I watched the XFL 3.0 so you don’t have to (but you should!): Some key takeaways (2024)

“The weird thing about the XFL is that nobody except Vince McMahon was anxious to see it born, and nobody except the cheerleaders will miss it when it’s gone. There is no way to explain why it ever happened at all, except that some cluster of corporate thugs in the TV business figured they were in desperate need of a tax writeoff. It was not even good entertainment, much less good football.”

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— Hunter S. Thompson, “XFL, R.I.P.” Feb. 26, 2001

While the NFL is taking its 10-minute smoke break out back before returning to dominate American television with every event, utterance, tweet, lawsuit and game, the third go-round of the developmental XFL returned to the airwaves this past weekend.

Its first two games were Saturday, less than a week from Super Bowl LVII and its 113 million viewers on Fox, and two more games on Sunday were up against the Daytona 500 and the NBA All-Star Game. We won’t know for another day or two how many people watched.

I’m a hopeless sucker for spring/alternative pro football efforts, so I spent Saturday afternoon and evening watching the two XFL 3.0 inaugural games to review it as both a football product and a television property. Here’s my gridiron Siskel & Ebert effort (which I also did for the 2020 XFL and 2022 USFL).

What’s different from 2020

The XFL has gone from being WWE honcho Vince McMahon’s obsession — he and NBC lost a reported $70 million on the 2001 version, and he pledged $500 million to fund the 2020 edition that was halted mid-season by COVID-19 — to being owned by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, his ex-wife and business partner Dany Garcia, and deep-pocket financial backer Gerry Cardinale, founder of RedBird Capital Partners.

They bought the rights to the league for $15 million in late 2020 and attended all four of the weekend’s games. Johnson and Garcia did pre-recorded and live hype speeches.

McMahon’s 2020 XFL 2.0 had abandoned the 2001 XFL’s bawdy, gimmicky, flamboyant, and, frankly, stupid format and style that was perhaps most memorable for subpar play and the guy with a “HE HATE ME” jersey nameplate. The 2023 XFL 3.0 picks up from the 2020 version (which did OK in early viewership) in being more serious as a business and is not trying to tweak the NFL and bill itself as an extra-violent blood-sport alternative.

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It’s still an eight-team league, but the Los Angeles, New York and Tampa Bay markets don’t return for 2023. The replacement teams and markets are the San Antonio Brahmas (new team), Orlando Guardians (formerly New York), and Las Vegas Vipers (formerly Tampa).

The Dallas Renegades rebranded geographically as the Arlington Renegades but still use the same Arlington venue as three years ago, 48,000-seat Choctaw Stadium (formerly the Texas Rangers’ Globe Life Park). The Seattle Dragons became the Seattle Sea Dragons. The only team to not return at all is the L.A. Wildcats.

The league’s uniforms have been redesigned by Under Armour. Not sure about those matte baby blue Renegades uniforms, but I’m not especially qualified to judge aesthetics while I’m wearing a Margaritaville t-shirt. I did get a Yacht Rock vibe from the Vegas uniforms.

Every time I see these Vegas Vipers XFL helmets, I'm reminded of the cover of Steely Dan's 1977 album "Aja." pic.twitter.com/SNjJNp4Uvk

— Bill Shea (@Bill_Shea19) February 18, 2023

Perhaps the biggest change is the league’s broadcast partner mix. In 2020, it was ABC and Fox. This time, it’s solely Disney-owned channels: The 40 regular-season games will air across ESPN networks (22 games) along with ABC (seven) and cable’s FX (15). There also will be XFL content on related social media, digital, and all games stream on ESPN+.

On the rules side, there’s now an option to run a fourth-and-15 onsides play from a team’s own 25-yard line in lieu of the traditional onside-kick attempt — and it worked in a game on Sunday when the St. Louis Battlehawks, down 15-0 in the fourth quarter, executed a 3-point conversion after a TD and then completed the onsides pass conversion before scoring again to beat San Antonio, 18-15, at the Alamodome.

4th-and-15 you say?

Go for it. pic.twitter.com/pkdaTczwE1

— St. Louis Battlehawks (@XFLBattlehawks) February 19, 2023

Oh, and coaches can challenge ANY play or penalty once per game. Keep an eye on that rule.

What’s back

Some of the tech that’s basically an incubator for the NFL’s media partners, such as more players, coaches and officials mic’d up, more ambient sound and video from the sidelines, field, locker rooms and booths. The double forward passes, no kicked PATs (only 1-, 2-, or 3-point conversion attempts via scrimmage plays), funky overtime rules and kickoffs lined up at one side of the field to encourage more returns also return.

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The quality of play

This is the big one, because it’s the primary reason for anyone to watch the XFL or any game. American football fans are used to the top-tier NFL, and it’s difficult to adjust expectations for talent that’s not at that level. That said, the two games I saw included some plays you’d expect to see on Sundays in the fall … and some plays that show you why these guys are playing in February after the Super Bowl. For example, Vegas quarterback Luis Perez, who has been a spring football stalwart for several years, threw a trio of touchdowns on Saturday afternoon for the Vipers, but also a pair of pick-six interceptions. Overall QB play wasn’t terrible, except when it was. Keep in mind, these teams had about five weeks of practice and no formal scrimmages — and to me, the quality of play was pretty good for having such limited preparation. Passing tree timing will improve, as will offensive line play.

Oh, and Paxton Lynch, the former 2016 Broncos’ first-rounder who has since drifted to the CFL and USFL, initially looked good for the Orlando Guardians but was benched in the second half.

There are a number of former NFL players on XFL rosters — Josh Gordon, the former Browns Pro Bowl wideout who was sidelined repeatedly for substance abuse violations, grabbed a TD reception on Sunday for the Sea Dragons — but the teams are mostly unknowns trying to land an NFL roster spot.

The weekend’s games were mostly competitive, and the ability to rally to win from bigger deficits than is possible in the NFL is a selling point.

The officiating

NFL officiating has been under the spotlight for a long time and continues to be so after that call near the end of Super Bowl LVII. Officials at the highest level of pro football can get game experience in leagues like the XFL and USFL. On Saturday, there were a few occasions when the unique rules felt unclear, but overall I didn’t see the on-field officials affecting play — but I also saw several infractions such as blatant holding that officials missed or opted to not call that would be called in the NFL.

What interested me most was the live audio and video of XFL officiating boss Dean Blandino during replays — fans got to see the technical aspect of the review process and hear his thinking and how it’s communicated to the on-field officials. Transparency is good, and I’d love to see that in the fall.

I watched the XFL 3.0 so you don’t have to (but you should!): Some key takeaways (1)

The St. Louis Battlehawks beat the San Antonio Brahmas, 18-15, thanks in part to the XFL’s new fourth-and-15 onside-kick alternative. (Ronald Cortes / Getty Images)

The sound

Giving viewers aural access during games has been a selling point for these new spring leagues, and the XFL is no different. It can be interesting and insightful, but the problem with cross-talk that affected USFL games in 2022 was sometimes a problem with this weekend’s XFL games: You’d get coaches and booth and players and crowd noise all at once.

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It was hard to understand at times, and sometimes it was unclear who was speaking. Mics occasionally picked up foul language, which announcers apologized for, but hey, this is pro football and it’s SALTY out there, to be polite. To me, that’s the reality of the game, and the networks and league want to showcase storytelling and give deeper insight into the game itself, so cursing is going to be part of it at times. I thought the booth crews did a nice job of explaining the football terminology used by the coaches and players.

At least one attempt to interview a player on the field moments after a big play was an audio failure, but overall the sideline chats with players and coaches were interesting — with potential to get wild if a player or coach gets a mic in their face after some sort of disastrous play or loss.

The broadcasts

While the USFL used drones during games last year, the XFL did not. I’m mixed on that because they’re interesting video angles, but sheesh they can cause motion sickness with viewers! No helmet cams in the XFL, either. Overall, the ABC and ESPN booths delivered the sort of football broadcast commentary you’d expect from legacy TV networks, and there was a smart announcer focus on the rules. The color and sound and production quality were such that nothing really was a viewer issue, outside of the aforementioned audio — and that’s a work in progress and not easy. Graphics and replays were fine.

The information at the bottom of the screen — down/distance, score, timeouts and challenges, etc. — I thought was clear and useful in layout without being busy or distracting. The real test is how the broadcasts look and feel by the end of the season — this is a laboratory for the networks as much as the league itself.

It’s unclear if the Disney networks are paying the XFL to air its games, or if the media rights deal is akin to 2020 when Fox covered the game broadcast production costs while it and NBC sold advertising airtime.

Game length

The opener went two hours and 46 minutes, which partly is a function of the XFL using a running clock more than the NFL, whose games run over three hours on average. A shorter game is smart for lower-tier football. And probably for the NFL, too.

The stadium crowds

TV broadcasts of live sports without crowds weren’t loved by viewers, even if it was a necessary evil early in the pandemic. The problem with spring football is that aside from curiosity crowds for first games, and maybe championship games, there’s never that many fans in attendance. Clever camera work can hide empty seats for only so long. On Saturday, for the games in Arlington and in Houston (played at the University of Houston’s football stadium), the crowds were in the lowest levels of the venues while the middle and upper decks were empty. Early reports say about 12,000 fans for three of the four games last weekend and double that for the Battlehawks-Brahmas game.

XFL Week one attendance numbers.

Week 1 – LV @ ARL — 12,047
Week 1 – ORL @ HOU — 12,784
Week 1 – STL @ SA — 24,245
Week 1 – SEA @ DC — 12,438

— SSN – USFL (@SSN_USFL) February 20, 2023

The 2020 XFL’s final average attendance was 18,571 for the five weeks it lasted before COVID-19 shut it down. The 2022 USFL, which played all regular-season games in Birmingham to save money, had few fans for most non-Birmingham Stallions games. Game-day revenue matters to some degree for the XFL’s finances far more than it does to NFL clubs.

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Gambling

It’s hard not to view the XFL broadcasts as anything but gambling advertising. Many fans are OK with that, many are not, and some don’t care. There were mentions of the odds during the weekend’s broadcasts (and the lines are part of the game information at the bottom of the screen), and a few times an odds chart was shown on screen, but overall I didn’t find the gambling aspect to be overwhelming or intrusive. I don’t wager on sports but accept that it’s part of how we consume live sports on TV now.

What to fix

The networks should narrow down the audio so it’s less “Tower of Babel” at times. Other than that, I think it’s a matter of continued on-field player development, to create the cohesion and timing required for good football.

My overall verdict

The XFL games were … fine. No major complaints, and there were some fun plays and real highlights. Some gaffes and miscues (I’ve watched the Browns since 1980, so I know what bad football looks like), but overall I think it was a serviceable product.

But, and this is a big ol’ but, I’m not sure it’s radically different enough from the USFL I saw last year, the XFL 2.0, and the 2019 Alliance of American Football (RIP). And I think these leagues need to differentiate themselves to survive. Can there really be two such leagues? Can they both build monetizable brand loyalties? Ultimately, the networks will make that call, because the XFL and USFL exist to fill their post-Super Bowl lineups outside of the NBA, NHL, college sports, auto racing and golf. The leagues will survive (could they merge?) if the eyeballs and dollars tip the scale in their direction versus other programming in those time slots. Overall, I’d give it a B-.

Next up

The XFL’s Week 2 begins with St. Louis at Seattle at 9 p.m. Thursday on FX, a cable channel that last year averaged 462,000 viewers (down 9 percent over 2021, per Variety).

And if the XFL isn’t for you, Year 2 of the USFL 2.0 begins April 15 with games on Fox and NBC channels.

(Top photo of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson: Sam Hodde / Getty Images)

I watched the XFL 3.0 so you don’t have to (but you should!): Some key takeaways (2024)
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