up across from each other between the other 30- and 35-yard line and can't move until the returner catches the ball.
Meanwhile, the XFL hopes to discourage teams from attempting to pin opponents deep with a punt. Balls that go into the end zone or out of bounds will be marked at the 35-yard line, as opposed to the 20 in the NFL. And if a team does punt, it will be more difficult to cover. No one on the punt team can run downfield until the ball is kicked. The XFL estimates that will give returners at least 4 additional yards of space to work with.
Expect kickoffs to be more exciting in the XFL
Steve Levy looks into the XFL's kickoff rule where only the kicker and returner can move until the ball is caught or is on the ground for three seconds.
Will there will be replay review?
Yes, but it will be modeled off the college system. Only the replay official can stop the game. Coaches can't challenge, but if they call a timeout that leads to a review and a reversal, they will get the timeout back. The standard for review, according to XFL officiating chief Dean Blandino, is a play that has "significant competitive impact in the outcome of the game."
Video officials will also have the authority to get involved in matters of player safety, such as a missed roughing the passer foul. Finally, in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter, the replay official can act as a sky judge and either throw a flag or reverse a penalty call in significant situations that fall outside the normal list of reviewable plays.
These rules are interesting, but not revolutionary.
Correct. And as noted, that's exactly where the XFL wanted to land. There are other minor rules designed to help offenses, such as requiring only one foot down in bounds for a reception.
Perhaps the most unusual rule is one that will allow two forward passes on one play, as long as the first one is completed and second is also attempted behind the line of scrimmage. In essence, it allows teams to run trick plays without worrying about whether the first pass is thrown backward, which could lead to a fumble. The XFL, however, estimates it will see less than one such play per weekend.
Why not more?
For the most part, Luck hired experienced coaches from conventional backgrounds. Each doubles as his team's general manager, and none projects as a radical.
Two -- Houston's June Jones and Tampa Bay's Marc Trestman -- have been head coaches in both the NFL and CFL. Seattle's Jim Zorn was an NFL head coach. Los Angeles' Winston Moss, D.C.'s Pep Hamilton, St. Louis' Jonathan Hayes and New York's Kevin Gilbride were longtime NFL assistants. Perhaps the best known of all is Dallas' Bob Stoops, who won 10 Big 12 titles and a national championship during an 18-year career at Oklahoma.
The XFL's assistant-coaching ranks are also filled with recognizable names, including Jerry Glanville (Tampa Bay defensive coordinator), Mike Riley (Seattle offensive coordinator), Norm Chow (Los Angeles offensive coordinator), Pepper Johnson (Los Angeles defensive coordinator), Ted Cottrell (Houston defensive coordinator) and Hal Mumme (Dallas offensive coordinator).
Luck: QB quality important to XFL's quality
XFL commissioner Oliver Luck breaks down the process of assigning quarterbacks to the league's teams in advance of the draft.
Wait. You still haven't mentioned the identity of a single player.
That's not by accident. The XFL is selling a new brand of football, not superstars. It decided against pursuing players such as quarterback Johnny Manziel, a veteran of the NFL, CFL and AAF. Nor did it give any real thought to bidding for big-name NFL free agents, or even drafting prominent college players -- such as Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence -- who are not yet eligible to play in the NFL.
Instead, the XFL focused on players it could reliably count on to be with the league starting in December, when minicamps began, to give them enough practice time to offer a good product in Week 1. According to the league, 207 of the 416 players on XFL rosters had been with an NFL team in the past six months.
You still haven't mentioned any names. Who are some former NFL or college players?
Other players that hardcore football fans will know:
Jeff Badet, WR, Dallas
Lance Dunbar, RB, Dallas
Matt Elam, S, D.C.
Jhurell Pressley, RB, D.C.
Sammie Coates, WR, Houston
Kony Ealy, DE, Houston
Marquette King, P, St. Louis
Matt Jones, RB, St. Louis
Christine Michael, RB, St. Louis
Keenan Reynolds, WR, Seattle
Will Sutton, DT, Seattle
Perhaps the most intriguing XFL player is St. Louis safety Kenny Robinson, who was dismissed from West Virginia because of an academic violation and chose to sign with the XFL rather than transfer. He is the only XFL player who entered the league with college eligibility remaining. He is now eligible for the 2020 NFL draft and will use the XFL season to, in essence, put an extended tryout on film.
XFL's double-forward-pass rule will create more opportunities
Steve Levy breaks down the XFL's double-forward-pass rule where an offense can throw the ball forward twice, as long as it doesn't cross the line of scrimmage.
How much will XFL players make?
The average player will earn about $55,000 over a 10-game season, but some quarterbacks will receive considerably higher salaries -- in some cases approaching the NFL minimum of about $500,000.
What happens when a player gets hurt or a team wants to make roster changes?
The XFL has created a team of 40 unsigned players, known as "Team 9," that will practice and condition together in Dallas during the season. The XFL's eight teams will be encouraged to dip into this pool for in-season replacements, but they won't be required to.
Can I bet on the XFL?
Yes! Week 1 lines for the 2020 season are already posted at Caesars Sportsbook, as are futures. As of last week, Tampa Bay had the best odds (7-4) to win the XFL championship and is projected for a league-high seven wins. Seattle (14-1) is the biggest underdog and has a projected total of 3.5 wins.
ESPN and ABC even plan to incorporate betting lines into their on-screen scoreboards and more freely discuss those lines during their broadcasts. Read more on the XFL and betting from ESPN Chalk.
How can I watch XFL games?
Every XFL game will be broadcast on either ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, FOX, FS1 or FS2.
That's a lot of information. But bottom line: How will we know if this works?
Ultimately, there are no secrets for how to measure a for-profit business' success. The XFL has to make money, via ticket sales and eventually television rights deals. (In 2020, the XFL won't receive rights fees for games that are televised. Networks will cover production costs.) The most immediate question is how long McMahon will give the league to get on the right side of the balance sheet.