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Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson bullish on Las Vegas, XFL

When Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson decided along with his business partner and ex-wife Dany Garcia to purchase the XFL out of bankruptcy in 2020, there was a potential market with a personal meaning.

“Vegas was very important to us,” Johnson said at UFC Apex this week. “It’s a critical part of our league. We always had our eyes on Vegas. We grew up together in the WWE, and Vegas was home to a lot of big events for us in WWE, so there has always been a special love for the city.

“As we were setting the league up, we looked across the board at all the cities that made sense for a variety of reasons and Vegas was always at the top.”

Las Vegas was one of the best markets for the XFL’s first incarnation in 2001, but two decades later, there’s a very different sports landscape. The NFL has arrived, along with the NHL and countless special events that now call either T-Mobile Arena or Allegiant Stadium home.

But the XFL still believes in the potential for a second-tier football league to find a niche.

“It just seemed to make sense to be here in Vegas,” said Russ Brandon, the XFL’s president of football operations and a former executive with the Buffalo Bills. “From our standpoint, we’ve had great commercial support. The local leaders here have been amazing to work with.

“It’s a pro sports town. People want more sports, and we can bring a different form of entertainment that is family affordable as well. So we think this can really fit the market in a meaningful way.”

The Vipers still haven’t formally announced where they will play games when the season starts in February, but sources close to the league indicate their preferred venue has been selected and contractual details are being worked out.

The league didn’t even wait until February to come to Las Vegas, however, as the inaugural draft was held at UFC Apex this week.

Coaches, executives and league personnel gathered to start assembling rosters in advance of the first season.

“It’s been a logistic frenzy,” Brandon said. “Just a lot of moving parts, but everyone has been amazing. We’ve got a great staff that has done around-the-clock work for this. We just felt this was the best spot to do this. The opportunity for us to be in Las Vegas just seemed to make all the sense in the world, and it couldn’t have gone better.

“It’s amazing to see the development since I was a young guy coming here. The Knights have done an amazing job, you have the Raiders here now. The Aces win a championship. The Summerlin baseball facility is amazing. It’s been a joy to be out here.”

Johnson said the entire process has been rewarding. His own football career ended not long after he went undrafted by the NFL. After a brief stint in the Canadian Football League, he was released and took up professional wrestling.

That worked out. But Johnson, now one of the biggest movie stars in the world, knows how valuable it is for players who wish to continue their football career to have an outlet like the XFL to continue working on their craft and either prolong their competitive days or even make an impression on an NFL franchise.

Brandon said the players in the XFL are essentially equivalent to 45 through 75 on an NFL roster, as some are just caught up in positional numbers games and others just quite aren’t there yet in terms of their maturation as athletes.

“A lot of these young men have the opportunity to continue to develop, and hopefully if they would like, to go on and play in the National Football League, which we encourage,” he said. “So from that standpoint, that’s what we’re all here for.”

While it’s not a direct feeder league and there is no formal agreement in place in terms of player movement between the leagues, this new version of the XFL is unique from other spring startup leagues in that it does have an arrangement in place with the NFL.

The XFL will be a testing ground for potential new rules, innovations and ideas that the NFL may want to try in a real-world setting.

Dean Blandino, a network rules analyst and the NFL’s former VP of officiating, is the head of officiating for the XFL and will help drive such experiments.

“We’re going to do things that are different that can provide a proof of concept for our relationship with the NFL,” Brandon said. “We could test-market some things on the rules or concept side through our partnership with ESPN and ABC. So I’m really looking forward to that question of, ‘How can you bring things a little different to fans?”

That doesn’t mean the league is going to bring back things like the mad scramble for the ball to determine opening possession that resulted in disaster when Orlando’s Hassan Shamsid-Deen suffered a dislocated shoulder in the opening game of the first incarnation of the XFL.

“We will be a league of innovation,” Brandon said. “But we will not be a league of gimmicks.”

The first version of the league in 2001 lasted just one season. While its chaos has almost become as nostalgic as it was comical, the game presentation truly was a game-changer in television production, from which even the NFL borrowed.

The XFL returned in 2020 only to be halted by the coronavirus pandemic early in its season. Now there is optimism from league officials that the relaunch will finally be the version that takes hold and carves out a lasting place in the football landscape.

A multiyear television deal is a major reason for the confidence. All 43 games, 40 in the regular season and three playoff matchups, will be broadcast on a combination of ABC, FX and ESPN networks. The deal runs through 2027, but the league hopes that TV is just a conduit to get fans to experience the product live.

“I was in the NFL for 20-plus years, and we used to always say our biggest form of competition was those 60-inch televisions sitting in your living room,” Brandon said. “Because you have the creature comforts of everything you want right there. You have to make the experience something that’s meaningful and one that creates memories. There’s nothing better than to be able to come out with your family or friends and to say you were there. That’s why we’re in this business.”

For Johnson, it’s also about seeing athletes have the chance to keep chasing a dream.

His enthusiasm in filling the Roger Goodell role of announcing some of the early picks of the XFL draft on Wednesday, particularly the defensive linemen and the prospects from south Florida or Hawaii, was infectious in the room.

While his post-football career has gone pretty well, he still remembers the anguish of sitting around his apartment on draft day waiting for a call that never came. He said the only time his phone rang was his grandmother asking if he had been drafted.

Playing in Canada was one of the only options he had to continue playing football, and it didn’t work out.

“I wish the XFL was around when I was playing,” he said. “But my advice is don’t let it go. Keep trying and working hard because you never know what’s around the corner.”

The same may be true of this latest attempt by his league to make a go of it once and for all.

Contact Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AdamHillLVRJ on Twitter.

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