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I wanted to dislike the XFL, but it’s impossible

SB Nation logo SB Nation 2/10/2020 James Dator

The XFL is here, and while I mentally prepared last week to write some witty teardown of the latest professional football league trying to take a bite out of the NFL’s apple, I have to admit that after one weekend, I’m hooked.

It’s not so much I wanted the XFL to fail, as much as it was the realization we’ve heard this song before. A new league launches, everyone is excited for a week, viewership declines, the league eventually folds, and we return to this very same point in 10 years to see who will be the next foolish investor to try this experiment. This iteration of the XFL feels different, though. It’s fresh, and fun, and just weird enough that it might stick around.

Any writer who tried to convince you of their excitement for the XFL a week ago was likely being disingenuous. Let me be blunt: Football writers really love the weekend after the Super Bowl. It’s a collective exhale after months of gruelingly over-analyzing the league. These few fleeting weeks in February are a much-deserved respite from thinking about football until the NFL Draft Combine starts and everything swings into full gear again. It takes something special to make writers enjoy football immediately following the Super Bowl, and the XFL did just that.

It’s not just the presentation, or the innovative rule changes that made Week 1 compelling. It’s the charming “who the hell thought of this” aspect to the league. It may have been contrived in a boardroom by men in $5,000 suits, but it feels like something dreamed up in an open garage on a lazy Sunday afternoon after too many beers. It’s everything we want the Pro Bowl to be with its fan-focused angle, but with games that aren’t a mockery to the sport itself.

Most importantly: The XFL is fun.

There are still some mountains to climb. Stadiums feel too empty. A lack of ambient crowd sounds make the games feel like the Pro Bowl, and that’s not a compliment. It’s early in the new league’s tenure, so that can be forgiven — but it remains to be seen if the XFL can transition from being a weird secondary football oddity to developing real die-hard fans whose excitement will translate through television sets and tell people at home “this is must-watch entertainment.” The level of play was mostly good. At times it felt like the fourth game of NFL preseason, but in a similar way, that’s what made it fun, too. We all have players from college we wish would get shots in the NFL, but don’t due to a variety of factors.

Take Jordan Ta’amu, an exciting quarterback whose poor touchdown-interception ratio made him undrafted out of Ole Miss. Ta’amu languished on the Texans bench before being cut, and prior to the XFL we might only hear about him in a random CFL highlight package stuffed into the late-night edition of SportsCenter. Instead, we got to see him on full display in Week 1, leading the St. Louis BATTLEHAWKS (which must always be capped) to a 15-9 win over Dallas on the strength of his 209 yards passing and 77 yards rushing. It’s early, but Ta’amu looks like the can’t-miss player of the season early on — and we never would have seen him in the NFL.

There’s room to have a true feeder league for the NFL and vice versa. The defunct AAF had a dream of brokering a deal with the NFL to allow for practice squad players to compete in its league, which was met with resistance. However, if the XFL can continue to prove that it can offer an excellent football product, take care of its players, and provide opportunities to players the NFL couldn’t then, well, with a new collective bargaining agreement on the table, who knows what opportunities a league like the XFL could provide to the hundred of players who barely miss out on NFL rosters every year?

I’m not going to make some weird declarative statement about the XFL’s longterm future, but dammit, I’m going to enjoy this weird ride while it lasts. The XFL made me care about watching more football in February — and that’s the biggest compliment a league can receive.

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