The XFL won’t be competing with the NFL for fans. But the resurrected spring league will be competing with the NFL for certain players.
With Matthew Stafford still dealing with a back injury, the Lions wanted to bring back quarterback Josh Johnson. But Johnson had joined the XFL. And, according to Adam Schefter of ESPN.com, the XFL declined to release Johnson from his contract.
It’s the most obvious consequence of signing an XFL contract; the player is bound to the XFL until he’s released or his XFL’s team season ends.
The XFL’s position is buoyed by the absence of competition. If there were two spring leagues, the fact that one freely allowed players to leave for the NFL would put pressure on the other one to follow suit.
Speaking of pressure, it will be interesting to see whether the NFL tries to apply pressure to ESPN and FOX, the two XFL broadcast partners, to let players out when the XFL comes calling. A compromise would be simple; Johnson could join the Lions (or any other team) until the NFL season ends, and he’d then return to the XFL team that holds his rights. While this would potentially impact his ability to prepare for the XFL season in early February (especially if his NFL team plays deep into January), it would allow the player to make much more as an NFL player until he makes far less in the XFL.
Regardless, the NFL’s position regarding spring leagues generally is that the NFL doesn’t care about them unless and until they impact NFL teams in a negative way. The inability of the Lions to re-sign Johnson becomes the first tangible example of the XFL’s existence inconveniencing the NFL.