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The XFL looks kinda fun but that doesn’t guarantee it will last

John Romano | The pro football graveyard is full of leagues that thought they had a fresh idea. The reality is fans have been fickle when it comes to alternatives to the NFL.
Two of the more unique features to the XFL game between Tampa Bay and New York in MetLife Stadium on Sunday: The innovative kickoff alignment and the challenge of filling NFL stadiums. [STEVE LUCIANO | AP]

TAMPA — For the better part of a weekend, the XFL had the stage to itself.

This latest incarnation of alt-football had four nationally televised games on ABC, ESPN and Fox, including Tampa Bay’s 23-3 loss in New York. By sheer audacity, it already seemed a few steps ahead of the Alliance of American Football, which debuted, disappointed and died in the span of two months last spring.

To its credit, the XFL had some interesting innovations. It had a few exciting moments and a handful of talented players.

And, presumably, one foot in the graveyard.

Related: Takeaways from Tampa Bay Vipers’ XFL season opener in New York

That’s just the reality for pro football dreamers with visions of cutting in on the NFL’s action. No matter how much their predecessors have planned, tweaked or spent, they’ve always finished with tombstones rather than statues.

RIP World Football League, 1974-75. Shocked the sports world by signing Miami stars Larry Csonka, Paul Warfield and Jim Kiick, but folded before ever finishing your second season..

Every league believes it has something new to offer, and the XFL is no different. The idea is this will be a quicker-paced game with more potential for comebacks and less predictable moments such as touchbacks, directional punts and extra-point kicks.

And for the most part, the XFL delivered on those concepts. A newly designed kickoff, which has become a bore in the NFL, was the most intriguing example.

The kicker is lined up on his 30-yard-line while the rest of the coverage team is on the opponent’s 35. The bulk of the return team is only 5 yards away on the 30, and the action does not begin until the returner touches the ball. The idea is to force returns instead of touchbacks, while avoiding the dangerous collisions that were too common when players were running full-speed downfield like a scene out of Braveheart.

RIP USFL, 1983-85. The most successful alternative to the NFL had stars such as Herschel Walker and Steve Young, and the Bandits of Tampa Bay were a wildly popular franchise. Suffered an untimely death when trying to move from the spring to a fall schedule.

Some of the weekend’s broadcasters went overboard trying to sell the allure of marginally recognizable names. On the Tampa Bay-New York game, Kevin Burkhardt suggested Guardians quarterback Matt McGloin had “some success’’ in the NFL. McGloin was 1-6 as a starter and was cut by four NFL teams. It is undeniably an accomplishment to even make an NFL roster, but don’t lessen the moment by pretending it was more than that.

If the XFL is to survive, it has to understand its role. It will not be a major feeder system for the NFL. Yes, some players may move on. A few may even become stars. But unless it cuts a deal with the NFL to act as an official minor league, the XFL is mostly a chance for lesser players to fend off real life.

Tampa Bay Vipers defensive back Corey Moore (31) blocks New York Guardians tight end Jake Powell (87) during an XFL football game, Sunday, Feb. 9, 2020, in East Rutherford, N.J. The New York Guardians won 23-3. [STEVE LUCIANO | AP]

And that means the league needs to stay in its lane. It needs to sell stories of perseverance and personalities, tragedies and triumphs, innovation and oddities. It cannot be about talent, because the NFL had cornered that market. And it can’t be about passion because that takes years to develop.

This is about offseason entertainment, no more no less.

RIP United Football League, 2009-12. You gave us the Florida Tuskers and head coaches such as Jim Haslett and Jay Gruden, but money was tight and interest was minimal in a league competing directly against the NFL in the fall.

The list of failed ventures is impressive if only because of the sheer number. The Spring Football League boasted Eric Dickerson and Bo Jackson as investors and folded after two weeks. The All American Football League went belly-up before its debut. Even the XFL had an earlier version that leaned heavily on Vince McMahon’s wrestling-style promotions and gave up after losing a reported $70 million in one season.

The problem is that overhead is huge for a football team, and college football already provides an alternative to the NFL in smaller markets, not to mention a free minor-league system.

So can the new XFL work?

I suppose it’s possible. The TV contracts will certainly help, although attendance seemed a little light for the debut weekend. Saturday’s games in Washington and Houston drew 17,163 and 17,815. The Vipers game had an announced crowd of 17,634, although it looked even worse with the upper decks of MetLife Stadium completely empty.

None of the first three weekend games was close, which didn’t help. And while there were some big hits and nice catches, there was also some obvious examples of inferior skills. Still, it wasn’t the worst way to kill time on a lazy afternoon.

For a short time, it even looked there might be some excitement in the air for Tampa Bay. The Vipers gave up a touchdown on the opening drive, but responded by quickly moving the ball down to the Guardians 6-yard line.

That was when Tampa Bay quarterback Aaron Murray threw an air ball into the end zone that was intercepted.

Maybe it isn’t so different from the NFL, after all.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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