Over multiple weekends this spring, the NCAA’s Oliver Luck traveled to the XFL’s headquarters in Stamford, Conn., to meet with Vince McMahon, the league’s founder and billionaire chairman of WWE.
Luck didn’t know McMahon well, so as the XFL was courting him to become its CEO and commissioner, Luck wanted to be sure he would be stepping into a serious football enterprise if he left his high-level position at the NCAA, not a repeat of the short-lived, gimmick-filled attempt the XFL tried in 2001.
The new league, working with sports and entertainment search firm James & Co., needed an accomplished, credible football executive and it was willing to pay top dollar. Sources, including some who were approached about the job during the six-month search, said the XFL was offering a guaranteed $20 million over multiple years, a number that could grow to more than $30 million if the spring league succeeds.
Luck, who played five years in the NFL as a backup quarterback, studied the XFL’s most recent research and met with senior staff before he finally agreed during the last week in May to run the XFL.
“I love college sports, but this is a special opportunity,” said Luck, who was widely considered the NCAA’s No. 2 to President Mark Emmert and potentially the heir apparent for the top job. “I have a real passion for football, and the opportunity to collaborate with Vince is awesome. He’s a tremendous entrepreneur with a track record of success.”
Luck said he was drawn to the infrastructure McMahon is putting into place for the single-entity XFL, which plans to launch in early 2020 with eight teams and a 10-week regular season. When McMahon announced the XFL’s return in January, he said it would take more than $100 million to get it off the ground, and he has sold $100 million in WWE stock so far to begin funding the startup.
“The key ingredients in my mind are that there’s a well-capitalized launch, there’s a long-term approach and we’ve got time to put together the highest-quality coaching staffs,” Luck said. “We can take our time to identify the best marketplaces. Because of the experience Vince has and the media savvy of the WWE, we can build this right, we can build it for the long term and, most importantly, deliver great football.”
Three primary tasks will be front and center for Luck once he starts next month.
He intends to assemble a medical advisory committee so that the league is “on the cutting edge for health and safety of our players,” he said. Also, the XFL is moving ahead on selecting its eight markets, as last week the league sent out RFPs to 30 cities.
Luck wouldn’t say if the XFL will look at markets where Charlie Ebersol’s Alliance of American Football has already established teams. The AAF added Birmingham, Ala., last week to go with San Diego, Atlanta, Orlando, Memphis, Salt Lake City and Phoenix, giving Ebersol seven of his eight teams to start the league in February 2019.
“Our focus is on what we think we need to do,” Luck said.
Lastly, Luck said the league will begin to establish a plan for how to implement technology into digital broadcasts and fan enhancements.
Luck is no stranger to startups. As the first president and GM of the expansion Houston Dynamo in 2006, Luck guided the team to the MLS Cup title that inaugural season. Earlier in his career, Luck was instrumental in the start of the World League of American Football as Frankfurt’s GM in 1991 and later served as president of NFL Europe from 1996-2000.
More recently, Luck emerged as one of the most influential figures in college sports, first as athletic director at his alma mater, West Virginia, where he shepherded the Mountaineers into the Big 12. In December 2014, the NCAA announced that it had hired Luck as executive vice president of regulatory affairs and partnerships.
“Almost everything I’ve done as a player, practicing law, launching franchises overseas, NFL Europe, launching the Dynamo, all of those experiences will provide me with the background to take on what’s going to be an enormous challenge,” he said.
Luck said he’ll work at the NCAA through the end of the month. He will relocate to Stamford, Conn., where he’ll work from the XFL’s headquarters.