LAS VEGAS — You never want to base your judgement on a first impression, but as I watched the XFL’s return to Las Vegas on a gloomy, rainy and cold Saturday, I left Cashman Field wondering if this is going to work here.
Not here as in Cashman, but here, as in Las Vegas, which is now a major league sports town that may be getting a Major League Baseball team, an NBA expansion franchise and a Major League Soccer team in the not-too-distant future.
The Vegas Vipers, the local entry in the third iteration of the XFL, are not exactly an offensive juggernaut. The Vipers managed just six points, which came off an early fumble recovery, had only 198 yards of total offense and fell to the D.C, Defenders 18-6 to drop to 0-2.
Man, this team could have used Rod Smart aka “He Hate Me.” You remember him from the first XFL go-round here in 2001 with the Las Vegas Outlaws?
But there were no cool nicknames on the backs of the players’ uniforms. No cheerleaders to ogle. No crazy gimmicks, though the XFL does have a few rules wrinkles like multiple conversion chances after touchdowns and kickoffs where no one can move until the receiving team actually catches the ball.
It is pretty much football the way we know and understand it. An announced crowd of 6,023 braved the elements though many left by the start of the fourth quarter as the rain intensified and the Vipers’ defense wilted under a heavy dose of rushing by the Defenders. Sort of like how the Wicked Witch of the West melted away after Dorothy doused her with a bucket of water in the Wizard of Oz.
The XFL was determined to put a team in this market as one of its eight teams, even if the accommodations were less than stellar. Allegiant Stadium was not made available. Sam Boyd Stadium, which would have been the ideal place to play, is no longer in use. Las Vegas Ballpark in Summerlin, which is home to the Triple-A Las Vegas Aviators did not want football played on its baseball field.
That left Cashman Field, which is a baseball stadium now used for pro soccer and has seen better days since its opening in 1983, was the only other realistic option. It was that or play at Bishop Gorman High School, which really wasn’t a viable alternative.
The playing surface was aesthetically a disaster. There were a pair of tire tracks running diagonally across the field from earlier in the week that were caused by a piece of heavy equipment cutting across the field that had to be patched up and re-sodded and it was an eyesore. They painted the grass green to look better on TV but it didn’t really help.
Several injuries to both teams were suffered though nobody was blaming the field per se. Guys were slipping as the rain came down and it was especially perilous for the kickers.
Suffice to say, Rod Woodson, the head coach of Vegas, was hardly in a conciliatory mood after seeing his team go to 0-2 despite having the services of Brett Hundley at quarterback. You may recall Hundley was taking snaps for the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens only a couple of months ago. He is reportedly the XFL’s highest-paid player, getting $200,000.
He’s going to need to do better to earn that salary. He threw for just 98 yards on 11-of-18 passing, was sacked twice as he split time with Luis Perez, who started and struggled before giving way to Hundley.
Woodson may be the XFL’s answer to John Tortorella, the veteran NHL coach who has a reputation for not mincing words or being touchy-feely when it comes to dealing with the media.
“If I had the answer, it wouldn’t happen,” he replied when someone asked him about his team’s second-half woes. The Vipers have been outscored 34-6 in their first two games after intermission after outscoring the opposition 20-3 in the first 30 minutes. “Football is not a complicated game. You work collectively or you lose.”
A lack of offense and an 0-2 start is not the way to build a fan base. Many came to the game as I did, with an open mind, looking to be entertained and find a connection with this team. They bought their beers, laid out $27.99 for a Vipers T-shirt, $24.99 for a hat or $54.99 for a hoodie as business appeared brisk at the XFL Shop kiosk on what used to be behind first base. Tickets were affordable ($17 for a seat in the end zone, $54 to sit around midfield) and parking was free, a nice departure from most venues in Las Vegas.
Cashman Field only seats 8,000, so for it to be 75 percent at capacity had to please XFL officials.
“We believe that Vegas is a great market,” said Russ Brandon, the president of league and football operations. “We wanted it to be part of our relaunch.
“We’re a fan-friendly league. We want to make it affordable for families. We’ve got great interaction from the league and the team and the fans on our social media platforms.”
But if this is going to work here, or in all the markets for that matter, the quality of football, particularly on offense, needs to improve. Reggie Barlow, the D.C. coach, admitted that the defense is usually ahead of the offense and that he believes offenses around the league will pick up the pace.
“There’s a lot of skill guys in this league (on offense) but these defensive guys are competing at a pretty high level,” Barlow said.
In the first two weeks of play, only one XFL team — Houston — scored more than 30 points (the Roughnecks beat Orlando 33-12 in Week 1). People are not going to tune in or show up to watch defensive football, no matter how competitive it is. They want to see points up on the scoreboard, which was hard to do at Cashman Field since it didn’t have a scoreboard per se. A video board below the broadcast tower on the D.C. sideline served as a scoreboard.
Oh, and someone might want to paint over the sign on the wall near the concourse touting buying tickets to the Las Vegas 51s on Ticketmaster. The 51s left Cashman Field five years ago.
Brandon said the XFL is committed to Las Vegas long-term.
“We’re gonna build and build,” he said. “We’re here for the long haul.”
If that’s the case, the XFL better find a suitable place to play and leave Cashman to the Lights FC soccer team. Five of the XFL’s eight teams play in NFL markets, yet only one — Seattle — plays in an NFL stadium (Seattle in Lumen Field).
Meanwhile, let’s see how many of the 6,023 return this Saturday when Vegas hosts Seattle. It’s supposed to be 64 degrees and partly sunny.
Hey, it’s cause for optimism. At least you can leave the raincoat and umbrella at home if you decide to go.