Remember the XFL?
Though it may be regarded as a joke today, the XFL was a big deal for a few months in 2001. The brainchild of the WWF’s Vince McMahon, the XFL was a football league that, like the USFL before it, would play during the NFL’s off-season. McMahon promised that, if the NFL was now the “No Fun League,” the XFL would be the “Extra Fun League.” McMahon’s longtime friend and the President of NBC sports, Dick Ebersol, purchased the rights to broadcast the XFL’s first two seasons.
Ebersol and McMahon put together the XFL (8 teams and 2 divisions) in just a year’s time. They recruited players who hadn’t been able to find a place in NFL. Using many of the same techniques that he perfected in the world of professional wrestling, McMahon encouraged the players to be big personalities and allowed them to pick their own nicknames. Rod Smart would briefly become a star as He Hate Me while another player requested to be known as Teabagger. McMahon tweaked the rules, encouraging faster and more aggressive play. Instead of a coin flip, each game would start with two opposing players scrambling for the ball. The XFL was not only more violent than the NFL but it also had sexier cheerleaders.
In 2001, I was really excited for the XFL. It was everything that an 18 year-old male football fan could hope for. I was one of the 14 million people who watched the very first broadcast. I watched half of the second broadcast and that was it. I lost interest and I was not alone. The XFL started with higher ratings than expected but the final games of that inaugural season set records for being the lowest-rated prime time sports telecasts in history.
What went wrong? That’s what ESPN’s latest 30 for 30 documentary, This Was The XFL, explains. Directed by Dick Ebersol’s son, Charlie, This Was The XFL features interviews with McMahon, the senior Ebersol, players like Rod Smart and Tommy Maddox, and sports journalists like Bob Costas. The XFL’s rise and demise is presented as being a comedy of errors. Already viewed with skepticism because of McMahon’s unsavory reputation, the XFL was doomed by a combination of terrible luck and bad gameplay that confirmed why many XFL players couldn’t find a place in the NFL. During the first week, several players were injured during the opening scramble. In the 2nd week, a power outage interrupted the broadcast of a game in Los Angeles. With ratings in freefall, McMahon resorted to playing up the cheerleaders and sending Gov. Jesse “The Body” Ventura onto the field so that he could harass the coaches during the game. Trying to do damage control, McMahon appeared on The Bob Costas Show and their hostile interview is one of the highlights of the documentary. Even if the league ultimately failed, it is impossible not to admire McMahon’s determination to shake things up.
The XFL’s first season was also its last but, as This Was The XFL makes clear, its legacy is still evident today. Miked-up players, the skycam, sideline interviews, all of these are the legacy of the XFL. Even Jerry Jones, when interviewed, says that the XFL changed the way that NFL football is broadcast.
With this being Super Bowl weekend, take a moment to raise a toast to the memory of the XFL.