Eric Vogel doesn’t know what to do on Sundays without the Green Bay Packers. He was born and raised in Germantown, Wisconsin, but moved to Los Angeles in 1989. “I was supposed to be a rock star,” he said. Stardom didn’t pan out, but he stayed in California and switched most of his Wisconsin sports teams for the Los Angeles ones. Dropping the Milwaukee Bucks for the Showtime Lakers was a no-brainer. Swapping the Brewers for the Angels wasn’t hard either. But unfollowing the Packers was unthinkable. Vogel owns a share of Green Bay, and Green Bay owns a share of him. In Los Angeles, he converted his wife’s father, brothers, and children into cheeseheads and indoctrinated his own kids, too. When they watch Packers games, they put the other teams’ football cards in the freezer (to prevent them from getting hot). But when the season ends, Vogel gets an itch that the combine and draft don’t scratch.
“I just don’t want football to end,” Vogel said. “I never want it to end.”
For years, Vogel turned to the Arena Football League. He and his family had five season tickets for the Los Angeles Kiss, the Arena league team owned by Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley of Kiss. (Apparently a man can leave rock ‘n’ roll, but rock ‘n’ roll can never leave a man.) When the Arena Football League filed for bankruptcy in November, Vogel was once again left with a void in his spring Sundays. So when he heard that a new football league called the XFL would begin playing games in February 2020, and that they would have a team in Southern California, he bought two season tickets as a Christmas gift for himself. That long-awaited XFL home opener finally rolled around on Sunday when the Los Angeles Wildcats hosted the Dallas Renegades in Carson, California.
“I’ve been excited for this shit for a whole month,” Vogel said a few minutes before kickoff.
Vogel and his son Cody were just two of the 14,979 people who attended the Wildcats’ first home game. The league is a new take on the original XFL, which billionaire wrestling entrepreneur Vince McMahon launched in 2001, though it collapsed after just one season. The league was “a colossal failure,” McMahon said at the time. The original XFL sold sex and violence. It was less about football and more about defenders laying big hits and cheerleaders shaking big, well, just watch for yourself. The crowds reflected that, according to James Hinson, who attended the first XFL game in Los Angeles 20 years ago—and did so again for the reincarnation on Sunday. The old team was called the Los Angeles XTreme, not the Wildcats, and Hinson remembers their first home game in 2001 well.
“It was straight underground pirate shit,” Hinson said.
The new XFL is owned by Vince McMahon’s company Alpha Entertainment, but it is selling itself as the antithesis of the old XFL. The new XFL is football-focused, family-friendly, and affordable fun. The old XFL wanted to compete with the NFL. The new XFL is about coexisting as a complementary spring football league that can scratch the itch of fans like Eric Vogel and his son Cody.
“[The combine and draft] have an overinflated sense of importance just because it’s the only thing going on,” Cody Vogel, 26, said. “You want something, even if it’s just some guys running some [40-yard dash] or whatever.”
This XFL season began on February 8, the first Saturday after the Super Bowl. The regular season is 10 weeks, and the championship game is April 26, one day after the NFL draft ends. Four of the eight teams will make the playoffs. Those eight teams are the Los Angeles Wildcats, the Dallas Renegades, the Houston Roughnecks, the D.C. Defenders, the New York Guardians, the Seattle Dragons, the St. Louis Battlehawks, and the Tampa Bay Vipers. (Eric Vogel notes that he does not “dig” the Wildcats name.) Talentwise, there are no major names in the XFL, but there are a lot of guys who were on your fantasy waivers for a few years and some college football quarterbacks. (The most famous are Oklahoma’s Landry Jones and Ohio State’s “we ain’t come to play SCHOOL” Cardale Jones.) Games are on Saturdays and Sundays and air on ABC, ESPN, Fox Sports, and FS1, and can be streamed on the ESPN app. Ratings have been solid through two weeks. Week 1 ratings were not as high as the Alliance of American Football’s Week 1 ratings last year, but the XFL’s Week 2 ratings suggest it held its audience, which the AAF failed to do.
The XFL is betting a spring league can succeed, but listing all the previous attempts to do so sounds like the scene in Ocean’s Eleven when Reuben lists all the people who have tried and failed to rob a casino. The USFL succeeded with a spring schedule in the 1980s, but failed when Donald Trump urged the league to compete directly with the NFL. McMahon’s XFL was a spectacular failure in 2001 and did not have a second season. Charlie Ebersol, the son of TV executive and original XFL partner Dick Ebersol, directed a 30 for 30 about the failed XFL and became so engrossed by the topic he launched the Alliance of American Football last year. Ebersol’s product didn’t even make it through the end of the season before the league ran out of money and stiffed players and team employees on their paychecks and expense accounts. Ebersol’s AAF venture was inspired by studying the XFL’s failure, and now the new XFL is charting its course in part by autopsying the AAF. Life begets death begets life, etc.
Like life, McMahon and the XFL are betting that good football finds a way. There are no monumental structural changes to the game: The field is the same size, there are 11 players on each side, and the positions and game play are familiar to anyone who has watched the NFL. There are no gimmicks like replacing the coin toss with an athletic contest, which the XFL tried in 2001. The few rule changes the XFL has implemented are wise. They’ve eliminated extra point kicks after touchdowns and instead allow offenses to try a one-, two-, or three-point conversion from the 2-, 5-, or 10-yard lines, respectively. The rules around the game clock keep contests moving, but the clock also stops more often after the two-minute warning to make comebacks easier. The XFL has updated kickoff rules with a system that so seamlessly blends player safety and the spirit of the kickoff that the NFL might one day steal the idea.
Even with high-quality football, the XFL has also rebranded away from wrestling pageantry and toward being family friendly.
“As a mom of two kids, I want to go somewhere on my Sunday with my family that everyone of all ages can enjoy at an affordable price point,” said Heather Karatz, the president of the Los Angeles Wildcats. Karatz helped launch the LAFC expansion franchise in Major League Soccer. LAFC was shockingly popular almost immediately, which convinced the XFL to recruit Karatz to launch the Wildcats. James Hinson, who attended the opener for the XFL’s L.A. Xtreme in 2001 and the L.A. Wildcats in 2020, saw a big difference between the two crowds. “I’ve seen babies here,” Hinson said. “I didn’t see any kids at the first game [in 2001].”
Karatz hears a lot about Los Angeles being a fickle, fair-weather, and already saturated sports town. The area has the Los Angeles Lakers, the Los Angeles Dodgers, USC football, UCLA football, the Los Angeles Clippers, the Los Angeles Kings, USC basketball, UCLA basketball, [deep breath] the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, the Los Angeles Sparks, and the Los Angeles Galaxy. In the last three years, the city added the Los Angeles Rams, the Los Angeles Chargers, and the LAFC. That’s before considering the other things people can do on the weekends in Southern California.
“I’m competing with the sun and the beach,” Karatz said. “But there’s no one else bringing professional football in the spring at an affordable price point with a great game day experience.”
Vogel paid $200 for two season tickets at five home games, or $20 per ticket, and is sitting three rows behind the end zone. “We paid almost more for parking,” Vogel said.
Stamped at the 50-yard line on all of the XFL’s fields is the XFL logo, and underneath is the phrase “For the Love of Football.” But the game is easier to love when your team is good. “If we win, they will come,” Wildcats head coach Winston Moss said after Sunday’s game. “If we don’t win, they don’t come.”
The Wildcats are 0-2. Their attendance last week was 14,979, the lowest of the XFL’s four Week 2 games (Seattle’s was by far the highest with nearly 30,000 fans last week). They lost their Week 1 matchup in Houston to the Roughnecks 17-37 (thisclose to a 17-38). Two days later, Moss fired defensive coordinator Pepper Johnson, and the team traded starting linebacker-slash-team captain Anthony Johnson to the DC Defenders. “We’ve got a lot of change going on,” quarterback Josh Johnson said after Week 2. “We’ll get it together.”
On Sunday, the Wildcats played their home opener in Carson, California, at Dignity Health Sports Park, which doubles as the Airbnb the Chargers rented until their permanent place in Los Angeles was ready. The first three quarters of the Wildcats’ home opener featured three field goals and zero touchdowns, but the teams put on a show in the fourth. The Wildcats scored a touchdown to open the fourth quarter and take a 9-6 lead, but the Renegades responded with two touchdowns to push their lead to 19-9. Some fans headed for the exits when the Renegades went up 10 points, but with less than five minutes to go in the game, Wildcats quarterback Josh Johnson found receiver Nelson Spruce deep for a 44-yard touchdown. On the ensuing conversion attempt, the Wildcats tried a three-point conversion from the 10-yard line and converted, making them the first team to score nine points on one drive in the XFL. The score cut the game to 19-18. When the Wildcats defense went back on the field, the fans were so loud they could be heard on the broadcast. Quarterback Josh Johnson said it was the loudest he’d heard a crowd since he started for the Washington Redskins against the Philadelphia Eagles in December 2018.
“SPRUUUUUUUCEEEEEEE,” the crowd cheered after he scored the 44-yard touchdown that put the game within one score. Spruce is the XFL’s leading receiver with 192 yards and two touchdowns through two games. He was also born and raised in L.A. and was on both the Rams and the Chargers before signing with the Wildcats, but Spruce’s Welcome to the NFL moment came when the Chiefs signed him for spring practices in 2018. Spruce moved to Kansas City, and his mom shipped his Dodger Charger to Missouri with all of his possessions. The day the car arrived, the Chiefs told him they were releasing him. Spruce repacked the car and began driving back to Los Angeles. On the drive, the Chargers called him in for a workout. He was in Denver. He raced to meet the Chargers in his Charger.
“That’s the reality for a lot of players,” Spruce said. “You obviously hear about the top 10 percent making millions and have that stability, but a lot of people are just kind of trying to find a place they can catch on with.”
Spruce never played a down in a regular-season NFL game, but at 27 years old, his third L.A. pro football team has the most charm thus far. The XFL is full of players like Spruce who’ve wandered the football desert looking for refuge and then found the XFL as an oasis. Quarterback Josh Johnson played for nine teams in 11 years. Cornerback Jaylen Dunlap tore his ACL months before the 2018 NFL draft and didn’t play football again for two years until he signed with the Wildcats—the first time he’d been back in Los Angeles since the injury—and played in the XFL’s Week 1 game earlier this month.
Many Angeleno fans are trying to find a team to catch on with, too. The Rams and Raiders both left Los Angeles after the 1994 season, and while the Rams returned in 2017, the teams have a spotty legacy. Paul Urrutia, 38, and Mike Logan, 44, are L.A. natives who vividly remember both franchises playing in the city. Mike is still a big Rams fan. But their cousins Victor and Sabrina Velazquez are both 33 and don’t feel connected to the Rams or Raiders at all.
“My dad knew the L.A. Raiders and the L.A. Rams, but I didn’t,” Victor said. “I remember the Raiders to a certain extent, but for me the [L.A. Xtreme] was the actual first team in L.A.”
Greg Wellock showed up to Sunday’s Wildcats game wearing a Rod Smart “He Hate Me” jersey, a throwback to the original XFL, when players picked the names on their jerseys. “I’m an underdog guy,” Wellock said. “I’m all in on second chances, and a lot of these guys never even got a first chance.”
The only jersey more outrageous than Wellock’s on Sunday was Eric Vogel’s L.A. Kiss jersey. His Kiss jersey is decorated with flames, but the Wildcats had clearly sparked a new fire. Vogel was wearing a Packers hat, but he wanted to buy Wildcats hats for him and his son Cody. But so many people were buying merch that he had to visit three stadium stores to find one that still had any hats in stock. With just 15 minutes until kickoff and 30 people in line, Vogel was worried about missing the beginning of the game. Frustrated that the stadium did not have enough supply, he gestured toward the line. “The demand is there,” he said. “You can see it.”