I’ll be transparent. Ever since the St. Louis Rams left town, I had no interest in football locally with the exception of the St. Louis SLAM (new season starts in April) and whatever indoor version was playing at Family Arena (which at this moment, there is none).
So my interest was piqued when World Wrestling Entertainment Chairman/CEO Vince McMahon announced the return of the XFL in 2020 and the reveal of the St. Louis BattleHawks as one of eight teams competing in Version 2 of the brand.
I also remembered the XFL’s first go-around in 2001. I followed it early in the season, even taking a trip to Memphis to see the Maniax take on the Chicago Enforcers in a high-scoring, entertaining affair. But for every positive experience from that weekend trip, the rest of season kept on a continuous slide due to the subpar play and the bait-n-switch tactics that was displayed by a wrestling carny.
I ended up not watching “The $1,000,000 Game,” the XFL’s version of the Super Bowl, and was not surprised when it folded after one season. I thought I would finish out my lifetime as one of the few people from bi-state area that could say, “I went to an XFL game once.”
At least it was a safe bet at the time. How would this modernized XFL fit into the complexion, considering it was debuting one week after the Super Bowl?
Armed with lots of unhealthy snacks and plenty of Mello Yello Zero, I watched all four XFL games in real time this weekend and wrote down what stood out, both positively and negatively, as a whole and assessed grades to particular areas.
Saturday saw the DC Defenders claim a 31-19 comeback win over the Seattle Dragons in the League opener while in the nightcap the Houston Roughnecks toppled the Los Angeles Wildcats, 37-17.
The Sunday match-ups saw the New York Guardians thump the Tampa Bay Vipers, 23-3, and the BattleHawks claim their first win in a 15-9 triumph over the Dallas Renegades.
I was happy to see the locals claim their inaugural victory but it wasn’t the best game of the weekend, either in presentation on the field or on the broadcast.
XFL WEEK 1 REPORT CARD
GAME ATMOSPHERE: B-
It worked out to the XFL’s favor that three out of the four home teams won over the weekend because that definitely helped the presentation in terms of ambiance. Audi Field in Washington, DC made for a perfect backdrop to the Saturday DC/Seattle launch. The 20,000-seat home of D.C. United looked and sounded exceptional. It was packed and the electricity generated by the rabid fans really made the sport appear big-time on-screen.
Although the crowd was similar in size and enthusiasm at TDECU Stadium in Houston, seeing the 40,000-seat venue half-empty for the Houston/LA game was a bit of a downer. Metlife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey is synonymous with football but in the NY/Tampa game it looked way too monstrous in scope for the size of crowd that attended, although they were very vocal. Arlington’s Globe Life Park, a Major League Baseball stadium recently vacated by the Texas Rangers, couldn’t have looked more out of place for the BattleHawks/Renegades finale. It never had hosted a football game prior to Sunday. One now knows why. This type of optic is going to rear its ugly head again when St. Louis holds their home opener at the Dome two weekends from now.
The player uniforms worn were professional in style (although one could have been overwhelmed by the neon-green schema of the Tampa Bay Vipers) and the logos were easily identifiable. Yard markers that featured an “X” were a nice touch.
So overall, any game that will be held in DC is automatically going to have a really cool atmosphere because it’s the perfect size. We’ll see how it looks at home for this weekend’s quartet of road teams as the season continues.
TELEVISION PRODUCTION: A-
One could get an immediate sense of how the sport would be presented with the visual execution by associated networks. Although I didn’t have high hopes going in, ABC’s Saturday production of the Seattle/DC game pretty much stands out as the winner in production even with the technical gaffes that occurred early. There were also some audio issues early as there were perpetual microphones being registered simultaneously. I’m not gonna knock the sound person because there were probably about 60 audio sources that had to be governed. And as it progressed, the overstepping subsided, or at least it had more control.
Graphically, ABC (as was Disney sibling ESPN) was pretty busy with info and I liked the listing of the game’s point spread and over/under as a constant fixture because that actually became a narrative down the stretch in the Seattle/DC game. Would both teams combine break the over? (They didn’t by a half-point). The combined points, or lack thereof, of the St. Louis/Dallas game also became an ongoing narrative.
By contrast, FOX, well-known for their innovations within sports broadcasting, was much more reserved in presentation and kept graphic info to basics for Saturday’s Houston/LA game and Sunday’s NY/Tampa Bay game. Following the sensory overload experienced in ABC’s XFL launch, this seemed a little dry in presentation. Same for Sunday’s New York/Tampa Bay tilt. That, combined with the poor performance by the Vipers, made the third game the worst of the weekend.
Overall, there were a lot of inside football gimmicks that certainly make the productions entertaining. Having live mics on coaches rattling out complex play calls for simple runs and sweeps is amusing as heck and I like how there’s going to be transparency of what plays are being called and if they are executed well. I also enjoyed going into the official review booth to see how pivotal communication can be when making rulings that will impact the game. This was actually quite compelling.
And compared to the first version of the XFL, there wasn’t a professional wrestling-like vibe to it at all. Most notably, there weren’t any gimmicks involving cheerleaders. That’s because there’s no cheerleaders in the XFL at all. No announcers baiting coaches into arguments. Really, the content was about as pedestrian as it gets. If one was worried that XFL 2.0 was going to be the kissing cousin of its prior self, their concerns were quickly diminished. So, that’s a big plus from me.
Overall, the presentation of the content was on-par with other sports coverage with the open accessibility to coaches and officials being the highlight of the broadcast.
GAME PLAY: C
The action on the field was completely passable considering the level of play, although some teams, notably Tampa Bay and Dallas, had really poor showings. One immediately knew, and this was brought up many times throughout the weekend, that just about every XFL player had solid collegiate credentials but very few achieved more than that. And that’s okay. I’m totally fine with those that barely made it onto a NFL practice squad having a shot at receiving a paycheck for something that they never got paid for before.
The occassional offensive trickery displayed, the safe approach to kickoffs that were a 180-degree turnaround from XFL Version 1’s really dangerous method of punt returns (no fair catch) and the three-point element to touchdown conversions were all steps in the right direction. Corner coffin kicks on punts result in a drive that starts on the 35 so there’s more of an emphasis on fourth down gambles. This provided additional drama.
However, there is one element that is going to make the XFL a tough sell in television markets without a team. Even with the promise of a shorter play clock and only a ten-minute intermission, all four games still pushed the three-hour mark. In fact, the DC/Seattle tussle went beyond that and overran into Saturday’s second game. That’s a lot of time invested by one for a new product and I think the challenge will be trying to keep a television audience engaged, especially if a game is lopsided.
If not constructing this report, I would have bailed out on Saturday’s Houston/LA game early. There really wasn’t any incentive to watch beyond the early stages of the fourth quarter. I really struggled paying attention to Sunday’s New York/Tampa Bay yawnfest and if St. Louis hadn’t been involved in the final game of the weekend, I wouldn’t have stuck around for the fourth contest.
Audience retention is going to be a persistent challenge for the XFL and having three-hour games is going to prevent that from happening.
Also, as the weekend progressed, the games got increasingly sloppy. The Dallas/St. Louis game was a real snoozer until the fourth quarter and that was disappointing since the locals obviously had the most interest in that one. Again, the Vipers had no venom.
So overall, the action favored the Saturday games over the Sunday games, so this middle grade of C reflects that. Had we had a little more scoring from in the Sunday games, this grade might have went higher. I don’t know if the barometer is that St. Louis and New York had really good defenses (an arguable point) or if Tampa Bay and Dallas have weak offenses (I’m inclined to lean more towards this.) We’ll see if the play improves next week because if we have games like the Sunday affairs, the XFL is going to see the audience rapidly shrink.
To their credit, all three networks chose veteran broadcasters that gave the product instant credibility. ABC’s Saturday combo of ESPN Sportscenter’s Steve Levy and the SEC Network’s Greg McElroy for the Seattle/DC kickoff was about as enthusiastic of a pairing as one could get for a League opener and one got a charge from that. Lone nitpick was their perpetual name drop of Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes and a few jokes that became a little dry as the game went on. Meanwhile, sideline reporters Tom Luginbill and Dianna Russin were hampered with technical issues and/or players that couldn’t effectively communicate.
FOX’s Saturday pairing of Curt Menefee and Joel Klatt, both staples at their network, for the LA/Houston game was a little more dialed back compared to their Saturday compatriots. This came across a little dry, considering I thought Klatt was the most effective analyst of the weekend. That being said, sideline reporter Brock Huard had a very entertaining presence. His current work alongside Menefee for Seattle Seahawk football games assisted in the clear chemistry between booth and field. So this trio works, but they need a little pep in their step.
Sunday’s FOX crew staple Kevin Burkhardt and the SEC Network’s Greg Olsen worked the Tampa Bay/New York contest. Burkhardt was no-nonsense and Olsen, fresh off a week that saw him dropped from the Carolina Panthers offense, was a little inconsistent. At times, the tight end Pro-Bowler was spot-on with analysis and, conversely, there were moments where his monotone delivery made it sound like he wanted to be elsewhere. Olsen’s a work in progress and should get better with seasoning and if retirement is in the future, don’t be surprised that this is his NFL broadcast tryout. Sideline reporter Jenny Taft handled her duties with the same professionalism that she displays with her work on FS1.
The ESPN pairing of Tom Hart and Joey Galloway for Sunday’s Dallas/St. Louis game played it safe and provided a solid base and gave breathing room to all the player and coach microphones. Former NFL kicker, and current WWE broadcaster, Pat McAfee (the only notable connection between the two McMahon brands to the public) was extremely entertaining but almost was a little too involved as it sounded like he was a part of a three-man booth, a component found in all WWE content. He probably stood out as the most intriguing performer of the weekend but didn’t really work alongside the best play-by-play team. In fact, he kind of overshadowed his partners and I could feel a little tension at times between him and Galloway. That being said, don’t be surprised if he moves into the primary coverage as the season progresses and most definitely into the post-season role at sideline reporting.
Just out of sheer enthusiasm, Levy and McElroy get the nod for best combo in the booth with McAfee and Haurd also receiving high-end reviews on the field.
OVERALL GRADE: B-
The first weekend from the XFL certainly had their fair share of strengths and weaknesses but it certainly wasn’t the disaster that some might have projected. I also think there was a lot of skepticism concerning that the main player who oversaw the disastrous first version was still in the captain’s chair. McMahon was no where to be found this weekend and I thought that was a good call. There wasn’t anything embarrassing at all so I consider that a pretty huge victory. So a low B assessment is a fair result. Had the BattleHawks not won Sunday, I probably would have given this weekend a C. Maybe the XFL just caught me in a good mood.
Game of the Week: Seattle vs. DC Stinker of Week: New York vs. Tampa Bay
Even with the better than average total grade, it’ll be a hard for me to commit to all four weekend games until late April. Just because they were more graphically aesthetic and contained the better announcers, I’ll probably stick exclusively to the ABC/ESPN presentations. And of course, I’ll follow the BattleHawks because I support local sports. I would encourage you to do so as well. Get tickets for the February 23 home opener at this link.