World Wrestling Entertainment events begin with a montage showing the company’s history, framed by three words: Then. Now. Forever.
Then: 19 years ago this week, on February 3, 2001, the first incarnation of the XFL, created by WWE chairman and CEO Vince McMahon as a direct alternative to the NFL, held Opening Night of its first and only season.
Now: This Saturday, February 8, 2020, the second incarnation of the XFL kicks off.
Forever: That’s pushing it, considering the dismal track record of spring professional football leagues in the United States.
But there are clear differences between the old XFL and new XFL, contrasting the statement McMahon wanted to make in 2001 with the different goals of the new incarnation.
Begin with the ball. From All-XFL.com: “When it came time to decide what the  XFL ball would look like, league officials were not going to settle on the same old, boring brown pigskin that other leagues traditionally use. Rather, the XFL wanted their balls to have more attitude, just as its players will have.” That black football proved to be too slippery in wet conditions — so league president Basil DeVito sandpapered the ball’s surface to restore its grip. The 2020 XFL’s football is brown, with each football featuring the home coloring of the eight XFL teams and that coloring extended to X’s on either side of the ball. In the league’s official press release, the ball’s “X-Pebble grip technology” is touted as “help[ing] players control the ball with a feel that enables a tight spin on throws, and also allows ball carriers to enhance their ball security.” A clear change in priorities, and the hint of advance planning.
The number of teams remains the same from 2001 to 2020, as does the length of regular season: an eight-team league playing ten games leading up to the postseason. But the facilities are notably different. The 2001 XFL specifically sought natural grass stadiums: the Birmingham Thunderbolts at Legion Field, Chicago Enforcers at Soldier Field, New York/New Jersey Hitmen at Giants Stadium, Orlando Rage at the Citrus Bowl (now Camping World Stadium), Los Angeles Xtreme at the Coliseum, Las Vegas Outlaws at Sam Boyd Stadium, Memphis Maniax at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, and San Francisco Demons at Pacific Bell Park (now Oracle Park, home of MLB’s Giants). Interestingly, Legion Field, Soldier Field, the Citrus Bowl, Giants Stadium, Sam Boyd Stadium, and Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium have all gone through major periods with artificial surfaces — but not in 2001, when the XFL was looking for natural grass sites.
In 2020, league standards have changed along with the quality of modern-day synthetic surfaces: Three XFL teams, the DC Defenders, Los Angeles Wildcats, and Tampa Bay Vipers, will play on grass. The other five, the Dallas Renegades, Houston Roughnecks, New York Guardians, St. Louis BattleHawks, and Seattle Dragons, will host their games on turf.
Notice how those team names and brands are markedly different from 2001 to 2020. From a glorifying of branded violence 19 years ago, the XFL’s franchises have changed to stylish embraces of city identities. Houston’s logo features an oil derrick, harkening to the city’s former NFL franchise, the Oilers. (All 2020 XFL team logos are pictured above.)
The embrace of violence from the 2001 XFL was borne out by the league’s rule innovations. Games began with a ‘scramble’ in lieu of a coin toss, with two players sprinting from the 30-yard line after a football placed at midfield; on Opening Night, Orlando’s Hassan Shamsid-Deen separated his shoulder in the scramble, ending his season. The 2001 XFL encouraged bump-and-run coverage in the secondary — but it discovered what the NFL already knew, which was that this proved too difficult to overcome in the passing game. A month into the season, the XFL reversed course and banned the bump-and-run in a bid to add more scoring and excitement to its defensive-dominated games. Old school grind-it-out football wasn’t as exciting as it used to be.
The 2020 XFL’s rule innovations, meanwhile, prioritize pace of play for brisker games: a 25-second play clock (rather than the NFL’s 40-second play clock), shortening halftime to ten minutes and timeouts to one minute (with each team only receiving two timeouts per half), introducing a ball-spotting official whose only job is to get the ball ready for play as quickly as possible, and an up-tempo game clock that rolls as soon as the ball is spotted for play, even following incompletions, unless inside the final two minutes of each half. Inside those final two minutes, the game changes. If a play ends with the player down inbounds, the clock stops until five seconds have elapsed on the play clock, thus allowing more time for a comeback and denying kneel downs from draining the final two minutes. Another key change: While the 2001 XFL banned fair catches, allowing the chance for greater collisions on punt returns, the 2020 XFL permits (though discourages) fair catches while giving returners greater freedom for returns by not allowing the punting team to cover the punt until the ball is safely booted upward and onward. If there are injuries, as there assuredly will be, the 2020 XFL comes complete with its own practice squad, Team 9, with a corps of players practicing in Arlington, TX, waiting for their chance to be signed during the season.
Both the 2001 and 2020 XFL did identify a clear area to separate from the NFL and orthodox football: No extra-point kicks following touchdowns. In 2001, XFL teams were forced to run a play from the 2-yard line to pick up an extra point. The current XFL is going deeper, giving offenses the choice of going for one, two or three points, depending on if they choose to run a play from the 2-yard line, 5-yard line, or 10-yard line.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the two different XFLs is shown in the leagues’ broadcast presentations. The 2001 XFL saw Vince McMahon walk out to midfield, microphone in hand, to growl, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the XFL,” as if still in his Monday Night RAW persona. The Rock, before he became box office star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, gave a full-on wrestling promo leading up to a game. RAW commentators Jim Ross and Jerry “the King” Lawler served as one of the league’s broadcast teams; Jesse Ventura worked on another; RAW commentator Jonathan Coachman served as sideline reporter. The implications were clear: The XFL and the WWE, though at that point still the WWF, were inextricably tied. Narratives were forced and hotshotted, from a feud between Ventura and New York/New Jersey’s head coach, Rusty Tillman, to the sexualized way the league’s cheerleaders were presented, which led to a brief demotion for lead broadcaster Matt Vasgersian after he did not react on air as enthusiastically as his bosses wished to the cheerleaders dancing in the crowd.
Now, consider the 2020 XFL’s announced broadcast teams: Kevin Burkhardt, Steve Levy, Tom Hart, Curt Menefee on play-by-play, with Joel Klatt, Greg McElroy, Joey Galloway, Tom Luginbill, and Pat McAfee as analysts. Each brings football broadcast credibility to the airwaves.
There were more than a few memorable aspects from the 2001 XFL beyond its failures. Major League Baseball’s Players Weekends see the players wear their nicknames on the backs of their jerseys; the XFL did it first. The XFL’s players were mic’ed up, the coaches were interviewed during games, halftime speeches were recorded and aired, players individually introduced themselves to the camera, and the Sky Cam zoomed about the field above the players. These have all stuck around, to increasing use, in today’s football broadcasts. They, too, are the XFL’s legacy.
That was then. This Saturday is now for the new XFL.
This article first appeared in the weekly Football Stadium Digest newsletter. Are you a subscriber? It’s free, and you’ll see features like this before they appear on the Web. Go here to subscribe to the Football Stadium Digest newsletter.