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In every way, the XFL is more football

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We’ll see if that’s what people want.

Getty Images. Banner Society illustration

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I was just curious.

Everyone experiments.

I was young and wanted to see Hal Mumme, in the flesh, coaching in the year 2020.

You’ve been watching the XFL, and there’s no need to make excuses for it here. It’s okay to just say it, even though it says certain things about you, things like “I spent valuable life hours I will never get back watching the Tampa Bay Vipers lose to the New York Guardians 23-3.”

It means that a month after college football’s national championship and less than two weeks after the Super Bowl – prime cuts of the best American football the planet has to offer – you bellied up to something called Vinnie Mac’s Off-Brand Football Meathouse and volunteered to eat their “delicious uninspected testin’ beef.”

It’s too late to try and deny it. I watched, too, and I’ll happily admit it for one very good reason. The truth is that the early XFL isn’t bad at all, and you’re probably going to watch at least a little bit more of it, too.

In fact, the XFL by the book is actually a better version of American football than its competitors.

They do a lot of things right – so many things that it’s hard to list them all without sounding like you’re gushing, things other leagues will surely steal outright now that they have been attempted with someone else’s money and players. American business! Where innovation is for other people, but theft is for everyone (and especially Vince McMahon).

The XFL’s good things start with the league’s freshly remodeled rulebook, the only rulebook in football that acknowledges what everyone watching already knows: Punting sucks, and should be discouraged at all costs. To do that, the XFL killed the advantage of the “coffin corner” kick altogether. All punts out of bounds inside the 35-yard line automatically come out to the 35. Punting through the end zone gives the opponent the ball at the 35, too, giving even the most conservative coaches incentive to bypass football’s declaration of offensive bankruptcy. These rules seemed to work on everyone except Kevin Gilbride, whose severe case of NFL poisoning had the New York Guardians punting a disgraceful six times in one game.

There are more little tweaks that work. Like college football, the XFL only requires one foot down for a catch. It favors the offense, sure, but it is a welcome relief from the NFL’s “must die with the ball in your casket with both hands folded over it” absurdity of a rule. Halftime is shorter, and that makes the game shorter. College football has had 150 years to realize this lesson, all while happening on university campuses allegedly full of officially smart people. (The XFL still can’t make a shorter game so far, but at least they’re trying.)

They might have even come up with a solid solution to the issues surrounding kickoffs. Rather than running headlong down the field for minimal gain in field position, the XFL starts with a faceoff between blockers spaced at 10 yards who cannot move until the kick is received. It looks a lot more like a play from scrimmage than a full, brutal, field-length collision, and while it probably won’t result in significantly different returns, it does make the play about real gains in field position. It is a legit innovation, one that will probably be high on the list of things the NFL will nakedly steal from its challenger.

The play’s fine, too.

It isn’t great, but anyone used to college football can’t complain about game quality or crisp execution too much. To put it precisely football-wise, it’s a league where in week one, June Jones rolled out a familiar version of the venerable run ‘n’ shoot with former Temple QB P.J. Walker and dominated.

It’s not pro football, but it’s not exactly college football, either.

This sums it up pretty well:

The XFL feels like pro college football, a polished and trimmed version that still needs some work. That will tighten up as time goes on, but the missed tackles, endless drifting out of the pocket by QBs, and slightly higher degree of clusterfuckitude in the XFL game will just have to be part of the experience as long as they’re getting the second cut of potential talent.

If you’re like me, an obsessive who will watch more than their fair share of it anyway, it’s a fun bonus to look up, see Landry Jones, and think “Ah, Landry Jones! That’s a name I haven’t thought of since he ran the worst 40 in NFL Combine history.”

For the more general fan, novelty won’t be enough.

The XFL’s gambling on an unproven assumption: That fans/viewers actually want more football, which is betting against the existing supply and demand by introducing more into the market.

That matters because right now, the NFL effectively sells a luxury good. It pushes a very limited supply of a highly controlled product at exorbitant rates. To keep the price high, the league emphasizes brand protection over all else. The NFL needs drama and is mostly allergic to humor for the same reasons as a fragrance brand or high-end luxury car. Luxury brands are not funny, and they are not your friends. If you do not take them seriously, then you lack seriousness on an almost existential level.

(This analogy makes college football the black market fireworks stand of sports. It’s wacky, but it’s also the brand where the low prices and hilariously downmarket merch seem less enjoyable when you think about where all the goods came from, much less what crimes had to occur in order to sell them on the roadside at such steep discounts.)

The XFL wants to be serious football, too … but this serious, not that serious like the NFL. It wants to put people closer to the action. It wants to be more in every sense of the word, and that’s the biggest risk. Football doesn’t thrive on clarity or accessibility or even ease of consumption. For the great bulk of the audience, football is an inscrutable and violent game played between faceless monsters. Based on the NFL’s continuing success, that is how most consumers would like to keep it.

The most dangerous part of the XFL’s strategy is assuming people watching football want to know more about it, or even really like the particulars of the game or the people playing it.

There is a reason why football fans, despite having way more in common interest-wise with the players, mostly side with the coaches or the billionaire owners. Putting people into the equation at all, and doing it with greater exposure by making more football, is more information. And as the last 20 years of the internet show, information doesn’t automatically improve things, and often sends people running back into the arms of the preferable lie. It means the violence of football is personal and real, and that the heroic, mythical proportions of the sport are brought down to real human scale.

Football probably can’t tolerate that. The sport’s overarching irritation at anything human interfering with the endorphin hit from tribal bloodsport is endemic and affects everything right down to what succeeds or doesn’t in a television product. Even the XFL’s broadcasts steer right into this problem: putting players on camera more, micing up coaches during playcalls, and even making officials seem more human and forgivable by sharing the audio from video replays.

I’m not sure people want football to be something with a personality. After all, if the bulk of football fans wanted personalities and faces, they would have picked something else. They’d watch a more refined product, something more humane, a sport where failure was just part of a long buildup to triumph and not a permanent judgment on character.

They’d be watching professional wrestling.