The NFL brand took a major hit in 2017.
The league failed to address the anti-American anthem protests that drove fans away, nor properly deal with the growing concern of head injuries.
But now the NFL will have to face a challenge it never saw coming.
Vince McMahon announced he was resurrecting the failed XFL in 2020, but another rival football is beating McMahon to the punch and launching one in 2019.
The league has some heavy hitters behind it, so it has a chance to stick around for awhile.
While Vince McMahon promises to bring back a revamped XFL in 2020, a son of McMahon’s partner in the original short-lived XFL venture said his football league will come first. And some big NFL names will be involved.
Charlie Ebersol, who directed a documentary on the XFL that aired last year as part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, announced Tuesday that his league, the Alliance of American Football, plans to debut Feb. 9, 2019, the week after Super Bowl LIII. The season will run 10 weeks and will have 50-man teams.
Ebersol’s father, Dick Ebersol, was McMahon’s partner in the original XFL and is a longtime television executive.
To help him steer the league, Charlie Ebersol brought on former NFL general manager Bill Polian, currently an analyst for ESPN. The player side will be overseen by former Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, and the team side will be guided by former USC standout and executive J.K. McKay.
Advisers to the league also will include former NFL players Hines Ward and Justin Tuck, as well as Dick Ebersol.
While McMahon’s league is backed by McMahon’s money, Charlie Ebersol’s league is backed by others, including former Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen, Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund and The Chernin Group, which, among other investments, owns a significant share of Barstool Sports.
“I think where businesses like this fail is that they expect to have ludicrous and unrealistic ticket and media deal projections in Year 1,” Ebersol said. “Our investors here understand that it’s a seven- to 10-year plan.”
Unlike McMahon, whose announcement came without a media plan, Ebersol said that his league, made up of players who didn’t make the cut for the NFL, will have the initial game and the championship game on CBS and one matchup per week on CBS Sports Network. Other games will be available on the league’s app, which Ebersol said promises to integrate live fantasy play into the broadcasts.
“Fifty-nine million people play fantasy and 20 million people play only fantasy football,” Ebersol. “We have to be able to take advantage of the people who just stop playing fantasy when the NFL season ends.”
Like McMahon, Ebersol said the success of the league will live and die with good football, something that he thinks is achievable.
“There are 28,000 Division I football players. Only 1,700 have NFL jobs,” Ebersol said. “We’re looking for those Kurt Warners working in grocery stores, and we think we will find them.”
The eight teams in cities that will be announced in the next three months will start by having regional drafts, protecting eligible players who played in the local community for their college days.
Along with good football and names the local market knows, Ebersol said a hallmark of the league will be no TV timeouts and 60 percent fewer commercials, as well as an innovative approach to broadcasting.
There also will be no kickoffs (the ball will be placed automatically at the 25-yard line) and no onside kicks. The losing team will just start on its own 35-yard line with fourth-and-10. Play clocks will be 30 seconds and every touchdown will be followed by a two-point conversion attempt.
The NFL is still the king of football, but hubris combined with poor leadership can topple any organization.
The NFL better be careful, or else more fans could be siphoned off.