In 2001, WWF (now WWE) founder Vince McMahon created a new football league in an attempt to siphon and satiate sports fans, employing schedules that picked up at the conclusion of the NFL season in early February. The league advertised a “rules-light” game to try to induce big hits, and the league emboldened its players to use nicknames on the backs of their jerseys.
Unfortunately for McMahon, the league hemorrhaged so much money that NBC, the league’s partner and broadcaster, decided to pull out of the (already short) two-year contract prematurely. This move caused the league to disband entirely after only a year, relegating it to the annals of semi-remembered sports history.
Fast forward a short 19 years later, to 2020, and to everyone’s shock the XFL was suddenly resurrected as a professional football association. To be clear, while the name of the league may have been unchanged, this iteration of the “XFL” marketed itself less as a home for big hits, and more as an unaffiliated minor league system to the NFL.
In addition to that, it also began with eight completely new franchises:
|East Division||West Division|
|DC Defenders||Dallas Renegades|
|New York Guardians||Houston Roughnecks|
|St. Louis Battlehawks||Los Angeles Wildcats|
|Tampa Bay Vipers||Seattle Dragons|
Similar to what the league did in 2001, the 2020 XFL season began playing its schedule the weekend following the Super Bowl, trying to take advantage of the NFL’s enormous viewership numbers.
Disastrously, due to Covid-19 pandemic concerns around the world, the 2020 XFL regular season was cancelled after only five weeks.
As someone who happened to be at the Los Angeles Wildcats’ final game before the shutdown, what follows is potentially the final game report and franchise review for the LA team.
The Los Angeles Wildcats
The Head Coach and General Manager of the LA Wildcats is former National Football League player and coach, Winston Moss. The roles of Head Coach and General Manager are nearly always performed by separate people in the NFL, but Moss held the title of “Associate Head Coach” when the Green Bay Packers won the Super Bowl in 2010, and this is him cashing in on that career achievement.
One anecdote to speak to the level of influence that dual role has granted Moss: After the first game of the season, a 37-17 road loss to the Houston Roughnecks, Moss fired his Defensive Coordinator, Pepper Johnson, and then cut his defensive captain, Anthony Johnson, after it was reported that he was irate that Pepper had been fired so abruptly. Adding to the noteworthiness of this decision by Coach Moss, Anthony Johnson was featured prominently in the pre-season marketing materials for the Wildcats, meaning Moss eliminated entirely one of the very few recognizable names from the roster before the team had played its first home game.
The Wildcats play at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, California, about 15 miles south of downtown Los Angeles, meaning the “LA” part of the team name must be in reference to the county, because it can’t mean the city. The Sports Park also houses Major League Soccer’s LA Galaxy (again, the “LA” is for the county), and, until recently, the NFL’s Los Angeles Chargers, who are moving into the most expensive stadium the NFL has ever built (also not located in the city of Los Angeles.)
From a timing perspective, the Chargers’ departure worked out well for both the homeless Wildcats and the football-equipped Sports Park, and a deal was struck for the Wildcats to move in while the Chargers moved out. The venue’s capacity of 27,000 ranks it sixth out of eight in the XFL, which seems ideal given that the focus regarding attendance should be pinpointed on minimizing empty seats.
For season tickets to the five-game home schedule, the Wildcats touted that half of the seats in Dignity Health Sports Park would feature admission prices of $30 or less per game. The day before the Week 5 matchup against the Tampa Bay Vipers, a tenth-row ticket on the 20-yard line could be found on one secondary marketplace for as little as $15.
To provide better context for these prices, SeatGeek has a published record of the average single game ticket price for Chargers games for each of the three seasons the team played at the stadium. Seeing these numbers, it’s easy to understand why the Chargers have yet to gain much traction in the LA market since moving north from San Diego.
On top of the fact that not only do the economical ticket prices offered by the Wildcats facilitate the attendance of more true football fans and larger group outings, but this confluence of people creates an experience that feels raw and enticing. The stadium fills up with an atmosphere produced by an ebbing and flowing mix of contrasting backgrounds, and the cheers, the boos, the laughs can be felt like the breeze. This is one dynamic way to commune with the people of the world.
Dismally, the game’s attendance was announced at 12,181, the second lowest total of any XFL contest through five weeks. The vital question is whether that number is due to a lack of prominence of the XFL brand, the fear of Covid-19 hanging over every public gathering space or because domestic drafts are $12.50 and margaritas are $15. Let’s say it’s a sprinkling of everything and move forward united as one.
The choice of “Wildcats” as the team’s logo is not one that deserves much praise for Los Angeles. Rivaling perhaps only “Eagles” and “Bulldogs”, it’s difficult to conceive of a mascot more overused than “Wildcats”.
A satisfying club nickname should combine a specific element of the home city, state or region in which the team plays, with an eye toward the totality of nicknames that already exist. When making the final decision on a logo, team owners and executives should strive toward a marriage of specificity and originality.
It’s relevant to point out that the uninspiring choice of “Wildcats” is not a flub unique to LA. Broadly speaking, one issue that seems to recur when a new sports league launches is the rush to claim the most vicious or aggressive-sounding names. While the impulse is understandable, as both physically and mentally tough people are drawn to sports and are worthy of team names that reflect that, this method of labeling often discounts the importance of location specificity, and team names end up too vague and unremarkable.
Maybe the best way to communicate this opinion is to simply compile a brief and varied list of specific and original examples to demonstrate what high-caliber nicknames look like: Green Bay Packers; Pittsburgh Steelers; San Francisco 49ers; Boston Red Sox; San Diego Padres; Minnesota Twins; New York Knicks; Philadelphia 76ers; Indiana Pacers; Toronto Maple Leafs; St. Louis Blues; Ottawa Senators.
The point is, do some local research.
The point is, be imaginative.
The point is, don’t be afraid to take a risk.
It’s also fair to point out that this is a lot of hot air over a point as minor as a team nickname, as it has no bearing over in-game performance. To those people, the response is simply “probably best to skip this next chunk.”
According to the team’s website, the Wildcats’ official colors are listed as Black, Red, and Light Orange, in that order. Neither the color scheme nor the jerseys are outright unattractive, but it feels like a classic case of one color too many.
A handy trick for future jersey design would be to conceive of the uniform based on what the “Road Whites” look like, because three colors plus white can too easily slip into an overloaded configuration. Shrinking the main palette from three base colors to two allows the scheme to breathe a bit, whereas before it was drowning.
In the case of the Wildcats’ complexion, the suggestion is a bold one: remove black from the color wheel entirely. While on its face black is a color worthy of desire due to its tenacity and ability to slim a figure, the counter argument is that using the color indicates a lack of inspiration, and the fact that every team considers employing black should act as a repellent to teams. Similarly to how the selection of a mascot is harmed by traveling on the familiar path, choosing an obvious central color can rapidly result in anonymity.
Frankly, the Wildcats’ jerseys look as if they were designed by someone creating an expansion franchise in a video game. Again, it’s not that the jerseys are awful, they’re just forgettable. The hypothesis being presented here is that if the Wildcats were to limit the main color tones to only Red and Light Orange (with White as the accent), the ensuing uniforms would be much more pleasing on the eye.
Here’s a great ‘sans-black’ mock-up of a Wildcat uniform, found on the official team subreddit r/lawildcats, and created by @PlayerTrue.
The point is, less is more.
In-Stadium Screen Content:
After doing too little with the nickname, and too much with the jerseys, the Wildcats struck a nice balance with the Gameday Operations, Promotions and Entertainment aspect of the experience.
The constraint of having less money to spend on highly produced segments actually works in the team’s favor, as the focus becomes more about celebrating the local community and the fans in the stands. From inviting a nearby high school’s marching band to perform songs during the pre-game, to having a host interview a multitude of players throughout the game, there’s a real effort being made to encourage a genuine connection between the fans and the franchise.
On top of that, the team created a “crossed-hands, claws-up” gesture that fans are encouraged to perform throughout the game, especially if they want to appear on the in-stadium big screen during a Fan Cam segment.
This is a great branding idea, and it’s got a unique flavor to it which both makes the gesture memorable and even partially redeems choosing a dull team name. It’s a minor decision for the club, but when the small things are done well, the bigger stuff tends to sort itself out.
To home in further on the Fan Cam moments, while this is surely the simplest way to approach planned programming, it’s still a reliable crowd pleaser that gets fans invested in the live experience. If the team wanted to implement the segments even more often in the future, it’s not clear that diminishing returns would follow anytime soon. Half of the segments could simply be encouraging fans to do the Claws-Up hand gesture, while the other half could have a fun concept attached to it, like Kiss Cam or Best Dancer.
Less money doesn’t have to mean less fun.
Walking The Walk:
The Week 5 matchup against the Vipers fell on International Women’s Day, and the Wildcats really leaned into the celebration. This type of decision can go wrong if executed purely to pander, but the team does get credit for doing more than just talking the talk, as the franchise employs a female President, Heather Brooks Karatz.
There were plenty of opportunities throughout the game for fans, players and team employees alike to honor the women in their lives, and any reason to bring people closer together is worth supporting. As Kanye once rapped, “If you admire somebody, you should go ahead and tell ’em/People never get the flowers while they can still smell ’em.”
Just in case the crowd needed a reminder that they were at an XFL game, the stadium microphone repeatedly cut out throughout the night. It didn’t matter if the mic was being used for a sincere moment or a fun one, the only sure bet was that the crowd wouldn’t hear 15% of what was said.
Naturally, one of the few segments that the microphone worked perfectly was when the entire stadium was coerced into singing “Happy Birthday” to Freddie Prinze Jr. An XFL-caliber moment deserving of an XFL-caliber celebrity.
Sometime just before kickoff, the video board revealed the team’s official sponsorship deal with MonkeyKnifeFight.com, a Daily Fantasy Sports gambling website. This is presented without further comment.
The Turning Point:
Somewhere in the midst of the pre-game frenzy, the team spirit that was pollinating the air found its way into my lungs, and I noticed myself finally relinquishing control of the experience in favor of just letting it happen. After all, it’s fun to adopt the home team for an evening.
So let’s do it.
A Gamer Fit For The XFL:
Tampa Bay Vipers @ Los Angeles Wildcats
The final game of the Week 5 XFL slate featured the Los Angeles Wildcats (1-3) at home against the visiting Tampa Bay Vipers. The matching 1-3 records qualified as a shaky start to the season for both teams, but a four-game sample isn’t large enough from which to confidently draw many firm conclusions, especially when the average skill level of the league is prone to produce more variance.
In theory this would mean that fringe NFL players could become legitimate difference-makers in the XFL, which, for the Wildcats, suggested that the team would go as far as quarterback Josh Johnson could take it. Although not quite skilled enough to make it as a full-time starter in the NFL, Johnson was among the most talented people in the newly reformed league from the moment he signed his contract. In fact, the Detroit Lions even tried to pull him back into the NFL before the XFL season kicked off, but were blocked from doing so.
With that in mind, those in attendance were still analyzing the XFL’s version of a “safer kickoff” — all players except the kicker and returner begin lined up five yards apart from one another, to limit high speed collisions — when Johnson called the first Wildcat play of the game and promptly threw an interception. Tampa exchanged the turnover for a field goal and thanked the hosts for a quick 3-0 lead.
The Vipers’ lead ballooned to 10-0 late in the first quarter when the Wildcats’ offense fumbled a snap and Tampa recovered. At this point in the game, those in attendance had booed more than cheered, and the jeering only intensified after the Vipers converted the fumble into points, this time a touchdown.
Though undoubtedly pre-planned, the Wildcats’ promotions staff stemmed the tide of grumbling when they ran out during a game break to throw t-shirts into the crowd. Though this is a maneuver straight from the highest levels of professional sports, it morphed into a suitable XFL version of itself when it went on for too long and bled into real game action. This must’ve been especially confusing for the players on the field, who were used to operating with a fraction of the crowd noise, but it’s hard to argue with results, and the stunt created by far the most positive fan engagement since the game began. Disastrously, 90 seconds after the t-shirt toss ended the goodwill evaporated when the Wildcats fumbled a punt and the Vipers recovered the ball just outside of LA’s red zone.
When the Wildcats finally got into scoring position for the first time in the game, the chant from the crowd was to the point: “We want a touchdown!” To that end, on the very next play the ‘Cats scored and the crowd was given its release. It was a temporary one though, as the offense reverted back to its earlier skill-level when it fumbled the two-point conversion so ineptly that it was recovered just short of the 40-yard line.
Not long after the Vipers took a 24-6 lead late in the second quarter, fan engagement spiked again when the two-minute warning featured another live sports classic: the stadium-wide Wave. It’s impossible to gauge how much of the impassioned crowd reaction affected what happened on the field, but the Wildcats’ emerged from the TV timeout with its second touchdown of the game on a very nice catch by De’Quan Hampton.
Whatever competitive spirit Tampa misplaced at the end of the first half was collected by Los Angeles in the second, and late in the third quarter the Wildcats took its first lead of the game at 27-24. The game ball used for the touchdown was given to a kid in the first row as part of the player celebration, and the crowd lauded the decision with clapping and shouting. The cheering was again cut short though when a ball boy ran over to the kid and requested the football be returned. Without missing a beat, the crowd slipped right back into the ridicule and sneering it had grown accustomed to doing as if it was a comfortable pair of pants. Though the ball boy did signal to the kid that things would be made right sometime later, the predicament as a whole left those who witnessed it with a bitter taste in their mouths.
This style of questionable decision-making apparently rubbed off onto Tampa Bay, because the Vipers opened the fourth quarter in the same fashion in which the Wildcats began the game: with a painful giveaway. This time though, the crowd was treated to one of the great joys in football, as a hulking defensive lineman, Reggie Howard, dropped back into coverage and intercepted the Viper quarterback’s throw, nearly returning it for a touchdown.
A notable aspect of the XFL’s preferred packaging of football centers around transparency, as the on-field action is mic’d up and broadcast over the loudspeakers in real time within the stadium. While most moments alternate between deep grunting and pads colliding, occasionally there are amusing moments, like when LA running back Larry Rose failed to catch a ball just out of his reach, and his frustration echoed loudly through the stadium, “Ahh motherfucker.”
Another prime example of the first-rate translucence occurred when the cameras picked up Josh Johnson phoning his offensive coordinator Norm Chow, who was up above in the booth calling plays, urging him not to take his foot off the gas:
Despite all the bluster, in the end it was the Wildcat defense that registered the final touchdown of the game for the home team. Though the crowd missed out on a big man pick-six earlier in the quarter, it received an exciting consolation prize in the form of a quarterback sack and fumble, which defensive tackle Boogie Roberts scooped up and took into the endzone for six points. The offense successfully converted the two-point conversion and the Wildcats took a 41-27 lead over the Vipers, becoming the first team in the XFL to score 40 points in a game.
For Josh Johnson’s part, after his opening interception he went on to dominate on the offensive side of the ball, racking up four touchdown passes and 288 yards through the air. As he went, so did the Wildcats.
While the game wasn’t quite clinched for the Wildcats yet, just as with any sport, high-scoring affairs and dramatic moments are attractive qualities for keeping fans engaged in the action. Given that, the home crowd was content to cling to the edge of its seat as Tampa drove down the field with less than two minutes left, down 41-34. To the thrill of those who stayed til the end, the Vipers’ snake bit second half endured, and the game was capped off when the Tampa quarterback threw another interception, improving the Wildcats record to 2-3.
What began as a game that was trending toward a blowout loss for Los Angeles had, by the end, transformed into a record-setting offensive win. After the game, Coach Moss was openly grateful that wins aren’t awarded based on beauty. “A win is a win, no matter how it looks,” Moss said after that game. “We’re going to celebrate that, and we’re going to enjoy that. So, we’ll come back next week and try to put another win up.”*
*If only he knew.