The D.C. Defenders and Houston Roughnecks were the winners on the first day of play in the new-look XFL. If those results interest enough people, then the XFL will be a success. If not, the league is going to go the way of the World League, Alliance of American Football or original XFL.
If too few people watch to keep the league afloat, it won’t be because the football wasn’t good enough. There are a few recognizable names, the quality of play is pretty good and there are no gimmicks to offend football purists.
But here’s the holy grail when it comes to this or any other new league: League officials have to figure out how to make fans truly care about which teams win.
That’s it. That’s just about the only thing that determines whether a sports league at any level is successful.
For instance, I’m a huge fan of high school football. UMS-Wright has been a joy to watch, as they’ve won 34 games in a row. But I don’t kid myself about the quality of football I’m watching on Friday nights.
If the Bulldogs took their years of consistent success onto the field against, say, Miles College, not only would the winning streak be over, but the result would be a 70-point blowout. Yet, I schedule my fall weekends around watching high school football, while I wouldn’t look out the window if Miles College was playing in my backyard.
The same goes for major college football compared to the NFL. The most talented college team of all time featured a roster that was populated by about 50 percent of players who would go on to have NFL careers. The worst team in NFL history was 100 percent populated by players who had NFL careers.
Every year someone wants to compare the national champions to the worst NFL team (usually an NFL team from Ohio). Every year the experts who make betting lines say the college team would be about a 30-point underdog against the downtrodden NFL team.
So, if the football in the NFL is so clearly better, then why do college football games in the SEC regularly draw 20,000 or 30,000 more fans than an NFL game?
It’s not because anybody has been bamboozled into believing they’re watching players who are better than the ones they could go see on Sundays. It’s because they have a passion for yelling “War Eagle,” “Roll Tide” and “Geaux Tigers.”
Side note: It is interesting to consider how an Alabama alumni team would fare in the NFL. No team would be better than the wide receiving trio of Julio Jones, Amari Cooper and Calvin Ridley. No team would be able to match the running back duo of Derrick Henry and Josh Jacobs. The offensive line (anchored by Ryan Kelly at center) would be good but not great, while A.J. McCarron is the only former Alabama quarterback in the league. Defensively, the secondary would be the best in the league, led by Eddie Jackson, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Marlon Humphrey. Rashaan Evans and Dont’a Hightower would be very good at linebacker, while the defensive line would be deep and above average.
That’s a lot of star power, but that doesn’t mean a college team could be competitive with even the worst NFL team.
That brings us back to the XFL, which features players who look like they could compete with the best college teams. But what’s it going to take to make us care enough about these teams to watch every week? It starts with having a rooting interest in some of the players.
The Tampa Bay Vipers are quarterbacked by Aaron Murray. Really? My first thought when I saw Murray introduced in the starting lineup was to say out loud, “What, Jeff Wickersham and Clint Stoerner weren’t available?”
My second thought was to wonder if Mobile native Nick Fairley would be willing to go along with a joke and announce he was coming out of retirement to join the XFL. If you remember, Fairley punished Murray in the 2010 Auburn-Georgia game with a series of hits that were always vicious and sometimes legal.
If Fairley was around, Murray would probably decide he should devote all his time to his day job as a college football analyst on CBS Sports Network.
And unless enough of us build a real connection to these teams and players, we will all be left with a void until the fall when the real football season begins.
Randy Kennedy, who has been a leading voice on the Gulf Coast sports scene for 18 years, writes a weekly column for Lagniappe. His sports talk show airs weekdays on the new Sports Talk 99.5 from 7-10 a.m. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter: @kennedy_randy.
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