Don’t count out the XFL

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The last thing I expected the weekend after the Super Bowl was for my Twitter feed to be flooded with football highlights. My only guess would’ve been separation anxiety that saw fans reliving their favorite memories from the season, failing to accept that football was gone until autumn. Nope.

Welcome to the XFL. It was anything but a coincidence that the refounded league chose its opening weekend when post-football depression was at its worst. I knew the hype around the XFL was brewing, but it wasn’t until the NFL season ended that it fully emerged out of the shadows.

Media outlets on every platform began advertising the league and its innovative vision, and while I was intrigued, I had my hesitations. After seeing how quickly the Alliance of American Football failed last year after having similar hype, my expectations for the XFL were tempered.

But the moment I tuned into the opening game between the Seattle Dragons and DC Defenders, I was pleasantly surprised. It really felt like I was watching a professional football game.

And rather than being only accessible via subscription-based streaming services, the games were being broadcasted by the likes of ESPN, Fox and ABC — the same folks who televise the NFL.

They had top-tier commentators and sideline reporters. They had game-changing plays. They had roars from the crowd. It was everything you would expect from a true football experience.

As far as I could tell, it was about as smooth of an opening weekend as the league could’ve hoped for. While the numbers weren’t anywhere near those of NFL games, three of the four opening weekend XFL games outdrew every single NBA and college basketball game from the week before. Not a bad start.

To be clear, the XFL will never reach the allure and exceptional talent level that the NFL embodies. I’m not suggesting anything close to that. What the league will do, however, is satisfy fans’ football cravings while continuing to push the boundaries of the sport both on the field and off. Essentially, they are giving fans what the NFL won’t.

If it was an exact carbon copy of the NFL’s rules and style of play, the XFL would’ve been doomed from the get-go, as the primary difference between the leagues would’ve simply been the enormous talent gap.

But to be frank, there are many aspects of the XFL that its counterpart would be wise to implement. The new kickoff rules not only make the game safer for players, but it’s only a matter of time before we see returners starting to break loose. Additionally, having midgame player interviews and listening in on coaching play calls immensely increases fan engagement. Add on the improvements the XFL has made to officiating procedures, and Commissioner Roger Goodell suddenly has some pressure to improve the relatively stagnant NFL.

Don’t get me wrong, there are certain things that the NFL won’t, and shouldn’t, implement. Many aspects of the XFL rulebook are quite gimmicky — such as the ability to make multiple forward passes and the option to go for a 1, 2 or 3 point conversion after a touchdown — but those are what the XFL needs to draw in fans. Who doesn’t want to watch a hockey-style overtime shootout?

Only time will tell if the XFL can become a stable source of excitement for football fans year after year, beginning in February. But based on my first impressions, the league seems to be achieving two of its goals: to be a prove-it league for aspiring NFL players, and to put an entertaining product out to the fans. Watching football is supposed to be fun, and the XFL absolutely delivers in that department.

Shailin Singh covers football. Contact him at [email protected].