During a recent XFL scrimmage in Houston, two members of the D.C. Defenders were ejected for fighting. Moments after they were kicked out of the game, they were getting interviewed by ESPN’s announce team.
“The guy had just thrown a punch and, quite frankly, he wasn’t that remorseful. It was like, ‘Wow, this could be really cool TV,’ ” ESPN lead play-by-play man Steve Levy said, with the second iteration of Vince McMahon’s football brainchild set to kick off this weekend.
More access to players is only part of the viewer experience the XFL is selling as it tries to sustain success as the country’s other professional football league. There will also be audio available of coaches calling in plays to the quarterback and a greater emphasis on gambling — including the spread and over/under being a part of the score bug that will be constantly on the screen.
“That has been my stock answer, ‘This is the last shot at this,’ you know what I mean?” Levy said. “If this one does not work, it’s just not going to work.”
The 2001 XFL lasted one season, and in its absence the NFL, thanks in part to the growth of fantasy football and gambling, steadily rose in popularity. The AAF tried to fill that gap as the spring answer to the NFL a year ago. The opening night of the AAF, airing on CBS, brought in an impressive 2.9 million viewers. There was buzz, excitement, and eight weeks later the league was in financial ruin and ceased operations.
Levy said he believes the XFL will stay more relevant by keeping the games on the more-watched networks — almost all of the games will be on ABC, ESPN, Fox or FS1.
“I would be surprised is there aren’t at least two seasons of this XFL,” said Levy, who will call games alongside Greg McElroy, Tom Luginbill and Dianna Russini.
“Vince has deeper pockets than what the AAF had, television partners that were different than the AAF’s. They were pushed to other CBS cable channels. … Every one of my games are going to be on [at] 2 p.m. ABC every Saturday. That’s a real commitment. Internally, we are being given big-time resources— maybe not ‘Monday Night Football’ resources, but pretty close. We are treating this like a first-class operation. I’ve got my regular college football producer on this. We’ve got the real-deal personnel on this in front of and behind the scenes.”
Along with those factors, Levy cites the two years of planning that have gone into this season and that the XFL teams, made up of former NFL players and ones who could not quite make it to the top level, have been together for several months.
The XFL also has the weight of ESPN and Fox behind it.
“That can only help and we’ve seen that over the years,” Levy said. “When ESPN has the rights to whatever it is, it tends to play a little heavier, a little higher on ‘SportsCenter.’ It’s good business, it’s good promotion.”
The new league also gives different opportunities for favored personalities at ESPN, like Levy, and at Fox, who has NFL studio host Curt Menefee as its lead play-by-play guy.
“It’s cool to be on the ground floor of something,” Levy said. “My crew will get the championship game. I’ve been at ESPN 27 years and the only championship I ever called was a Frozen Four many, many years ago. I’ve always been the second guy or the third guy.”