BY Art Thiel 08:45PM 02/15/2020

Thiel: Dragons play what looks like ‘a real game’

The new XFL debuted Saturday with impressive results. The Dragons won, 17-9, and more than 29,000 showed to watch Jim Zorn win, as they did 40 years earlier.

Seattle took the early lead in XFL attendance Saturday. / Art Thiel, Sportspress Northwest

Forty-four years ago as a rookie quarterback, Jim Zorn needed five games to get his first pro football win. Sunday as a rookie XFL coach, he was a winner in two games. The man is improving as a learner.

He learned then, and knows now, to beat Tampa Bay requires defense, not his offense.

In 1976, the Seattle Seahawks beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 13-10, for the initial victory in their NFL history.  In 2020, the Seattle Dragons beat the Tampa Bay Vipers, 17-9, the first triumph in their XFL history.

Different eras, different leagues, different stadiums, same Seattle story — the audio riot generated by fans left a mark on the opponents.

“I was excited for what the crowd brought — the enthusiasm and the backing,” Zorn said of the rambunctious 29,172 on hand in the lower bowl, easily the largest gathering in the infant league’s first six games. “It wasn’t quite as loud as full a stadium, but it was loud for our players. For our players to see so many fans in Dragons gear, and (video displays) our marketing  group put together, I was really excited.

“It felt like . . . a real game.”

That was the key to the afternoon. For the more casual sports fan, the XFL seems to have emerged from mud and leaves into . . . something. The questions are why, and was it any good.

The why is simple. The NFL for decades has been such a colossal cultural and financial success that there have numerous attempts to grab onto the freight train. To capture even a fraction of the the cash around football intrigues promotional whirlwinds like Vince McMahon, who birthed the hugely successful WWE and in 2001 tried a goofier, sleazier version of the XFL. It died, justifiably and swiftly, in one year.

Seems like entrepreneurs are always trying to do pro football. Per USA Today, here’s the list of upstarts, mostly spring leagues, only one of which has succeeded:

  • Alliance of American Football (eight weeks, 2019)
  • Fall Experimental Football League (2014-15)
  • United Football League (2009-12)
  • XFL (2001)
  • World League of American Football/NFL Europe/NFL Europa (1991-2007)
  • United States Football League (1983-85)
  • World Football League (1974-75)
  • Continental Football League (1965-69)
  • American Football League (1960-69)
  • All-American Football Conference (1946-49)
  • Pacific Coast Professional Football League  (1940-49)

Only the AFL survived, going head to head with the NFL and forcing a merger in 1966 that spawned the Super Bowl.

McMahon is at it again, funding this tamer, yet innovative, version with $500 million and a lucrative contract with ABC/ESPN. He put teams in eight cities, seven of which have NFL teams, and the eighth, St. Louis, had one. The schedule is 10 regular-season games in the spring, two semifinal playoff games and a championship, positioning the enterprise as complementary to, not competitive with, the NFL, which has no affiliation or investment in the operation.

But everyone involved — players, coaches, scouts, front office — aspires to be in the NFL. Even many fans feel the same way. Priced out of NFL, XFL tickets start at $24.

There is also a cultural change that’s influential in the startup — the liberalization of attitudes and laws about gambling. The XFL wants to be out front. Their broadcasters talk readily of point spreads — forbidden by NFL and its network partners — and their TV screens will include betting information.

“This notion of embracing the spread,” XFL president Jeffrey Pollack told ESPN, “means that our mission, our design and our business infrastructure are all geared to the sports betting future that’s coming fast.

“We see a lot of pros to leaning into the sports betting world. It’s what our fans want. We don’t see cons, we see opportunity.”

But will gamblers trust the outcomes? That brings us to the question of quality.

Everyone in the endeavor has a financial stake in being serious and winning, because it’s a live, real-time audition for the NFL. The XFL basically is akin to AAA minor league baseball, although there were moments Sunday of AA and A ball.  Aside from rules changes — a thorough explainer of those can be found here — the biggest early differentiators are the quality of quarterbacks and offensive lines.

If difference-making QBs and O-linemen are hard to find for the NFL, take a look at the XFL. It’s why the scores so far have been relatively low. Defenses will always be more efficient than offenses that take time to develop.

Most of these players have been or will be candidates for positions 46 to 53 on an NFL roster, plus the 10-man practice squad. Starting-caliber talents were few Sunday.

Didn’t seem to make a difference to the partiers on hand.

XFL Commissioner Oliver Luck was here, pleased but not surprised with the response. He played in the Kingdome, visited Husky Stadium when his son Andrew’s team, Stanford, played Washington with Jake Locker, and worked for the MLS Houston Dynamo when the MLS club came to play the Sounders in front of 45,000 fans.

“We knew how passionate people are up here,” he said in the Dragons locker room. “It’s part of their DNA to have the most intimidating place possible. I don’t want to say it’s what we expected, but it’s incredible what’s happened here — Seahawks, Huskies, Sounders.

“Fans were dressed up as dragons. I feel this was great for game one.”

The XFL’s openers last weekend, including a 31-19 loss by the Dragons in Washington, D.C., had impressive TV ratings:

 

Then again, the novelty for the first iteration of he XFL in 2001 wore off quickly.

It’s a small sample size, but this more modest business plan, lathered with some financial patience, looks as if it has a chance at staying power, since America’s lust for football and gambling remain strong.

“Eventually, we’re going to say, ‘It felt like a real XFL game,'” Zorn said. “That’s new to even say, isn’t it?”

Zorn is still learning. You go, Z-Man.


YourThoughts

  • jafabian

    It’s very obvious this isn’t the NFL. The players are hesitant at times, the play inconsistent and there’s times it reminds me of the 1987 NFL strike games. But we got a win! Winning solves a lot of problems. And say what you will this league does have some fun moments. Hearing the coaches call plays is interesting though I’m wondering how long before teams start taking advantage of that feature. The Patriots are probably petitioning the NFL to adopt that.

    The turnout for this game doesn’t surprise me at all. But let’s see if it remains at this level.

    • art thiel

      I don’t think anyone was expecting NFL level play. The obvious distinctions are speed and quickness. Until you see elite NFL athletes paired against more ordinary XFL athletes do you understand the remarkable gulf between them.

    • LarryLurex70

      You’re definitely not the only one who felt a bit of a replacement player-type vibe. But, unlike the scabs, I actually watched these guys. But, not necessarily because of any genuine interest, but, rather just because it was on TV. Much like when we had the Washington Stealth, or even Tacoma Stars before that. Honestly, I don’t see myself watching XFL with a genuine interest in the same way as I occasionally might when the CFL is on. However, if these guys and their league eventually form a legit partnership with the NFL, I might reconsider. I’m pretty sure I never will if they don’t, though. I like pro football, but not THAT much.

      • art thiel

        Fan interest for startups is spread across a wide spectrum. Adherents at one end, skeptics at the other.

        If McMahon can generate interest in big markets to make the XFL mostly sustainable, the NFL will partner to start teams in Birmingham, Portland, San Antonio, Salt Lake City, Sacramento, etc.

        • LarryLurex70

          For the sake of optics, I’d really like to see as many teams as possible NOT playing in 60-70,000-seat NFL stadiums. Paring them down to MLS venues holding 1/3 of that would be a step in the right direction if you ask me. The Seattle example aside, they’re not going to see massive crowds league-wide, and it’d be great to see the teams playing in modern stadiums that allow for more intimacy than we see in the NFL.

          • art thiel

            MLS-sized stadiums mostly work for the XFL, but there aren’t that many across the U.S. where the XFL may want to be. Much depends on how patient McMahon wants to be.

          • LarryLurex70

            True. The majority of them seem to be in the ‘burbs outside the major city name they’re representing. I still say the KeyArena site would’ve been perfect for a 27-33,000-seater. But, that’s a moot point now.

  • Husky73

    Jerry Seinfeld did a bit about cheering for laundry. We have no idea who these players are, they have no connection to the community, most will come and go quickly….but, hey! Their uniforms say “SEATTLE,” so we root for them. If you think about it, it’s not dissimilar to other big time sports. The Zorn connection is a good one. He has always seemed like such a genuinely nice human being.

    • art thiel

      All true. All startup teams/leagues face the same problem: Why should a fan care? Geography is always he easiest solution. Success is critical, but the hardest to achieve. Spectacle helps but is ephemeral.

      Until consumers get to know the sport and its people, it’s a take it or leave it proposition.

  • Kirkland

    Pro football badly needs a developmental/feeder league. There will be players who need extra experience after college or who were simply overlooked (see Kurt Warner and the Seahawks’ own Jon Kitna from NFL Europe), and game officials especially need a place to gain game action. I enjoyed watching the Alliance of American Football and its fast pace from its 35-second clock — there was one first half that took exactly an hour of real time — but not securing enough seed money sunk them.

    I’m not a fan of Vince McMahon, but for the good of pro football I’d love to see this league succeed for that developmental aspect. I’d recommend they reserve San Antonio as an expansion or relocation city; their AAF team drew 30,000 a game.

    • Archangelo Spumoni

      Well stated and thanks. San Antonio would support an NFL team as well as anybody including the giant markets.
      The game was entertaining, the fans got their money’s worth, and more will attend next game(s).
      And we are reminded that of a great many sports, NFL quarterback is the hardest position to learn.

      • art thiel

        San Antonio is the best market without an NFL team. The one weakness is the low level of big corporations that help subsidize pro sports elsewhere.

    • art thiel

      The XFL could be as the G League is to the NBA. And when the plantation of the NCAA collapses, the freed laborers could find jobs in an XFL that plays more games in more cities in the spring.

      • Joe_Fan

        I really don’t see the NCAA football game collapsing though Art. Do you, really? There is so much money tied up in it, from stadiums, to TV/cable contracts to coaches, etc. Maybe some players will be poached away to the XFL, a la the NBA?

        • Kirkland

          I can see the XFL poaching sophomores and juniors, as the NFL successfully won the Maurice Clarett (sp?) ruling limiting early leavers to the senior class.

          • art thiel

            Possible, but I can also see the NFL leaning on McMahon not to screw up the golden goose.

        • art thiel

          I’m being a bit facetious, but — just a bit. There is so much wrong structurally with the NCAA business model that once the marketplace forces players to be paid, the enterprise teeters. Whether it collapses depends on whether school presidents can usher in major reforms that are realistic answers.

          The needs of programs vary so widely that reform for one group of big schools is the death knell for others. The NCAA has been postponing this reckoning for decades. It can’t keep doing it forever. I believe Chris Petersen knows this deep down, but he’ll never say so publicly because of the immediate consequences to Lake and UW, and the rest of D-I.

  • Joe_Fan

    I’ve watched a little bit of the XFL on TV. This week I saw a bit of the Dragon’s game and saw another game today (Dallas?). I kinda like how they interview the players immediately on the sidelines after making big plays, I like the kickoff process, and I like how the coaches are mic’ed up. I also like how the defense gets to keep the opposing team’s ball when there’s a turnover. The QB play leaves a lot to be desired however. I think I’ll keep watching for now.

    • art thiel

      I think many fans like the TV tricks, but the financial stakes in the NFL are way too high to allow such leaks. But feel free to enjoy it in the XFL, and possibly learn things about strategy and tactics.

  • woofer

    Your list of “upstart” leagues gives short shrift to the postwar All-American Football Conference, which like the AFL forced the NFL into a merger although on a lesser scale. Three teams from AAFC, the Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Colts, were incorporated into the NFL in 1950. Cleveland under Paul Brown’s leadership, starring Otto Graham and Marion Motley, was the best team in pro football and won the NFL championship in its inaugural season.

    And who can ever forget Squirmin’ Herman Wedemeyer? He was the first great Hawaiian player to make the leap to success on the mainland, greatest football player in St Mary’s history (back when USF also played major ball), and closed out his versatile career on Hawaii Five-O after hanging up his AAFC cleats. Fame, alas, is so fleeting!

    • art thiel

      Thanks for the archival deep dive. I must shame myself for forgetting Squirmin’ Herman. Best nickname until the Throwin’ Samoan.

      • woofer

        In my antiquity I have to confess that I actually saw Squirmin’ Herman play for the LA Dons. I was a small kid and it was on black and white TV. The AAFC went to televising games before the NFL did.

  • Husky73

    By the way, nice photo.