By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The football world has been giddy for the past couple of months at the thought of the return of the XFL in 2020. Turns out, they’re going to be beaten by the punch.
Charlie Ebersol — son of former longtime NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol — will be launching the Alliance of American Football along with Pro Football Hall of Famer Bill Polian, as reported Tuesday by ESPN and The Associated Press. The league will air its first game in less than a year, on Feb. 9 of 2019.
The news is fairly significant. Though the USFL and the UFL and the NFL Europe ultimately proved to be failures, Charlie Ebersol enters this business venture armed with knowledge and experience regarding what has worked and what has not worked with any league that has dared to coexist with the NFL. He produced a “30 For 30” on the XFL that aired last year, and his father was directly involved with that ill-fated XFL launch two decades ago.
From the sound of ESPN’s reporting, the league seems to be aiming to be more like the stable CFL than the exciting but volatile XFL.
“There are 28,000 Division I football players,” Charlie Ebersol said in the article. “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.”
While the prospect of an additional football season which immediately follows the Super Bowl is a welcome idea for fans, what really stands out are some rule variations that could end up making the biggest impact on the sport.
Namely, there will be no kickoffs. Teams will start with possession at their own 25-yard line. While this does eliminate onside kick attempts, teams can try to keep possession after they score. That team will be given the ball at their own 35-yard line, and will be given a fourth-and-10 to begin the “drive.” If the team converts the fourth-and-10, then the team will keep possession. If not, then the other team will gain possession.
It’s an interesting approach to the issue of the elimination of kickoffs. While the element of surprise is removed, the rule does add a slightly different element of excitement to a game. However, it’s hard to forecast how penalties might impact the strategy of such plays for both sides.
Another twist: There are no extra points. After scoring a touchdown, a team must attempt a two-point conversion, with the ball being snapped at the 2-yard line.
There appears to be a large number of football minds involved in the endeavor. Troy Polamalu will oversee the players, and former players like Justin Tuck, Hines Ward and Jaren Allen will be involved.
The league reportedly has a deal in place to air games on CBS and CBS Sports Network, as well as on the league’s mobile app. There will be eight teams, the locations and names of which will be announced in the coming months. The AP said warm-weather locations are most likely, given the February-April schedule. There will be another interesting twist there, as players who played college or pro football close to the cities of Alliance teams will be protected for that team.
It’s yet to be seen if the league will thrive or fail, but it appears to be starting in a good place, with investments from The Chernin Group, Peter Thiel, and others. But whether or not the on-field product catches on, the rule changes are almost likely to be watched very closely by the behemoth NFL. After all, though the XFL was largely considered a complete dud, the NFL “borrowed” significant elements of the lesser league’s broadcast, the most significant of which was the Skycam. Considering the NFL has been trying to limit certain elements of contact during play, especially on kickoffs, the new approach to eliminating kickoffs altogether might find its way into a discussion in a board room on Park Avenue quite soon.
Whatever ends up happening, the Alliance of American Football followed a completely different path than the XFL. Where the XFL announced its return before determining any specifics at all, the Alliance seems to have settled quite a bit on its mission and goal before making any public announcements. As a result, the Alliance will get a one-year head start (at least) on the XFL in the race to compete with the NFL.