STAMFORD, Conn. — The XFL says former Buffalo Bills general manager Doug Whaley has been hired as the league’s senior vice president for football operations.
Whaley will report to commissioner and CEO Oliver Luck.
Whaley spent the majority of his career with the Bills, Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks. He was with the Bills from 2010-17 in a variety of roles before his promotion to GM from 2013-17.
Before joining the Bills, Whaley spent 11 years with the Steelers as the team’s pro scouting coordinator, where he won two Super Bowls.
Whaley is currently serving as the director of college recruiting for the NFL Players Association’s Collegiate Bowl through the end of the year.
The XFL kicks off in early 2020. The league will start with eight teams, 45-man active rosters, and a 10-week regular-season schedule, with a postseason consisting of two semifinal playoff games and a championship game.
Oliver Luck will become the first commissioner and chief executive officer of the XFL, it was announced Tuesday.
“The XFL will be a labor of love as I get to combine my experiences as a player and executive,” Luck told ESPN in an email. “I’m thrilled to have this unique opportunity to reimagine the game that has been a constant in my life for 40 years.”
Luck will leave his leadership role at the NCAA, where he oversaw the organization’s regulatory functions, including eligibility requirements and academic affairs, and the eligibility center.
He will relocate from Indianapolis, where his son Andrew Luck is the quarterback for the Colts, to the XFL’s headquarters in Connecticut as he prepares for the league’s launch in 2020.
“Oliver and I share the same vision and passion for reimagining the game of football,” XFL founder and chairman Vince McMahon said in a statement. “His experience as both an athlete and executive will ensure the long-term success of the XFL.”
Luck previously served as the president of NFL Europe and as the chief executive officer of the Houston Sports Authority, which helped bring the Texans to Houston as an NFL expansion team in 2002.
He also played quarterback for the Houston Oilers and at West Virginia University, where he was inducted into the Mountaineers’ Hall of Fame and later spent four years as athletic director. He also served on the College Football Playoff selection committee in 2014.
While Vince McMahon promises to bring back a revamped XFL in 2020, a son of McMahon’s partner in the original short-lived XFL venture said his football league will come first. And some big NFL names will be involved.
Charlie Ebersol, who directed a documentary on the XFL that aired last year as part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, announced Tuesday that his league, the Alliance of American Football, plans to debut Feb. 9, 2019, the week after Super Bowl LIII. The season will run 10 weeks and will have 50-man teams.
Ebersol’s father, Dick Ebersol, was McMahon’s partner in the original XFL and is a longtime television executive.
To help him steer the league, Charlie Ebersol brought on former NFL general manager Bill Polian, currently an analyst for ESPN. The player side will be overseen by former Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, and the team side will be guided by former USC standout and executive J.K. McKay.
Advisers to the league also will include former NFL players Hines Ward and Justin Tuck, as well as Dick Ebersol.
While McMahon’s league is backed by McMahon’s money, Charlie Ebersol’s league is backed by others, including former Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen, Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund and The Chernin Group, which, among other investments, owns a significant share of Barstool Sports.
“I think where businesses like this fail is that they expect to have ludicrous and unrealistic ticket and media deal projections in Year 1,” Ebersol said. “Our investors here understand that it’s a seven- to 10-year plan.”
Unlike McMahon, whose announcement came without a media plan, Ebersol said that his league, made up of players who didn’t make the cut for the NFL, will have the initial game and the championship game on CBS and one matchup per week on CBS Sports Network. Other games will be available on the league’s app, which Ebersol said promises to integrate live fantasy play into the broadcasts.
“Fifty-nine million people play fantasy and 20 million people play only fantasy football,” Ebersol. “We have to be able to take advantage of the people who just stop playing fantasy when the NFL season ends.”
Like McMahon, Ebersol said the success of the league will live and die with good football, something that he thinks is achievable.
“There are 28,000 Division I football players. Only 1,700 have NFL jobs,” Ebersol said. “We’re looking for those Kurt Warners working in grocery stores, and we think we will find them.”
The eight teams in cities that will be announced in the next three months will start by having regional drafts, protecting eligible players who played in the local community for their college days.
Along with good football and names the local market knows, Ebersol said a hallmark of the league will be no TV timeouts and 60 percent fewer commercials, as well as an innovative approach to broadcasting.
There also will be no kickoffs (the ball will be placed automatically at the 25-yard line) and no onside kicks. The losing team will just start on its own 35-yard line with fourth-and-10. Play clocks will be 30 seconds and every touchdown will be followed by a two-point conversion attempt.
McMahon hasn’t revealed his plans, so we’re going to lay out some important rules that would help guide him to making the sequel better than the original.
1. It’s either a gimmick or it’s football
One of the reasons the XFL didn’t work is that it focused on gimmicks but pitched to an audience that it was real football. It was certainly gimmicky, but it wasn’t good football. If McMahon tries this again, he has to decide where he wants to go. Does he want to block out the plays and determine who wins? Does he hire a mix of athletes and actors and make it live drama? A faked “Hard Knocks” might work really well at a time when live musicals are drawing big numbers. Or does he try to do real football?
2. Real football would require real money
If McMahon wants people to root for the actual game, he’s going to have to get real players. Sure, he can pick up the big names who are no longer in the NFL, but he has to pull out real football players in their prime. To do that, he’s going to have to get real NFL players to leave the league for his second experiment. How does he do that? Guaranteed money for multiple years and offers three to five times bigger than those of NFL teams.
3. A soclal media streaming deal
If the opportunist in McMahon says the right time is now, it’s either because the NFL is in a period of downturn or because he thinks the ability to break through is easier now than ever before. Let’s focus on the latter. It’s true that consumers have more options than they did in 2001, but if content is good, consumers also have social media to remind them how good it is. If that product itself is on social media, it’s even easier to recognize. So if the time is right now, having a social media streaming component to what he is doing is necessary. Coincidentally, the WWE is testing out a Facebook-only execution starting in January.
4. One big wrestler has to be involved
The problem with the XFL for its first go-round is that it didn’t leverage the huge audience of the WWE (then called the WWF). There has to be more synergy. Sure, there’s a gimmick aspect to it, but you need to be able to take some of that audience and bring it over to a new league. The easy solution: Have at least one WWE star be intricately involved week in and week out.
5. McMahon must put himself front and center
McMahon certainly had a role in the XFL the first time around, but his involvement was limited in some way because of Dick Ebersol and NBC, which owned 50 percent of the entity. If he has no one to answer to, he has to go full Vince McMahon because that’s worth watching — most of the time.
Perhaps this whole thing is a ruse, but it’s still 2017, which means don’t discount anything from happening.
Vince McMahon’s trying to sell you something, because that’s what he does and he’s really good at it. If you want to buy it, go right ahead. The new XFL is going to sound fun if you remember how goofy the first one was, if you’re down on the NFL right now or if you’re just dying to text “He Hate Me!” to the one friend you’re sure remembers what that means.
It’s going to sound cool to the players, too, because it’s going to sound like it means jobs. And on its most basic level, if you strip away the myriad reasons to be skeptical, that’s exactly what it means. Baseball has the minor leagues, where you can go and rebuild a career. Basketball has options in Europe. You get cut from the NFL, you don’t have a place to go or a road back.
You hear every year about the 1,200 or so players who get cut from NFL rosters in the first week of September. If McMahon’s new league is viable, it obviously offers some of those players a place to go and get work. On its face, the notion of more football jobs is a positive one for football players. And some might even be able to convince themselves they’re not settling. There’s surely a representative number of NFL players with whom McMahon is more popular than Roger Goodell.
Of course, it’s not that simple, and being a fan of the WWE doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily enjoy working for McMahon. Odds are pretty good that the new XFL won’t be reporting $14 billion in revenue the first year the way its stodgy-but-still-wondrously-profitable counterpart does. Just because the XFL will offer a chance for displaced, hopeful or washed-up NFLers to continue playing football doesn’t mean all of them will find it worth their while.
See, while NFL players have it rough compared to Major League Baseball players and NBA players in terms of salaries and contract guarantees, their lives aren’t all pay cuts and torn ACLs. They practice and play (with some exceptions) on high-quality fields, enjoy top-of-the-line strength and conditioning equipment, fly on chartered planes, stay in fancy hotels. The NFL’s health and safety protocols are often the butt of jokes, but at least they exist, and are subject to enough public oversight that the league issued a cranky statement Wednesday asking everybody to lighten up about it.
Coaches and teams complain about the practice and offseason restrictions in the NFL’s current CBA, but players love the break it gives their bodies. That CBA also offers high-level health benefits for players and their families. For goodness’ sake, it requires the owners to share revenue with the players. Will the new XFL offer any of that?
The point is, while it’ll be fun for players to imagine another place to go when the NFL tells them they’re not needed anymore, there’s a pretty strong “buyer beware” element that comes with something like this. It’ll be important for players (and the NFLPA, and the media, and the public) to keep an eye on a fledgling XFL to make sure it’s not sacrificing working conditions and employee quality of life in the quest for maximum profit. Given McMahon’s closeness with the current presidential administration, and that administration’s public stance on players protesting during the national anthem, players also might want to watch out to make sure this isn’t just some thinly veiled political propaganda vehicle. During Thursday’s news conference, McMahon strongly indicated his league would require players to stand for the anthem and take a hard line against players who got in trouble off the field. If you think the NFL is too heavy-handed, don’t get duped by a league that offers the appearance of greater freedom while it aims to control you even more.
There’s going to be no shortage of players for whom this is worth a shot. Times are tough for workers in every industry these days, and many of you who are reading this have had to take a job you might not love in an effort to feed your family and/or keep chasing your dreams, or know someone else who’s had to. At its most basic level, the new XFL will offer players that. The “He Hate Me” guy DID end up playing in the NFL, after all.
But it’s not likely to offer an opportunity commensurate or even competitive with the NFL. An agent telling an NFL team his client’s other offer is an XFL one isn’t likely to get that team to budge in negotiations. Players who’ve had a taste of the NFL life probably won’t find McMahon’s grass greener — literally or figuratively.
It might be a league where you can dance, taunt and put whatever you want on the back of your jersey. It might be exciting and fun and new in many ways. And on some level, it’ll be football, which is really the only thing for which some of these guys will be looking. But the last time McMahon tried this, it didn’t last long. The odds of it being revolutionary or sustainably innovative are slim. And even if it is, it’s not likely to treat its players any better than the NFL does. If anything, it’s probably going to have to treat them worse in order to survive.
WWE founder and chairman Vince McMahon announced Thursday he is giving a professional football league another go.
It will be called the XFL, the same name of the league McMahon and NBC tried for one season in 2001, but it won’t rely on flashy cheerleaders and antics as its predecessor did, he said.
McMahon said he is the sole funding source for the league, which is slated to begin in January 2020. Its first season will have eight teams around the country playing a 10-week schedule. The initial outlay of money is expected to be around $100 million, the same amount of WWE stock McMahon sold last month and funneled into Alpha Entertainment, the company he founded for the project.
“I wanted to do this since the day we stopped the other one,” McMahon told ESPN in an exclusive interview. “A chance to do it with no partners, strictly funded by me, which would allow me to look in the mirror and say, ‘You were the one who screwed this up,’ or ‘You made this thing a success.'”
One mark of the new league, McMahon said, will be faster games. The ideal running time, he said, would be two hours.
As for the timing of the announcement, two years before the league’s debut, many might point to McMahon’s relationship with President Donald Trump, who this fall criticized the NFL for allowing its players to kneel and sit during the national anthem. McMahon said players in his league will not be given the forum to take a personal stance while on the playing field. McMahon’s wife, Linda, heads the Small Business Administration in Trump’s Cabinet.
“People don’t want social and political issues coming into play when they are trying to be entertained,” McMahon said. “We want someone who wants to take a knee to do their version of that on their personal time.”
McMahon said being the only owner of all of the teams will allow him to do whatever he wants.
“I can say, ‘Here are the rules, and as long as you are playing football in the stadium for us, you follow these rules.'”
McMahon also said he would preclude any player with a criminal record, which would disqualify former Texas A&M quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel.
“We are evaluating a player based on many things, including the quality of human being they are,” McMahon said. If you have any sort of criminal record or commit a crime you aren’t playing in this league.”
One of the main problems with the ill-fated previous XFL was timing — the first games were played a year after the concept was announced. Adding an additional year, McMahon said, will allow for a better product. Teams will be formed in 2019.
“It’s extremely important that we have time to get together and get them practicing so we can have a quality product,” McMahon said.
One of the reasons McMahon thinks he will be able to succeed 19 years after the league first failed is because, he said, television ratings no longer dictate success.
“To me the landscape has changed in so many different ways,” McMahon said. “Just look at technology and companies like Facebook and Amazon bidding for sports rights. Even if ratings go down, there’s no denying that live sports rights continue to be valuable and continue to deliver.”
One of the ways McMahon envisions enticing major media partners is to offer them something the NFL hasn’t: more creative feeds of the same game.
“I don’t think people want to see the same thing when they’re streaming as they see on television,” McMahon said. “That’s boring. I think fans want it shot in a totally different way, and I think there’s an immersive opportunity that’s more interactive to the game.”
McMahon said seeing the NFL’s troubles, which included a second consecutive year of a decline in ratings, didn’t have to do with the timing of his announcement.
“The start of this league has nothing to do with the NFL’s troubles,” McMahon said. “What has happened there is their business, and I’m not going to knock those guys, but I am going to learn from their mistakes as anyone would if they were tasked with reimagining a new football league.”
NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy told ESPN the league will have no comment on McMahon’s upstart league.
Over the next couple of months, the league will announce the eight cities, expected to be large and medium-sized markets, where the teams will play. Team names will follow.
Then will come selection of players for the 40-man rosters. Salaries will be determined, but McMahon said players will make more money for winning.
“To me that’s common sense,” McMahon said. “Everyone in America lives when they perform, they get a raise or bonus. That’s capitalism.”
Although the season is only 10 weeks, McMahon said the contract will be a 52-week job so players can work themselves into the communities where they play.
It is not clear whether star players, should they garner national attention, will be able to jump to the NFL.
“One thing we are not is a development league for the NFL,” McMahon said.
McMahon said he decided to go with the XFL name even though his new league won’t provide the same gimmicks that were both a hallmark and a black mark on the original league.
“Quite frankly I looked at a number of things, but nothing resonated like the XFL. There’s only so many things that have ‘FL’ on the end of them and those are already taken. But we aren’t going to have much of what the XFL had, including the cheerleaders, who aren’t really part of the game anymore. The audience wants entertainment with football, and that’s what we are going to give them.”
That means popular names such as 2007 Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow won’t be given priority just because they are marketable. Everyone will come in on an even playing field, McMahon said.
“Maybe in a certain city having the old college quarterback would make sense, but only if he’s the best option,” McMahon said. “It’s the wrong thing to do just for marketing.”