A new team—and a new league—in Washington

The XFL, a new football league owned by Vince McMahon’s Alpha Entertainment, is set to launch this spring with a new team representing the D.C. region. To learn more about the DC Defenders, and the opportunities that the XFL league will bring to the area, we spoke with Erik Moses, president of the local team.

ABERMAN: How did you get into the sports industry as a career?

MOSES: It’s an interesting, winding road. So, I went to undergrad at the University of North Carolina. We like to call ourselves the University of National Champions. And I went to school with a lot of guys who ended up playing professionally in football and basketball. And then, I went to law school at our hated rival down the street, at Duke University, and went to law school thinking I would be a sports agent. And so, I was always very interested in the business of sports. Certainly a fan, played a little bit all the way through high school, but really always was interested in the way sports worked from a business standpoint. And then when I graduated from law school, with quite a bit of debt, I figured I wasn’t gonna be able to pay off those law school loans by chasing 20 and 21 year old kids around the country to try to get them to sign with me.

So, I came to Washington, D.C. to be a communications attorney. It’s been a long, winding professional road. But I got a call from Mayor Fenty who said, we’d like you to come in and run what was then the D.C. Sports Entertainment Commission, and finish up Nationals Park, and close that out, and then broaden out that that agency that had been focused on baseball for quite a while. Bringing the Nats to D.C. first at RFK, getting RFK together, then building Nats Park. And really, its mission was to attract, promote and host sporting entertainment events for the city. And they wanted me to close one project out, and get back to that broader mission.

ABERMAN: It’s very interesting to me how underappreciated sports is as an economic development engine in a community.

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MOSES: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, a big part of why the commission existed, and now its subsequent organization, which is Events D.C., with who I worked the last 10 years, is really about what those kinds of large scale events can do for the tax base here, and for the economic base here. So in addition to those events making our city a more vibrant place to live, it makes it a better place to visit. I mean, we want people coming here from outside of the region, staying in our hotels, eating in our restaurants, riding on our metro system, because all of that creates economic impact in a positive way for our city.

ABERMAN: It’s been very interesting watching D.C. grow and change, first with what was then the MCI Center, and now Nationals Park. It clearly makes a difference. We have people there night after night, and day after day. So you’re involved in this from the standpoint of helping to build the infrastructure for sports industry, as it were, and then you suddenly have this opportunity. It’s almost like a dream come true for any kid who’s played fantasy sports. You’re president of a team, for God sakes. How did you get the opportunity to do this? What prompted you to take it?

MOSES: I was recruited by an executive search firm for this opportunity. And frankly, they were one that I had had some conversations with about other opportunities in the past. And they said to me, as soon as this came across our desk, we knew the perfect person for it. And thankfully, Mr. McMahon, and Commissioner Luck, and our president, Jeffrey Pollack, agreed with him. It is, for me, I think, the natural extension of what I’ve been doing over my career, and certainly the last 10 years. I get to stay in a city that I love. I get to continue to promote this city, but I get to focus on one team, and on building that team from the ground up. And it’s a really unique opportunity. It sounds corny to say, but I’ll keep saying it until people tell me I can’t: it’s an opportunity to make history. And how often do we get to do that in our career?

ABERMAN: You know, I find that the people that come on the show, what they generally have in common is they like building things. You know, that’s something that really ties this community together in a really big way. People like to change things, like to serve. I’m looking at the XFL, and I’m seeing an opportunity to build a new league. But I’m also seeing other leagues that have tried, over the years, to do spring football. How are you approaching this that’s going to make it more likely to be successful, do you think?

MOSES: Yeah, I think we have a couple of benefits that other leagues have not had. One, this is the second iteration of the XFL. So our chairman, Vince McMahon, who is also chairman and CEO of the WWE, has gone down this road before, and I think learned a lot from that experience, almost 20 years ago. What people forget about that, you know, some call it a failed experiment, is that, the way that we consume sports in this country was changed in a very significant way by the XFL. The sky cam that’s become ubiquitous with all sporting events that’s on that wire above the field, that takes those pictures, that came from the XFL. Miking up players, so you could hear them during the game, that came from the XFL. Even the thing that people remember the most, which is the nicknames on the back of the jerseys. The NBA does that for a couple of games a year, they let guys put their nicknames on the back.

So, all of these creative and innovative fan-focused things came out of the XFL. What I believe that we learned from that is that, having a league that is willing to take chances, and willing to be an innovation platform for the way the game is played as well as the way the game is presented, is something that works, and that people want to see. And so, you know, I like to say we will benefit from the hundred years of NFL history, the 150 years of college football history, but we’re not limited by it. We get to try different things out. So, Vince announced in January of 2018 that we’d get started in February of 2020. So, there’s a two year runway. There’s all the accumulated knowledge from 20 years ago, and from last year. He had the Alliance of American Football that Charlie Ebersol and Bill Polian started out. And we think, in my very humble opinion, that they rushed to get their product out a year before ours. And, you know, unfortunately, they didn’t make it through their first season. And so we have, I think, the vision, leadership, and the financing necessary to really stand up a league like this, which is not cheap, as we all know.

ABERMAN: I think the rushing point is actually, forgive the football pun, a very important point here. Football is a sport that, when it’s played well, it’s played well because you have good players and good coaching. Otherwise, it’s just boring, honestly. And I think all of us, my guess, there, Eric, you included, we all play fantasy sports and fantasize that we would have an opportunity to put a team together. What’s it actually like to build a team, and be able to put something together that can be properly coached, and be a good product on the field?

MOSES: It’s a lot of fun. It’s certainly a lot of work. A couple of things to point out. So, we are a single entity structure, meaning that Alpha Entertainment, the company started by Mr. McMahon to relaunch the league, owns all eight teams. And so, the great thing about that is, while we will compete very hard on the field, we are all trying to create the tide that raises all boats, right. Because we will live and die together as a league. And so, having the feeling that you are in these trenches, with my seven other colleagues who are running those other teams, has been very useful for me. We also have a slightly different structure. So, because we’re a single entity, Commissioner Luck runs all of football operations, and all of the football people, if you will, report to him. And that includes our coaches, who are also our GMs. So, all of our head coaches are head coach and GM. As the saying goes, they get to pick the groceries and make the make the meal.

And I run business operations. And so, I create a staff to run business operations. That’s ticket sales and sponsorships, that’s social media, it’s marketing, it’s all of the things that touch the fan experience, fan engagement, and the business part of the team. So, it’s been fun. I love my partnership with Pep Hamilton, who is our coach and GM. He’s a son of Howard University, was Andrew Luck’s quarterbacks coach in college and in the pros. Most recently, the assistant head coach at the University of Michigan. And so, he’s an offensive guru, and somebody who our players we’ve drafted and have already said, they want to play for this guy. And so, we have a great partnership, and building this together with him has been a lot of fun thus far.

ABERMAN: It’s interesting to me, as you described the organization, it feels to me like what’s different here is that instead of there being multiple teams competing, the teams are competing within a common structure. It’s going to be very interesting to see how that dynamic is different. Football is one of these games that there’ve been dark clouds over, just generally, with all the concerns about concussions and player health, and a lot of politicization recently. How do you see your league react in relation to those clouds?

MOSES: Football is a sport that is, in some ways, inherently dangerous, when you have big men who are very fast running into each other at high rates of speed. We have a health and safety committee that we put together even before the league launched. There’s a lot of focus on, how do we make the game incrementally safer? And some of our rule changes and innovations around the rules are done for that purpose. To give you an example, on our kickoffs, the coverage team and the kickoff team are likely to be much closer together than they are in other football league. So, five yards apart, which means less high velocity collisions, etc. But we’re going to be very mindful of it.

I think we’re going to take the right approach from the very beginning, which is to identify it as an area of priority, to have experts on staff who will allow us to collect data and analyze data and look for again, rule changes and rule innovations that make the game more exciting, but also can make the game safer. And that’s something that being a brand new league allows you to do. We can take chances. We can experiment. We can do things that are different. And if we get those things right, then who knows? Maybe they get adopted by the NFL, by the CFL, and even by college football.

ABERMAN: It’s interesting. I think your structure, organizationally, will allow you to be more agile, more like a startup, if you want to change something. Fascinating to watch how it develops. Last question before I let you go, Erik. This must be a strange and wondrous thing, to be in the middle of all these things. I can only imagine. What’s been the most wild, I can’t believe this has happened to me, experience you’ve had so far?

MOSES:We had our player draft a couple of weeks ago, and our quarterback, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention him, because I think with the best quarterback in the league, is Cardale Jones, who played at the Ohio State University, and won a national championship in 2015. Remarkable young man, 6 foot 5, 260 pounds, arm like a cannon. We had our first fan meet and greet when he was in town, had about 200 people show up to cheer on the Defenders, and hear from him and Pep and myself. And that evening, I actually signed five autographs, which blew the top of my head off. Because literally, each time I was asked, I kind of went, you want what now? From who?

And so, I had the conversation after the meet and greet with Pep and with Cardale. And I said, you guys are accustomed to this, right? One’s a big star, the other’s a coach at the highest levels, you guys are used to being kind of celebrities in this way. I come most recently from a quasi-governmental experience. So, when people want to talk to me after a get-together, it’s usually to complain, not to ask for autographs or pictures. So, that was the most remarkable day I’ve had. So, it was a lot of fun. I know that may change once we start playing, but that was a pretty heady experience.

ABERMAN: Well, Erik Moses, before I let you leave today, I’m going to make you sign something for me, too. But thanks for coming on the show today, and good luck with DC Defenders.

MOSES: Thank you for having me.

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