Are you ready for some football? Or I suppose are you ready for some more football? Regardless of your answer, that’s exactly what you got starting last weekend with the launch of the new and improved XFL, the resurgence of the short-lived and ill-fated football league founded in 2001 as a partnership between NBC sports and World Wrestling Entertainment, or WWE. Games from that one year experiment were something of a hybrid between actual football and a Mad Max film. After a record first weekend, viewership sank like the Titanic while players simply hoped to survive the season without catastrophic injury, something difficult to achieve given its aggressive rule structure.
Of course, this revival is not your father’s, or perhaps at least your older brother’s XFL. Unlike its predecessor, the new league aspires towards a more, shall we say traditional form of football. They’ve also brought on football legend Oliver Luck as their commissioner and aspire more to the athletic than the outlandish. No one has nickname on their jersey, and uniforms are slightly more conventional. That said, the League does have several rules that are different from the NFL. For example, they line up differently for kick offs to make that play a bit more exciting – and less injury prone than their first effort. They’ve also shortened the time in-between plays to quicken the game, and all skill players have an earpiece in their helmet. Players can get interviewed on the field during games, and broadcasts keep viewers updated on betting lines – which might be a reason to tune in. Perhaps best put, the XFL is trying to build a football game more appealing to a generation raised on video games who may lack the patience for a typical NFL 3-hour marathon.
Interestingly, this isn’t the first new football league to debut recently. Last year, the Alliance of American Football launched and folded before finishing a single full season. The problem seemed two-fold – first, they didn’t have a stable television deal, and second, there wasn’t anything all that compelling about the game. Basically, it was just a worse version of the NFL without the draw of the college game, where amateurism and allegiance makes up for the relative quality of play. The XFL shouldn’t have those same issues, at least for now, and especially since WWE head Vince McMahan seems prepared to throw a considerable share of his fortune towards the League’s success. Perhaps best put, the XFL may be the Michael Bloomberg of sports leagues. It may or may not succeed, but it’s got enough cash to stay in the race.
So I suppose the question isn’t whether the new XFL might survive longer than the old XFL, or whether they have interesting permutations that might eventually be adopted by its football big brother. The question it seems, is whether we want, or perhaps whether we need more football. We’re at a point in time where a narrative prescribed that football in the US was on the decline, either slow or precipitous, although I’d suggest the former. Fewer kids are playing in youth and high school leagues, families and fans were increasingly aware of the risks of concussions and CTE, and as a population we’re distracted by a wide range of leisure activities that don’t involve a pigskin. Add to that the ongoing stratification of media where niche audience is the expectation, and it would be hard to argue that more football should be on the menu.
Yet that said, people still watched this year, perhaps not a record numbers, but it still remains the most viewed collective media property in the US. For all the discussion of Netflix and Amazon Prime, Sunday afternoon and Monday night football dwarf even the most popular of shows. Add that to the college version, and football still reigns king across the US. Which means the prediction of its expeditious demise may be excessively premature. We may not want our kids to play football, but we will still watch with them by our side.
What does this say about us as a people? Perhaps it means we can exist in an ongoing landscape of dissonance. Not unlike how we might be fine with military action as long as our kids aren’t the ones doing the fighting. Maybe it suggests we’re more comfortable with spectator violence than one might believe – any content analysis of social media with affirm that hypothesis. Or perhaps it even means we crave the communal experience and historical context that an ongoing past time like football provides. So do we need more football? Probably not. But do we want it? That remains to be seen.
As does it seem, this XFL season. Because ready or not, more football is coming.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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