Originally presented at Canadian Bulldog's World
With the NFL’s 2017 season in full force and owners puzzling over their latest ratings slump, I couldn’t help but think of the XFL; Vince McMahon and Dick Ebersol’s attempt to bring football to NBC. ESPN recently covered the XFL story in This Was the XFL, one of their 30 for 30 documentaries (directed by Ebersol’s son Charlie) and it was a good overview of what happened, primarily what went wrong. The documentary is 77 minutes long, and while it’s by no means comprehensive, it’s good enough for all but the most diehard XFL fans who want an overview of the short-lived football league. For those who don’t have access to ESPN, the documentary is available on DVD, but is it worth buying?
In 2000, Vince McMahon announced he was forming his own football league, a statement that caught many people off-guard. The hype over the next year was incredible, and when the league debuted, people wondered what the XFL would deliver. Would it be a worked event such as wrestling? Would XFL players smash each other with steel chairs? As ludicrous as these questions were, they reflected the uncertainty of what to expect in the XFL. This curiosity may be why things turned out the way they did during the XFL’s first week.
The XFL overdelivered its rating the first week, scoring a 10 (other sources state a 9.5), over twice what NBC had guaranteed advertisers. However, the ratings revealed the audience had dropped by a third by the end of the night. People tuned in, but a significant portion of the audience left.
The XFL’s second week was arguably the organization’s last chance to succeed. One insider believed the XFL only had the first half of their first game to succeed. Most observers felt the football in the first week’s spotlight game was a shade of the level of play in the NFL. However, week two’s game between the Los Angeles Extreme and the Chicago Enforcers got off to a good start. First, WWF Superstar the Rock introduced the game, and as the game began to be played, it was clear the fans were in for a good game. Then, out of nowhere, the screen went back and a “Please Stand By” slide popped up on television sets for nearly two minutes. Two minutes is an eternity for most tv viewers so it’s likely many people changed the channel. NBC finally switched to a game between Orlando and San Francisco while its Los Angeles crew puzzled out the problem. There were plenty of backup generators, but test after test revealed no answer to the question of why nothing would work. Finally, after 27 minutes off the air, technicians discovered the back-up generators had not been gassed up. Power was restored, but the game ran over, cutting into Saturday Night Live’s timeslot and pushing a new episode featuring guest host Jennifer Lopez back until after midnight. Even worse, the XFL’s ratings had dropped over fifty percent for week two.
As the documentary shows, things only got worse for the XFL. Every week the ratings dropped, despite efforts to change up gameplay or add sensational features such as stunt where a cameraman would go in the cheerleaders’ locker room during halftime. The XFL quickly became a joke, with sportswriters more than willing to take shots at the XFL. Vince McMahon’s dismissive comments of the press came back to haunt him, something the documentary shows in detail.
The documentary features commentary from a number of people involved in the XFL and NBC Sports. It also features Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who actually seems like a fan of the upstart league. There are comments from a few XFL players (including Tommy Maddox who went on to win the 2005 Super Bowl with the Pittsburg Steelers), XFL technicians, XFL executives, and the two men who engineered the XFL, Dick Ebersol and Vince McMahon. Both Ebersol and McMahon seem up-front about the league’s failure and the reasons behind the debacle known as the XFL.
This Was the XFL is a story about the friendship between Vince McMahon and Dick Ebersol as much as the XFL itself. Both men’s lives and careers intertwined in 1985 when they began working on Saturday Night’s Main Event, a World Wrestling Federation special that aired several times a year in lieu of Saturday Night Live repeats. McMahon and Ebersol became fast friends and when McMahon announced his XFL, Ebersol knew he’d found the business partner he needed to bring football back to NBC.
NBC’s Bob Costas is interviewed for the film and he drips with venom, both for the XFL and Vince McMahon. Costas argues his only interests were protecting his benefactor Dick Ebersol, and NBC Sports’ reputation, thus his eventual attacks on the XFL. As the documentary makes clear, Ebersol kept NBC Sports’ traditional broadcasters away from the XFL. Costas took a subdued approach during the XFL’s run, that is until Vince McMahon appeared on Costas’ HBO show where it looked like McMahon was going to come to blows with Costas. Years later, Costas holds nothing back and it’s apparent he’s happy the XFL failed.
And fail it did. Why though did the XFL fail though? The documentary examines this and concludes the XFL just didn’t deliver the standard of play the fans were looking for. Fans could overlook the gimmicks like the XFL’s attempt to start a feud between announcer Jesse “The Body” Ventura and coach Rusty Tillman, or the hot tub full of strippers in the end zone. What they couldn’t overlook was the awful football being played. There were some exciting games, but they were the exception. Ultimately, the XFL became one of the biggest disasters in television history. The XFL was guaranteed a two-season spot on NBC, but by the end of the first season, the ratings had broken records for the lowest-rated show in television history, making it impossible for the show to go on, despite a binding contract. As the documentary shows, Ebersol was able to persuade McMahon to bow out of the deal with NBC. The documentary ends with McMahon and Ebersol sitting down to discuss their experiences (albeit too briefly) and muse about what might have been (as well as what might be, with McMahon hinting of an XFL-like project as a possibility).
While the documentary provides a good overview, it’s not as thorough as it could be. This Was the XFL doesn’t go into detail about the lives of the XFL players, NFL cast-offs and hopefuls that saw a chance to not only make the road to the NFL, but just play football. There was a lot of excitement behind the scenes, despite the low pay, and the fact the players practiced for a month virtually for free. Nonetheless, This Was the XFL is a fun look at one of television’s epic fails and while the documentary isn’t worth buying, it’s definitely worth watching.