Here’s a snapshot of the United States in 2023.
The NFL completed its season Sunday with a Super Bowl that was viewed by 113 million people, making it the third-most-watched television show of all time. On Saturday, the XFL will return to the field to kick off its 10-week regular-season schedule. On April 15, the USFL will start its own 10-week season.
In all, there will be 20 consecutive weekends of nationally televised pro football from now until early July. The NFL hasn’t confirmed its preseason schedule yet, but a look at the calendar suggests that 2023 will deliver pro football games on 46 of its 52 weekends.
Purchased out of bankruptcy in 2020 by Dany Garcia, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and RedBird Capital Partners, the XFL has spent 2½ years in product development. It now has more than 800 full-time employees, an exclusive agreement with ESPN/Disney to broadcast and stream all 43 of its games and a calendar that will make players available to transition into NFL offseason programs at the start of May.
“We want to be a league of opportunity and innovation,” league president Russ Brandon said. “And we want to continue to advance the game of football and to develop players for it.”
Let’s take a closer look at the details within this iteration of the XFL, how it will fit into the larger football ecosystem, its plans for differentiating itself from the USFL and the extent to which it wants to work with the NFL.
Is this the same XFL we saw in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic?
In some ways, yes. Garcia, Johnson and RedBird bought the league’s intellectual property and other assets from Vince McMahon’s Alpha Entertainment in August 2020 for $15 million.
Where has it been?
The new owners briefly considered a single-market season for 2021, but the timing of the sale process would have made it a tight turn. It then spent part of that year exploring a partnership with the CFL before ultimately deciding to remain independent and build toward a 2023 return to the field.
That 2020 iteration was a descendent of the original XFL that played one season in 2001 through a partnership between McMahon’s WWE and NBC Sports. It leaned heavily into a pro wrestling schtick, deciding opening possession by a scramble for the ball rather than a coin toss, encouraging confrontations between coaches and aggressive sideline reporters (one was retired wrestler Jesse Ventura) and allowing players to use alternative names on their jerseys. (Running back Rod Smart used the nickname “He Hate Me.”)
McMahon disavowed that aesthetic for the 2020 version, deciding instead to make it more like a traditional football league but with designs on reimagining the game through new rules and access-based broadcast storytelling. The USFL adopted many of those ideas when it relaunched in the spring of 2022.
What is the basic structure of the league?
Eight teams are divided into two divisions to play a 10-week regular season. The top two teams in each division will play a round of semifinal playoff games April 29-30 before a championship game to be played May 13.
The league made three changes to its franchise locations, moving out of New York, Los Angeles and Tampa, Florida, and into Las Vegas, San Antonio and Orlando, Florida.
Here are the division arrangements:
North Division: D.C. Defenders, Seattle Sea Dragons, St. Louis BattleHawks, Vegas Vipers
South Division: Arlington Renegades, Houston Roughnecks, Orlando Guardians, San Antonio Brahmas
Will they operate out of their home markets or from a central location?
For 2023, the XFL has employed a hybrid structure. All eight teams will practice in or around a hub in Arlington, Texas, where training camp has been underway since early January. Teams will travel to home markets for games that will be played in a combination of NFL/college stadiums, converted baseball ballparks and soccer fields.
Here are the home venues for each team:
Arlington: Choctaw Stadium
Houston: TDECU Stadium
Orlando: Camping World Stadium
Vegas: Cashman Field
San Antonio: Alamodome
Seattle: Lumen Field
St. Louis: The Dome at America’s Center
D.C.: Audi Field
What are expectations for attendance?
There are likely to be significant variations in game attendance. St. Louis averaged 28,541 fans per game in 2020, but the overall league average was 18,614. The lowest-drawing 2020 markets, New York and Los Angeles, are not part of the league in 2023. Brandon did not offer an attendance goal but noted that players and coaches have made multiple trips to each market during training camp to begin making connections.
“They’ve done an outstanding job of continuing to light up the excitement in our markets,” Brandon said.
The XFL began selling season-ticket packages last fall with price points that started at $100 per seat for the season in seven of the eight cities. The lowest-priced season tickets for games in St. Louis are $125.
Did the XFL keep its unique rules from 2020?
The league hired Dean Blandino, the longtime NFL officiating executive who supervised referees for the 2020 XFL, as its vice president of officiating and rules innovation. In that role, Blandino has preserved most of the 2020 rules with a few tweaks.
The XFL kickoff will once again put the kicking team and the returning team 5 yards apart. No one except the kicker and returner can move until the ball is caught or is on the ground for three seconds, an effort to encourage returns and discourage touchbacks. The arrangement prompted XFL teams in 2020 to return 92% of kickoffs; the NFL rate this season was 40%.
After touchdowns, teams will choose one of three options from scrimmage: a 1-point-attempt play from the 2-yard line, a 2-point play from the 5 and a 3-point play from the 10. Blandino said most coaches are likely to use the 2-point conversion unless end-game math requires a different approach.
The XFL, meanwhile, has reinterpreted a rule that has long vexed NFL fans. If a team fumbles into its opponent’s end zone, and the ball goes out of bounds without being recovered, it will not be a touchback. Instead, the offense will retain possession at the point of the fumble.
After initiating all reviews from the replay booth in 2020, the XFL will give its 2023 coaches one challenge per game — a “golden challenge,” Brandon called it — to use on any play or penalty in a game. The NFL, by contrast, does not allow coaches or replay officials to review penalties.
The league tweaked its overtime structure to consist of a minimum of three plays from the opponents’ 5-yard line, per team, rather than five. There were no overtime games during the XFL’s 2020 season to test the original rule.
Finally, teams will have an alternative to the onside kick in the fourth quarter. Instead of kicking, they can line up for one offensive play to get 15 yards in order to maintain possession after a score.
What will be different from 2020?
In addition to the hub practice model, Brandon pointed to the league’s uniforms, which were redesigned by Under Armor.
Brandon also noted that seven of the eight head coaches will be different. Arlington’s Bob Stoops returned from the 2020 league, but the remainder are new. The list includes a mix of former NFL head coaches and prominent players:
D.C.: Reggie Barlow
St. Louis: Anthony Becht
Orlando: Terrell Buckley
Seattle: Jim Haslett
Houston: Wade Phillips
San Antonio: Hines Ward
Vegas: Rod Woodson
Overall, however, the XFL did not feel compelled to overhaul the 2020 product.
“That version of the XFL was obviously moving along well on the football side,” Brandon said. “Unfortunately our whole entire world got crippled by the pandemic.”
What about players?
The XFL has held two drafts and, since the start of the year, has added about 50 players who finished the NFL season on practice squads. Most of the 51 players per roster are what Doug Whaley, the XFL’s senior vice president of player personnel, would classify as those who would rank as Nos. 53-75 on an NFL training camp roster.
Said Whaley: “It’s players that need to determine, and we as a league need to determine, whether they’re really just good college players that aren’t good enough to be NFL players or if they are NFL players that, for whatever circumstances, haven’t had the light shined on them to show that they can make it. There’s a tranche of players in there that can play really good football, and as we’ve been saying and I’ve been saying, we are either going to be a launching pad for NFL careers or a soft landing where people can still live out their dream of playing professional football and then transition to another phase of their life.”
With that said, there are some notable former NFL players mixed throughout the league. That list includes:
WR Geronimo Allison (Vegas)
LB Vic Beasley (Vegas)
WR Martavis Bryant (Vegas)
QB Ben DiNucci (Seattle)
DB Matt Elam (Orlando)
WR Josh Gordon (Seattle)
DB Will Hill (Arlington)
P Marquette King (Arlington)
QB Paxton Lynch (Orlando)
QB A.J. McCarron (St. Louis)
DL Caraun Reid (D.C.)
WR Eli Rogers (Orlando)
QB Kyle Sloter (Arlington)
P Brad Wing (San Antonio)
What are the players’ salaries?
Whaley and executive vice president of football operations Marc Ross have pitched agents on deals that would pay players $5,000 per week with a $1,000 bonus per win. Including other potential bonuses, the average player would be estimated to earn about $60,000 from training camp through the end of the season. The XFL also valued its benefits package as worth an additional $20,000, in addition to paying for housing and two meals a day during the season.
For context, NFL practice squad players will earn a minimum of $12,000 per week in 2023. The minimum salary for NFL players on the active roster in 2023 will be $750,000.
Some quarterbacks are expected to receive higher salaries, although not as high as in 2020, when the XFL signed some passers to deals worth up to $500,000.
Montez hopes XFL will be a stepping stone to get back into NFL
Seattle Sea Dragons QB Steven Montez hopes to show off his skills to NFL teams. Seattle kicks off its XFL season vs. D.C. on Sunday (8 p.m. ET on ESPN, ESPN+).
Can the XFL coexist with the USFL?
To the extent that the leagues are in competition, the USFL got a one-year head start by kicking off in the late spring of 2022. In some cases, it signed players to two-year contracts to keep them away from the XFL in 2023.
Speaking in 2022, USFL executive vice president of football operations Daryl Johnston noted his league would get past its growing pains before the XFL. But the big differentiator, Johnston said, would be Fox Sports’ ownership of the USFL and partnership with NBC.
“Let’s say the product is the same on the field, which I think is going to be a challenge for them to be able to match us,” Johnston said, “but how do you then deliver that to the fan? When you’re talking about Fox and NBC as partners, I don’t think there is a way for the XFL to match what we have created there in the ability to broadcast the USFL into television for the fans.”
Speaking earlier this month, Brandon said, “I’ve only been focused on the XFL and what we’re doing,” but he noted the timing of the XFL’s calendar, which is designed as a bridge for fans who still have football on their mind after the Super Bowl and leaves players in position to jump into NFL offseason programs.
In 2022, the XFL and NFL reached an agreement to collaborate on innovation programs, officiating initiatives and protecting the health of players. Brandon said at the time that the XFL could serve as a “petri dish” for the NFL to experiment with proposed rules, test new equipment and develop prospective officials and coaches.
What are the XFL’s broadcast plans?
The league signed an exclusive agreement with ESPN/Disney to air every game while also collaborating on other content. Seven games will be broadcast on ABC, 22 on a combination of ESPN and ESPN2 and 15 on FX. ESPN+ will stream every game.
All games will have two broadcast crew members on the sideline to interact with players and coaches for in-game access. Blandino also indicated replay decisions and some officiating discussions will be part of the broadcast.
This week, the XFL announced a docuseries titled “Player 54: Chasing the XFL Dream” will debut Thursday on ESPN2. “Player 54” refers to co-owner Dwayne Johnson, who played college football at Miami but did not make a 53-man NFL roster.
What would success look like in 2023 for the XFL?
For different reasons, neither of the XFL’s predecessors — in 2001 and 2020 — made it past one season. So the first measure of success will be getting to a 2024 season.
Brandon, however, said the league wants to demonstrate it is fit for a long-term run well beyond a second season. The XFL has built out a league office that includes 12 senior executives as well as separate business and football operations departments for each team.
“We’ve taken so much time and energy in trying to build this the right way,” he said. “[Ownership] has allowed us to build an incredible senior level executive staff and in just building the organizational design to this. We’re very focused on long-term sustainable success. That is the overall goal here. We’re trying to phase things in. We’re not trying to over-index everything in Year 1. We were very disciplined in structuring this league over time.”