Larry Stone: Seattle Dragons’ Ryan Gustafson believed XFL was making strides, ‘but you can’t control a pandemic’

  • CenturyLink Field, where MLS soccer's Seattle Sounders and the XFL's Seattle Dragons play home games, sits empty, Wednesday, March 11, 2020, in Seattle. In efforts to slow the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee announced a ban on large public gatherings in three counties in the metro Seattle area. That decision impacts the Seattle Mariners, Seattle Sounders, and the XFL's Seattle Dragons home games. (AP Photo/Stephen Brashear)

Ryan Gustafson always had a vision of what the XFL could be — a thriving spring football league that established itself in the community and provided quality entertainment while the NFL was dormant.

It was his confidence in achieving that in Seattle that prompted Gustafson to leave, at age 33, a solid position as vice president of business strategy and development for the Sounders. On April 1, 2019, Gustafson became the president of the Seattle Dragons, struggling on that first day to figure out the email system but bursting with plans.

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Throughout the Dragons’ inaugural XFL season, Gustafson retained his conviction that the league was headed precisely to that niche. There’s no doubt the Dragons were a flagship franchise.

“We had a lot of momentum, and there was so much fan support, and it was building every day,” he said Tuesday in a phone interview. “I think spring football as a concept absolutely can work.

“You need to have the right set of circumstances, the right strategy, and the right people. I think we had all those things. I absolutely believe this would have lasted a very long time and been very successful. We would have had our bumps in the road, but we would have overcome those.”

What the XFL couldn’t overcome, of course, was the COVID-19 pandemic that grounded the league to a screeching halt March 12 — halfway through its scheduled 10-week season. On March 20, the XFL officially canceled the remainder of the season but was proceeding with the intention to resume play next year.

That intent ended with unexpected abruptness Friday when the XFL’s COO, Jeffrey Pollack, held a 10-minute conference call with all the league’s employees. The XFL, he said, was suspending operations immediately, and everyone except for a skeleton crew in the league offices was being laid off.

Pollack didn’t say definitively that this second incarnation of the XFL was done forever, but those on the call came away with that strong belief. Gustafson declined to speculate on the future of the XFL but acknowledged, “I have the same impression.”

That likelihood was strengthened Monday when the XFL filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The league’s liabilities were estimated at between $10 million and $50 million, with seven of the eight head coaches listed as creditors. Bob Stoops of the Dallas Renegades topped the list at $1 million, while Seattle’s Jim Zorn is owed more than $500,000, according to the filing.

“We ceased operations as of Friday, and are on our way to new things,” is the diplomatic way Gustafson characterized the demise of the XFL and the Dragons.

The XFL thus joins the graveyard of failed startup football leagues, which includes the 2001 version of itself, and last year’s Alliance of American Football. This time, it’s not accurate to say, as in the past, that the NFL prevailed, though it certainly might well have eventually. Despite Gustafson’s optimism, leaguewide television ratings and attendance were in a steep decline when the league was shuttered.

No, the XFL was the first sporting victim not of the colossus that is the NFL, but of the even more formidable coronavirus. The ravages of the virus, and the lingering uncertainty, made the economic road map for resumption unmanageable. As Gustafson told his staff right after the conference call, there are many things in business you can control, “but you can’t control a pandemic.”

That didn’t make the news any easier to take, however. Between the shutdown of play March 12 — with the Dragons holding a 1-4 record, last in the West Division — and the jarring news of Friday, their 24 front-office employees were forging ahead, despite being sheltered at home, with putting together a business plan for 2021.

“We went from working 200 miles an hour to stopping pretty quickly,” he said. “But we were all full steam ahead for next year and had some really great thoughts and ideas on how to capture the momentum and grow it into the second season.”

Despite a stint that lasted just a year — almost to the day — Gustafson said: “I wouldn’t change the last year for anything. We’ll make something great of this one way or another.”

He expressed pride in his staff’s accomplishments (“if I did one thing right, it was hiring a really great group of people”) and gratitude to the fans who came out in high numbers despite the Dragons’ poor start.

“I knew Seattle would rally behind this,” said Gustafson, who grew up in Bellevue, “but even I was blown away by the support.”

Gustafson — who turned 34 in January — is still mulling his future, though he’s certain it will be in the sports field.

“The thing that matters to me most right now is doing right by people — the people that were involved in this, and the fans that supported us,” he said. “Certainly we live in a unique time where opportunities for jobs are tough. I know something great will come of it eventually. I’ve just got to focus on the process of doing the right thing and figuring out what the right next step is.”

In the meantime, Gustafson will cling to memories such as the 30,000 rabid fans for the home opener at CenturyLink Field, and the close relationships he developed with the staff, including Zorn and director of player personnel Tony Softli.

Of course, there will always be a wistfulness over what could have been, and the mystery of how the league would have progressed. No one will ever know if the XFL could have pulled through had the virus not changed the equation so definitively.

Beyond his staff, Gustafson feels empathy for the players, who went into this venture with a hunger to prolong their careers. A few will catch on with the NFL, but far more will be shut out from professional football. It’s hard to envision another startup league for a long time.

“That’s one of the toughest parts for me,” Gustafson said. “This league was built on opportunity — for fans, for coaches, for staff and certainly for players. I think the quality of play was getting better each week. These are really talented athletes, and they gave their all to this. They deserve to play the game they love.”

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On Monday, Gustafson went to the grocery store wearing a Dragons sweatshirt, one of a few keepsakes from his XFL stint. Several people lamented to him the shuttering of the league.

“I think we can all look back with pride on how we did things, and the joy we brought to people in our community, even if it was a shortened period of time,” Gustafson said.

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