In early February the last place I would have expected to find myself was the Meadowlands. With the Giants’ lack of success these past few years and the unlikelihood of the NFL ever bringing the Super Bowl back to East Rutherford or any cold-weather city, the venue seemed like it wouldn’t have a purpose to me besides serving as scenery during drives into New York. That was until last Sunday when the Guardians took the field in the newly established XFL.
The new football league, founded by World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Chairman Vince McMahon, is a successor to the original XFL which lasted one season back in 2001. None of that past history, from ten-yard dashes between teams, to determine opening possession to Rod Smart’s famous “He Hate Me” jersey, has found itself in this new 2020 version of the league. The only things that seem to have made the 19-year jump are McMahon himself and two cities, New York (or more accurately East Rutherford) and Los Angeles, which also had teams back in 2001.
While the old league centered itself around the idea that the NFL was the “No Fun League,” the new XFL claims to be “For The Love of Football.” It’s the tagline that was sprayed at the 50 yard-line on the field and said in almost all league media. The league’s rules are meant to sympathize with fans who lament the seemingly ever-frequent stoppages during NFL games. The fan-confusing rules in regards to catches and challenges have been addressed with easier to understand language (catch with one foot inbounds is a catch, every play is reviewed by the booth and can be altered quickly, etc.). The clock stops less frequently during the game and play clocks are set at 25 seconds per play.
In all, the XFL knows fans are frustrated about watching football and are hoping to garner the alternative market without going head-to-head with the shield.
It’s a step passed the minor rule changes college football has when compared to the NFL and hopes it can bring viewers in because of that.
It’s the same product, but different enough to hopefully be more than a niche hobby.
This isn’t unlike the 2019 “Alliance of American Football,” which also hoped to serve the currently untapped post-NFL season football craving. That league launched with eight teams and played eight of it’s planned ten-week regular season before declaring for bankruptcy. What the XFL hopes to do differently comes from capital, having a better TV deal and more planning time (two years) in order to secure funding for at least three seasons, according to McMahon.
The Guardians, coached by former Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride, were slight underdogs coming into the Week 1 match-up against Tampa (-2.5). Without a game being played, Vegas loved the Vipers to finish atop the league with odds of winning 7.5 of its 10 games. Meanwhile, New York was only expected to win four of its ten games. Reading about this last week I couldn’t really comprehend how any person could come up with these sorts of odds when none of the teams had ever played a game.
You wouldn’t be able to tell things were “looking bad” for New York by the fans though. Throughout the lower-bowl, the only area fans could watch from, chanting and cheering was rampant and lines for brand new XFL and team merchandise took no-less than thirty minutes to stand on. To my group, we all agreed it seemed as though the team looked under-prepared for just how many people would want to buy items in person.
When the whistle blew and the Vipers kicked off (in their own unique way as both offensive and defensive lines are only separated by 5 yards on of the 35 and 30-yard lines respectively) it only got louder. The home-crowd, which unsurprisingly dwarfed the small groups of away fans, roared for the Guardians who started the game with possession looking towards the end of the field where I was sitting.
The team looked like it was going to go three-and-out after two zero gain plays but in this faster league, where going for it on fourth down is encouraged, the Guardians did just that. Quarterback Matt McGloin found tight end Jake Powell to convert on 4th-and-4 from just inside the Tampa Bay’s 40. The place went nuts and $12 beer flew in the air.
Five plays later, McGloin rushed in from the 1-yard line to give New York the lead and sent a stadium of home fans, most of which were not wearing his team’s colors, into a frenzy. A team that did not have a name six months ago was pumping up a crowd that decently filled the lower bowl of Metlife.
The fans in each endzone of Metlife were almost as much of an attraction as the game itself. In the early going, the crowd was high energy. People in a wide range of outfits, from various NFL jersey (I counted eight separate teams represented), to college wear, and a mix of both current and original XFL gear. As the game went on and the offense slowed down for New York, who didn’t score again between the end of the first half and midway into the fourth quarter, the rowdiness of the fans grew.
Defensive football doesn’t draw much excitement so, as time passed and more beer was consumed, the fans made their own.
I can safely say it was because of the alcohol since by the end of the game one fan in our section had created a size-able “cup snake,” or stacked up empty drink cup, so-much-so that security worried it could become a hazard.
One phrase my friend’s girlfriend kept using was that it felt like “Frat Guy Football.” While I don’t disagree with her, the obvious negative feeling that sort of phrase gives it shouldn’t be taken at face value (something even she agreed with). What came off as “frat guy” was a rowdy, energetic crowd that did care about the game on the field but also wreaked of testosterone and “bro” energy. It’s the same type of energy someone gets from watching Bills’ Mafia videos of people breaking tables (which multiple people did at Guardian tailgates) or something you might feel at any Philly sporting event.
The best comparison I can really give is that it felt like a low-budget version of a traditional soccer Supporter’s Group section. Take away the custom-made banners and uniformed chanting (for now) but keep the high energy and playful antics. The Metlife security was kept busy but I can assume the workload was not unlike any NFL game.
While the team on the field has a ton of promise, I truly think the fan environment might be one of the best things the New York Guardians have going for it. Despite sometimes feeling dwarfed by empty seats in the closed-off upper-deck, if fans keep coming back for the remaining four home games that won’t matter. New York might truly have its next big thing.
This past weekend was a coming-out party for a two-time passion project come reality. Four games over three networks (ABC, Fox, & ESPN) were aimed to show why another football league could capture NFL fan’s attention in the immediate aftermath of the Super Bowl.
It’ll be interesting to see if the league continues to draw well, both in the rating and in-person, but it’s gotten me latched for the time being.
Featured Image: New York Guardians