30 For 30 shrugs at the train wreck that was the XFL

Do sports qualify as entertainment, or are they news? That usually depends on who’s telling the story and why. At a very basic level, a football game is a public event, which print and broadcast reporters cover like any other: by relaying facts, offering analysis and historical context, and weaving in corroborating quotes from both neutral and partisan observers. But for the TV networks carrying that game, it’s also a product they’re selling—which limits how much journalists working for that network can be objective and honest about what’s happening on the field, in the locker room, and in the executive suites.

In 2001, NBC and World Wrestling Federation owner Vince McMahon all but eliminated the boundaries between creating spectacles and covering them when the two organizations teamed up to produce and promote a new professional football league. The trendily named “XFL” was designed to solve two problems—neither of which was really all that serious. For NBC Sports President Dick Ebersol, the XFL was a chance to bring football back to a network that had lost the rights to the NFL, and which was still feeling the ratings repercussions of no longer airing America’s most popular sport. For McMahon… well, it was harder to pin down what he hoped to get out of the whole venture, outside of a massive ego stroke.

The latest 30 For 30 episode “This Was The XFL” does a fine job of breaking down what went wrong in the league’s first and only season, but has a harder time explaining why it needed to exist in the first place. Director Charlie Ebersol—yes, Dick’s son—kicks off the documentary with a zippy history of the NFL on NBC, with a digression into the fruitful longtime business relationship between the network and the WWE. Frankly the setup moves too quickly, and leaves too much out—about how and why the NFL became such big TV business and how hard it is for a newcomer to join such an exclusive club. (Plus, the interviews in this opening and throughout the doc are distractingly shot, with arty cutaway angles that add only flash.) The biggest blank in the episode is McMahon, who in modern-day interviews seems only mildly humbled by the disaster that was his brainchild. “This Was The XFL” leaves a lot of questions unanswered, but the big one is, what makes a guy like McMahon tick?

For those looking for contemporary resonances—especially given McMahon’s vocal and financial support of President Donald Trump—“This Was The XFL” provides plenty, even if it never makes those connections directly. The scenes of McMahon introducing and hyping his league in press conferences and interviews have an uncanny resemblance to Trump on the campaign trail, sounding like a fired-up talk-radio caller, insisting that something well-liked and measurably successful is actually terrible. At the turn of the millennium, McMahon picked up on the old-man complaint that “football ain’t what it used to be” and insisted that with his flair for showmanship and understanding of what “tough” looks like, he could create a version of the game that would be more violent, more dramatic, and more fun.

As it turned out, all McMahon really had in mind before he announced the XFL was a vague ideal, and only a handful of specific ideas for how to change the game. At its best, this doc illustrates the folly of trying to reverse-engineer an organization as massive and time-tested as the NFL—especially when the creator begins the endeavor by insulting and dismissing those who know how to make it work.

A lot of the pleasure of “This Was The XFL” stems from pure schadenfreude, watching how what McMahon and company came up with turned out to be either dangerous or unpopular. In one of the first games, “the scramble”—a first-to-get-the-football-decides-possession innovation that replaced the NFL’s coin toss—led to a season-ending injury. NBC made a big deal in promos about how the XFL had “no fair catches” and how the cameras and microphones would “take you places where the NFL is afraid to go.” But in execution, eliminating the fair catch led to more kickoffs where the returner just let the ball drop and roll (rather than the daring runs and hard hits McMahon and company envisioned), and invading the privacy of coaches, players, and cheerleaders led either to genuinely surly and uncomfortable confrontations or awkwardly staged pro-wrestling-style sketches.

“This Was The XFL” isn’t exactly critical of the league. Charlie Ebersol’s tone is more bemused, and even sympathetic. The documentary includes upbeat interviews with Jay Howarth, who helped design the skimpy cheerleader uniforms, and Rod Smart, the Las Vegas Outlaws running back who took advantage of the league’s “nicknames encouraged” jersey policy to introduce himself to the world as “He Hate Me.” Various NBC marketing folks all pat themselves on the back for generating enough curiosity about the league to pull in 54 million viewers on opening night—about double what they’d promised advertisers.

But it’s indicative of the “shit happens”-level analysis of “This Was The XFL” that the league’s stellar debut is ultimately recast as a case of bad luck—just like when the XFL blimp crashed or when a key early game was delayed due to a faulty generator. In this case, when the poor quality of play on night one didn’t live up to the hype, the initial huge TV audience turned the league off for good. That failure is presented here more as an unfortunate glitch than a systemic screwup. At times, it seems like this doc is more interested in celebrating the XFL’s better ideas—like adding more dynamic field-level cameras and putting teams in underserved markets like Las Vegas—than in examining how misbegotten the whole concept was in the first place.

To be fair, Ebersol does include dissenting voices, including vintage clips from an openly skeptical ESPN, an interview with XFL play-by-play announcer Matt Vasgersian (who annoyed McMahon with his on-air honesty about the cruddy football and corny WWE theatrics), and veteran NBC Sports personality Bob Costas. The latter was protected by his longtime boss, Dick Ebersol, from having anything to do with the XFL, and in the new interviews Costas rips apart McMahon’s whole premise that the brain-trauma-prone NFL was too “sissified.” More gripping is an extended clip of Costas interviewing an increasingly irritated and combative McMahon, who blames the dishonest media and “guys like you” for cheering on the XFL’s failure.

But perhaps because this episode was put together by the son of one the XFL’s two major partners—who himself was good friends with the other one—a lot of cogent critiques go under-argued, if they come up at all. The details of how the league rose and fell are all entertaining to watch, and the archival clips will be of interest to sports fans who bailed on the XFL after week one. But there’s so much more that could’ve been said here about the arrogance of a wealthy blowhard trying to bend an American institution to his will, and about the complicity of a mainstream media more interested in money than integrity.

Rod Smart (Photo: ESPN)

The Unlikely Legacy of Vince McMahon's XFL

In February 2000, Vince McMahon stood in front of a podium at the WWE Restaurant in Times Square and announced he would be starting a new football league. McMahon was at the height of his influence, having propelled the WWF past WCW in the wrestling hierarchy with the Attitude Era, led by superstars like The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin. His football league, the XFL, would be a game changer, taking football culture’s proclivity for sex and violence to its illogical extreme. It would be the antithesis of the NFL, which McMahon, in his typical bluster, called the No Fun League.

It was a promising beginning. And then, after a single brief season, the XFL would be no more.

The rise and very abrupt fall of the McMahon’s football aspirations is detailed in a full-length 30 for 30 feature called This Was The XFL debuting this Thursday at 9 P.M. ET on ESPN. While the XFL only lasted one full season, the documentary distills the different elements that made the XFL both a cautionary tale, and leaves the notion that the league itself was an influencer in sports and entertainment. In the film, NBC executive Dick Ebersol, whose company had a 50-50 stake in the league, called the football league a laboratory for experimentation. And given McMahon’s penchant for playing things up for ratings, the XFL excelled in teasing their product prior to launch. “I had forgotten just how far we took with the marketing and promotion thinking people would know how tongue-in-cheek it was,” Ebersol, a longtime friend of McMahon, says.

The promo ads were over the top, with football players running through exploding minefields and being hit with a wrecking ball while returning a punt. The cheerleaders were teased in another ad shot inside their changing room. Players were allowed to choose nicknames for the back of their jerseys. The most famous was Rod Smart, a running back with the Las Vegas Outlaws who gave himself a now instant-classic nickname: He Hate Me.

The broadcasting team included Jim Ross and Jesse Ventura, two names familiar to wrestling fans. Traditional football rules were tweaked to amp up the action. The most famous change was the opening scramble, where instead of a coin toss, two players would run toward midfield to recover a football for possession. (In the first week, a player separated his shoulder during the scramble and missed the rest of the seaso—er, the entirety of the XFL's lifespan.)

The first nationally televised game on NBC in Week 1 was a 19-0 victory by the Las Vegas Outlaws over the New York/ New Jersey Hitmen. The game drew a 9.5 Nielsen rating, which was the best television program debut on a Saturday night in over a decade. But Ebersol, the experienced sports executive, knew it was fool’s gold. “I realized by halftime that the football was just terrible,” Ebersol says. The curiosity and the build-up drew an initial audience, but without a quality product, everything McMahon did to hype it up would just be window dressing. Ebersol chuckled at the though of the wrestling crowd tuning in. “I think the people actually thought the carryover from wrestling would be so strong that each of the three linebackers on defense would be given chairs to go after the quarterback.”

Opening week would end up being the highpoint of the XFL. From there, everything went downhill. Even with the high ratings, the reviews were poor, with one reviewer calling it "scripted low life garbage." In the second week, a power failure in Los Angeles caused a live television broadcast to go off air and the game to be delayed, which ended up bumping back a heavily promo'd Saturday Night Live appearance by Jennifer Lopez. By Week 7, the league was delivering ratings that were the lowest in history for a sporting event in prime time. In a Hail Mary attempt to resuscitate the ratings, the XFL resorted to wrestling gimmicks, such as hiring local strippers and having them hang out in hot tubs by the end zone.


‘This Was the XFL’ Director on Vince McMahon, Concussions and Whether League Could Make a Comeback

When the XFL kicked off its first and only football season on NBC in 2000, it did so to a Nielsen ratings more than double what the broadcaster had promised advertisers. By the time that season ended, the league was posting record lows for its Saturday-night time period.

A partnership between NBC and the WWE, the XFL is largely remembered as the most significant failure of the two men who spearheaded it — WWE founder Vince McMahon and longtime NBC Sports President Dick Ebersol. Taking its cues from McMahon’s wrestling operation, the league billed itself as a more violent, more titillating, more fun alternative to the NFL. But with a hastily thrown together football operation and teams composed of NFL cast-offs, the quality of play was too terrible to sustain viewers’ initial curiosity.

“This Was the XFL,” a documentary premiering Thursday night as part of ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, argues that, despite its many failings, the XFL changed the way that sports was broadcast, introducing innovations in marketing and production that the NFL and other leagues, and their broadcast partners now employ regularly. It is also an exploration of the relationship between Ebersol and McMahon, two of the most successful and controversial broadcasters of their generation. The film is directed by Charlie Ebersol — Dick Ebersol’s son and president of TV production company The Company.

“The one thing that my dad and Vince had never spoken about was XFL,” Charlie Ebersol says. “When the idea got run by me, I said to ESPN, ‘This is great, but the film I want to make is a love story between these guys over 15 years.'”

Charlie Ebersol spoke with Variety about the XFL’s failures, its successes, and the challenges of making a movie about his father and his father’s best friend.

How did your dad feel about the fact that you were going to make a movie about what was, essentially, the biggest failure of his career?
I’ve done a handful of documentaries that have done okay, with festivals and HBO and et cetera. And he had a sense of what I did. So he called Vince, and they had about an hour-long conversation about doing it, and they were definitely trepidatious. But once they commit to things, they go all the way in. They were making phone calls for me. Vince called Jesse Ventura. A lot of the stuff that came together was a function of the two of them committing fully to doing it. Afterward, when I showed it to them, they both said “This is the autopsy that the XFL needed.” I like that they refer to it like a murder victim.

How did Bob Costas come in? He plays like the villain of the movie.
You couldn’t make the film without Costas. First of all, you shouldn’t make any movie without Bob Costas. He’s the greatest personality of all time. I did a documentary on Africa and I seriously considered putting him in there as mid-film comic relief. He’s wonderful in that sense. Also, I wanted a critical voice, and I wanted a critical voice that wasn’t mean-spirited. A lot of people had a bone to pick with Vince and my father, especially TV critics. So there were a lot of people I could have gone to who wrote perfectly horrible things about the XFL. But Bob, who’s a very good friend of my dad and Vince, could come in and comment and be funny and not come off as a vindictive guy.

Because you are your father’s son, you can tell the story from a point of view that another director might not get at, but do you also expose yourself to potential criticism that you’re being a homer for your dad?
Are you suggesting that there are people on the internet or in the press that are going to take a negative view of me, my father, or Vince McMahon? That’s such an unconventional idea. Can you give me any example ever of anyone going on the internet and saying anything negative about those people? I just don’t think there’s any precedent for it.

I worked really hard in the film to try to create a balanced view. That’s why Costas is in there and Peter King, guys who are sort of the arbiters of decency. And look, if you want to see negativity about the XFL, just Google “XFL.” The first 700 news hits prior to my film coming out were “Failure! Failure! This is a stain on Dick Ebersol and Vince McMahon’s record!” I just didn’t feel the need to do that in the film. I also think that people conveniently ignore the fact that the NFL and the NBA and Major League Baseball and Fox and CBS and ABC just lifted all the technologies and techniques that worked about the XFL, and still rolled their eyes about the XFL’s viability.

At the end of the film, your dad and Vince are joshing about trying to revive the XFL. How serious are they being?
Look, when I interviewed Jerry Jones for the film, he brought it up. And when I interviewed Vince, he brought it up. My dad’s not going to do it. He’s really, really happily retired. Vince is still on the road three days a week producing 17 pay-per-views and 104 “Monday Night Raws” and “Smackdowns” a year. He’s a madman. If Vince has put enough thought into it, I never question the validity, because you never know when he’s going to walk into the press room and announce that he’s doing it.

Costas talks about this in the film, but the league was sold as being more violent than the NFL, and now you can’t really have a non-fan conversation about football without talking about concussions. Were you concerned about how that would flavor the story you were telling?
No, and the reason I didn’t think that is because during the making of the movie the UFC sold for $4 billion. Look, the media plays an important role, but I think the media is an echo chamber to a huge degree. So the concussion story and the CTE story, which, by the way, permeated not just football but also UFC and all these other sports, I think these stories are similar to the outrage that the press had over things that Donald Trump was saying that, if you really went into his voting group, they didn’t care that he was saying. Concussions are real and scary and the NFL does have a responsibility to their players. But if you look at the playoff ratings, clearly the public isn’t really that upset about it.

What did your dad say when you showed him the movie?
The only thing scarier than interviewing my father and Vince was I showed it to them together. At the end of the film, the only note I got was from a WWE exec on cutting back something that was critical of Vince, and Vince cut the person off and said, “No, first of all, we’re not giving notes, and second, you should feel confident about putting that in because that’s what really happened.” I was mesmerized by that. All through my life, I’ve seen my dad and Vince note everything to death. I did a documentary about schools in Africa and got 15 pages of notes from my father. I was expecting notes. I was not expecting them to defend the parts of the film that I was most nervous to show them.

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