In 2001, the original XFL kicked off. The league, however, was flawed from the start. Rather than simply providing a football fix during the NFL offseason, Vince McMahon tried to bring some “extreme” new rules from professional wrestling to the gridiron. Those gimmicks, however, came at the cost of quality, and the league promptly folded.
This year, McMahon is taking another crack at professional football with a second incarnation of the XFL. While it’s still too early to make a proper judgment, it seems like this iteration of the league is doing something right.
The XFL’s rule changes generally make sense
As any NFL fan can tell you, the league’s rules and decisions don’t always make sense. Although the XFL might not be perfect, the new league does seem to have made some positive changes.
While the original XFL featured zany ideas, like replacing the coin toss with an “opening scramble” and allowing players to wear nicknames on their jerseys, the current version has concentrated their efforts in a few key areas. The league has laid out five “gameplay innovations,” five “timing changes,” and five “common sense rules” for the 2020 season.
The first group of rules, as the name implies, focuses on the way the game is played between the white lines; these include the league’s unique special teams rules and a different overtime format. The timing changes are designed to make XFL games quicker than their NFL counterparts, while the common-sense changes aim to streamline the game and avoid some unnecessary red tape.
The kickoff rule, in particular, is gaining traction
Over recent years, player safety concerns have rendered NFL kickoffs a non-event. The XFL, however, seems to have solved that problem.
In the XFL, the risk of a full-speed collision has been eliminated. While the kicker still remains in his original position, both the kickoff and return teams line up five yards apart further down the field. Those players can’t move, however, until the returner fields the ball. That alignment, combined with more generous touchbacks, has changed everything; kickers are incentivized to keep the ball in play and return men can try to run it back in relative safety.
Some members of the NFL’s competition committee have taken notice; while no changes are imminent, Packers President Mark Murphy admitted that he’s “intrigued” by what the XFL’s idea. The kickoff change is also catching on at the NCAA level, where Citadel is playing their spring game with XFL rules in an attempt to spice things up.
While the school’s choice is obviously a gimmick—the game will also feature players drafting teams among other changes—Citadel head coach Brent Thompson did praise the XFL’s kickoffs. “The last two weeks, I’ve been watching the XFL, and I really liked a couple of aspects of it,” he explained. “One thing I really like is the kickoff. During a spring game, you don’t usually do a kickoff, because it can be a dangerous play. But the way the XFL does it is pretty safe, and it was a chance to get a special-teams play executed.”
Kickoff or not, the XFL seems to be doing something right
Over the past several weekends, the XFL’s television ratings have declined. While that’s obviously not good news, there could still be room for optimism, depending on your perspective.
On its opening weekend, the new XFL averaged 3.12 million viewers per game; in Week 4, the numbers were closer to one million. While that’s a drastic decrease, it isn’t terrible in the grand scheme of things. The XFL’s ratings on February 29, for example, were roughly comparable to the PGA Tour and NCAA basketball, and comfortably beat the MLS.
While we’ll have to wait and see what happens over the course of an entire season—the original XFL’s rating started out strong before falling off a cliff—one thing is clear: the new league has found success with their kickoff format. If nothing else, that rule change could be their lasting legacy.