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The Relaunch Of XFL

Feb 8, 2020
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Last Sunday, the NFL season came to a close with the Super Bowl. Today, though, there is a new option for football fans struggling with withdrawal - the start of another league, the XFL. This is actually a reincarnation of the XFL, which was first launched in 2001 to mixed reviews. It was known for innovations like putting player nicknames on jerseys but also for some not great football, which is one reason it lasted just one season.

Oliver Luck, the former president of NFL Europe, a former pro quarterback, is the new league's commissioner. He visited our studios today and described how he felt when XFL founder Vince McMahon asked him to join.

OLIVER LUCK: I was a little bit skeptical precisely because of what you said - so the litany of mistakes that were made back in 2001. But I was assured that we would build this the right way with 100% focus on football. And all the other stuff that the XFL was known for - some of the gimmicks, if you will - those are all consigned to the dustbin.

MARTIN: Well, it is my understanding just from the reporting that the XFL lost $70 million in that one season. What gives you confidence that this is the right time to relaunch it? And, you know, why now? And why do you think it'll be sustainable, obviously?

LUCK: Right. I think there are three things. One is our founder, Vince. He's got the resources and has given us because of those resources a long time to plan. The second one is all of our games are going to be either on Fox or ESPN or ABC. So no other league has ever started with the visibility that these two media companies will give us.

And the third thing is the game has really been elevated, and as a result, the players that are available to us - sort of the 500 best players in the country not under contract to another professional football league - these guys are good. Now, having said that, we know it's a challenge, and we're going into this eyes wide open. But we think we've got a pretty good shot at establishing a league that people want to watch.

MARTIN: Since the XFL last operated, there's been a lot more focus on player safety, OK. The XFL has both a shorter halftime and a shorter play clock for players to rest between plays. The XFL is also allowing younger players to compete professionally than the NFL. You once said that the XFL could technically select players directly from high school.

Now, I think a lot of people will recognize your name. I mean, your son Andrew Luck surprised a lot of people a few months ago by retiring at the age of 29 while citing his history of injuries. So why wouldn't reasonable people be concerned that you're subjecting other people's kids to something that you wouldn't want for your own?

LUCK: We're making the game safer. Our kickoff - when folks tune in on ABC or Fox this weekend, they'll see a kickoff that looks different. We think it's a - in fact, we know it's a lot safer, and that's what the doctors have told us, because we're eliminating that run-up, right? The sprint that causes the - you know, with that velocity, you have a pretty significant collision.

So as we looked at all of the rules that were - we've implemented, all of our differences, our innovations compared to the National Football League, we think that it makes more sense because we are safer, quite honestly. So - but the game is still a physical game, and it always will be.

MARTIN: How would you persuade parents of a high-school student that this is a safe option for him?

LUCK: Well...

MARTIN: For him because I presume this is still all-male.

LUCK: Yeah. So yeah, it's a little bit nuanced, and if I could, I'll explain. So the National Football League has an eligibility requirement. You have to be three years out of high school. So we're not subject to that agreement. So theoretically, we could sign up a high school senior at age 18 or a college freshman. We haven't done that.

We want the best sort of 500 players or so that we can possibly get, and the best 500 players typically have a very similar background. They've played three or four years of college football. They're mature. They're professional. It's very difficult for us to imagine a case where a high school senior - let's say he's 18 years old - would be able to really compete against...

MARTIN: Why not take it off the table...

LUCK: Well...

MARTIN: ...As a safety issue?

LUCK: Now, there may be a situation where an 18-year-old college freshman says, we'd like - I need to play football. I've got to earn some money to support my family. I've got, you know, illness in my family, and I don't really care about the academics. So if that option ever becomes available, we might take a look at it. But at this point, everybody we have is somebody who's played at least a couple three years of college football.

MARTIN: You've also said or it's been reported about the league that protests will not be allowed. Is that accurate?

LUCK: Well, we've asked our players and we require our players to stand for the national anthem, so...

MARTIN: OK. But my only question about this is that why might - why not make that another way in which you distinguish yourself from the NFL - in allowing people to express themselves? Because I take it that you think that that's not fan-friendly. But some fans do like seeing players express themselves politically. So why...

LUCK: Players have numerous opportunities to express themselves with all the platforms that exist today. So, you know, standing for the national anthem we believe is a part of their responsibility as players in our league. But we think it's important to have that - you know, that requirement for our players.

MARTIN: Why?

LUCK: We think it's important. We think it's part of what we as a league should do.

MARTIN: Any thoughts about Colin Kaepernick?

LUCK: Great football player. I - you know, I'm not going to talk about any particular player outside of the group of guys that we have because we think - again, we've got the best 500 or so players under contract who aren't in the National Football League or in other professional leagues.

MARTIN: But he's not either. So I think the question becomes, why not distinguish yourself from the NFL by offering an opportunity to somebody who has a track record as a great player, who has a lot of following? Was that ever part of your consideration?

LUCK: We gave it some thought. We have some pretty significant salary restrictions, you know. We're a start-up league, so we want to make sure that we can be fiscally responsible and fiscally prudent. And the, you know, salary requirements that some folks, you know, shared with us were in our case exorbitant, so we, you know, couldn't go down that path.

MARTIN: Are you saying that you approached him or his representatives, and he wasn't willing to talk to you because of salary requirements? Is that what you're saying?

LUCK: I'm saying that we spoke with his representative, and the salary requirements that were broached in that conversation were exorbitant and certainly out of our range.

MARTIN: But you would consider it if he were reasonable in his requirements.

LUCK: I don't know. That was well over a year ago, so I don't know what kind of shape, you know, Colin is in. And, you know, we haven't followed that because obviously, again, we want the best players who are interested in playing in our league. That's, you know, pretty much a requisite for our job.

MARTIN: What do you think fans will be most excited about?

LUCK: Well, you know, we did a lot of surveys with fans, a lot of focus groups, a lot of market research. And what they told us - well, when asked what they would change, they basically said, listen - we love the game, but we've got to make it a little bit faster. We've got to pick up the pace a little bit. It drags sometimes - too much idle time, too much downtime.

So the game that we've designed, we've got a 25-second clock versus the 40-second clock that the NFL has. We believe it's an up-tempo, fast-paced game. But I think fans will come and say, wow, this all got done in less than three hours, and I watched a good football game.

And - this is very important - and, you know, it only costs 20 bucks to buy a ticket in the lower bowl of a stadium. That's a big deal. It's obviously expensive to go attend, you know, NFL games or major college games, so we think we've got a great value proposition for our fans as well.

MARTIN: That is Oliver Luck. He is the new commissioner of the reincarnated XFL, which kicks off today.

Commissioner Luck, thanks so much for talking to us.

LUCK: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: As you might imagine, we have reached out to Colin Kaepernick's representatives for a response but have not yet received a reply Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.