TAMPA, Fla. — With Super Bowl XXXV just three days away, the focus of the American football world is on South Florida, as the New York Giants and Baltimore Ravens prepare to do battle for the sport’s biggest prize.
Lost in the reams of stories by journalists around the world on the upcoming game is the fact that just 75 miles away, around the time the Super Bowl kicks off, four teams from the Xtreme Football League will be concluding training camp in Orlando and preparing for their inaugural 10-game regular season, which begins Feb. 3.
The eight-team, U.S.-based league launched by Vince McMahon and the World Wrestling Federation and backed by the NBC television network will bring a new dimension to the sport when it begins play. Different rules on the field and in the television truck will bring additional excitement to the game and allow the XFL to give fans the chance to go where they have never gone before.
“This will be a TV reality show meets pro football,” says Billy Hicks, the XFL’s Vice President of Administration. “It’s not some fake reality show where we put some fake people and give them personalities on an island and say here ‘eat rats.’ It is the truest of reality shows.
“We’re going to show the fan what goes on in a football game. We are not going to create any story lines because they develop naturally.
“There are great stories in every locker room, on every sideline and in every huddle. Because we own it all, we’ve started it all and everybody has bought into the philosophy from the start. We are going to have cameras and microphones everywhere.”
Be assured that the comments from Hicks are not those of some greenhorn trying to hawk a product he knows nothing about. I can personally attest to the fact that Hicks is one of the brightest and most talented executives in all of professional sports, because I have seen him operate first hand.
I had the good fortune to work with Hicks, who is responsible for all the day-to-day administrative operations for the XFL, for two years in the World League of American Football (now NFL Europe) in the early 1990s and saw him build a football team — the London Monarchs — from scratch and into a champion in a period of months.
The 40-year-old Hicks has a real gift for working with people and bringing out the best in them. I saw him hire everybody, from the equipment manager to the PR guy (me) to the head coach, in some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable. Not only did he have to do that, he had to market American football in England.
No matter how deep the crisis, Hicks never lost his cool and he energized those around him with his confidence and trust. The Prescott, Ariz., native saw the fruits of his hard work all come together on a June day in 1991 when more than 61,000 British fans — who all paid their way into Wembley Stadium — saw the Monarchs beat the Barcelona Dragons 21-0 in the first World Bowl.
Hicks came to the XFL after serving as the president of the Dallas Burn of Major League Soccer — where he started that franchise from scratch — for five years. He has also worked for the Dallas Cowboys and the San Diego Chargers, in addition to serving as a sports and event consultant.
The XFL has definite goals and will employ the successful format that McMahon has used to build the WWF into a worldwide product, according to Hicks.
“Whether it is the fan in the stands or the fan at home watching on TV, the fan is king. That is a WWF mantra. That is something Vince has continued to remind everybody involved with the XFL from Day One.
“The mission of this thing is to bring football back to Americans. Common Americans who can’t get into a game in the NFL and when they get there it is the sanitized corporate version of it.”
With that in mind, the XFL has tried to make going to its games affordable, Hicks notes.
“We’ve made a point of having $25 tickets on the 50-yard line in every stadium. When we structured the league, that was part of the plan.”
Hicks says television will play a huge interactive role in every contest.
“We have made a huge investment in the tron video boards that we will put at every stadium that will become part of the presentation. It will be a focal point that will allow us to do a lot of things.
“For example, if the coach calls a running play on third and 12 deep in his own territory, we can be right there with a microphone and ask him to explain to the fans, ‘What were you thinking?’
“We want to tell the truth. Show football for what it really is. Let the fun and passion and controversy come out to the fans.”
The XFL is trying to bring football back to its roots, with every team playing in an outdoor stadium on a natural grass field. Each squad will have 38 players who will make a base salary of $4,500 per game for being on the active roster.
Quarterbacks will make $5,000 per game, while kicking specialists — of which each team will be allowed just one — will earn $3,500 per game.
In order to try and boost the performance of its players to the maximum, the XFL will have a pool of $100,000 that will be divided by the winning team for every regular season game.
Four of the eight teams will make the playoffs, and after the semifinal round, the teams that play for the championship will be competing for a $1 million bonus that will be split by the players on the winning team.
Hicks and the XFL believe that February is the right time for them to show off their brand of football.
“Our model will always keep us in the same time frame — we will kick off when football demand is building to a crescendo and finish before the May sweeps start and before it warms up and the other television options — like baseball — kick in.
“We feel like we are capitalizing on a natural niche. We feel like it is a perfect time for us. All of the life patterns of the fans are the same. They are sitting at home wanting to watch TV and football is their favorite sport.”
Hicks says the XFL won’t have a neutral venue host its title match.
“The highest seed will host the championship game. We don’t want to take all this excitement we have built and then turn it into a boring corporate event.”
Make no mistake about it, this will not be a league made up of truck drivers and insurance salesman playing on the weekend.
The Memphis franchise alone boasts the likes of ex-Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Alvin Harper, running back and former Heisman Trophy winner Rashaan Salaam and quarterback Jim Druckenmiller, a first-round pick in the NFL draft.
“We are trying to get the 38 best players we can on each football team,” states Hicks.
When the XFL announced its plans last year, just days after the thrilling finish to Super Bowl XXXIV, I was struck by their timing and how brazen it all seemed. But something McMahon said at the press conference where the XFL was born has remained with me ever since, especially taking into account what he has done with the WWF.
When asked about the viability of the XFL in light of the success of the NFL, McMahon said, “I’ll put my marketing ability up against that of the NFL any day.”
That one sent a shiver up my spine.
Hicks and McMahon are both proven commodities. Working together on the XFL, I won’t be amazed by anything they achieve.