The XFL is not an American institution. There are not millions of fans eager to see if the Los Angeles Xtreme, the Memphis Maniax, or the Orlando Rage will be playing in the Million Dollar Game this year. They aren’t tuning in to see Jesse Ventura announce the game, or to watch if “He Hate Me” will have his number with the Las Vegas Outlaws retired at halftime. They are ogling the cheerleaders, shot from a low angle from crotch-to-clavicle, or tuning in to locker room feuds between teammates play out after the game. They aren’t gambling on the outcome of the opening “scramble” to see who gets possession of the ball at the start of the game. There aren’t 53 million Americans staying up late on Saturday to watch the Birmingham Thunderbolts play the San Francisco Demons before SNL.
But there could have been.
Charlie Ebersol remembers that potential well. The 36-year-old filmmaker is the son of legendary NBC executive Dick Ebersol, who co-founded the XFL with WWE owner Vince McMahon, and he was there for a lot of it. He was there for the league’s conception–as a cross between the NFL and WWE–and what he saw left him convinced he was watching the birth of something that Americans would embrace as wholeheartedly as the two institutions his father and McMahon sought to bring together.
“I was in Vegas for the first game,” Ebersol recalls. “It was insane, but it was a lot of fun. When my dad signed up to do this with Vince, they had no team names, no stadiums, no players, no coaches–then, 365 days later, they had a full league and the stadium was sold out two months in advance. So that was a weird dichotomy when, four weeks later, it was basically an abject failure. It was a whirlwind.”
Ebersol documents that whirlwind with the sort of viewpoint that only an insider can have in his ESPN 30 For 30 documentary This Was The XFL. The film starts at the league’s conception, and follows its year of prep, through to the first game, and on through to a reunion meeting between Ebersol and McMahon that took place last year.
There are a lot of lessons to learn from all of that. The fate of the XFL feels like a foregone conclusion now–the league was greeted with both skepticism and curiosity, and the McMahon-y branding that started with the very first kickoff raised the stakes to an untenable degree. (The title of the film comes from a proclamation that McMahon made from the field before the first game, intoning “This! Is! The XFL!” like he was presenting the second coming.) Curiosity led 54 million people to tune in to the league’s first game in early February 2001, but skepticism meant that by March, the league’s NBC telecast would receive the lowest rating ever for a network primetime sporting event on a weekend night. But one of the things that Ebersol learned about the league was that–while it only ran one season and the audience for it dwindled quickly–it wasn’t a failure by a number of relevant metrics.
“The underpinnings of the XFL business model wasn’t a failure at all,” Ebersol says. “The XFL created all of these technologies that we see in the NFL today–the Skycam, interviewing players during the game, mic’ing players . . . None of that existed before the XFL. But I also didn’t realize how brilliant the deal was between WWE and NBC. NBC invested in WWE as part of the deal, so WWE got a cash infusion, and NBC got a piece that turned out to be worth hundreds of millions. This turned out to be a profitable venture.”
Ebersol can name other innovations that the XFL brought to the way football is televised–the NFL Red Zone channel on DirecTV is a pretty clear ancestor of the way the XFL broadcast games–and the very fact that it forced the NFL, which sold its broadcast rights for hundreds of millions of dollars without making concessions to the television audience is a major impact. But just because the NFL is a better product now than it was in 2000, and the XFL turned out to be a profitable venture for NBC and WWE because of what that partnership brought each of them, doesn’t mean that the league wasn’t also a failure.
That’s something that Ebersol, as both a filmmaker and someone who had a personal investment in the league’s success, struggles with. (“I had never experienced my father and Vince failing before,” he admits.) That shines through in the documentary, which–when it’s not documenting the fun weirdness that was the XFL–explores what a business relationship can look like in the face of failure.
The XFL was the NFL without any real pretense of being family entertainment. It was built on the idea that what Americans liked best about football was violence, and that the violence could be better marketed if the players had outsized personalities, if elements of safety to the game like the fair catch and the opening coin toss were eliminated and replaced with hit-heavy action, and if the “sex” parts of the lizard brain were stimulated alongside the “violence” part by putting the cheerleaders in the skimpiest outfits, and filming them in ways that kept the camera much more anatomically-focused. To help the players market themselves, they were given the opportunity to come up with nicknames that would appear on their uniforms. (Rod Smith, a running back for the Outlaws, became famous for dubbing himself “He Hate Me,” and went on to play in a Super Bowl with the Carolina Panthers.)
All of that sounds like a winning recipe, but it wasn’t. And the reason, according to Ebersol, was that while the league was built on sound ideas, featured valuable innovations, and was marketed well enough to attract 54 million people to give it a chance, it also wasn’t very good football.
“The biggest mistake they made with the XFL was that they only gave the players thirty days to train together as a team. You had guys who were working at Bed Bath and Beyond, and thirty days later they’re in the XFL,” Ebersol says. “They spent six to eight months marketing the league, and thirty days training the players. If they’d done four and four… They sold this thing like it was the iPhone, and they rolled it out like it was whatever piece of crap Motorola put out.”
Still, Ebersol says, that might not have been enough to sink the league if luck had landed a little differently.
“Despite not training the players, and the mistakes and issues, if luck had gone in the other direction, the XFL would still exist,” he insists. He–and his film–point to one major stroke of bad luck as the reason that those 54 million viewers didn’t stick around: Namely, that they broadcast the game between the New Jersey Hitmen and the Las Vegas Outlaws as its premiere, instead of the game between the Chicago Enforcers and the Orlando Rage, which took place at the same time. “If they hadn’t gone with the Vegas game, and instead gone with Orlando–which was a 33-29 barnburner with injuries and the stuff the XFL was promising, you’d have seen a different outcome. I think it could have worked. And more to the point, the need for a league like this is still extremely high right now.”
McMahon and Ebersol’s father talk about that in their final meeting at the end of the film–they suggest Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones as a potential partner, though it’s clear that they’re speaking hypothetically–and Ebersol believes that, whether it’s that partnership or someone else, a successor to the XFL as a more violent and less restrictive version of the NFL is on the horizon at some point in the not-too-distant future.
“I think it’s going to happen,” he says. “The reason the XFL came into existence is because Vince McMahon is a wild man who really fundamentally understands marketing, and my father a year and a half earlier told the NFL that there was no way he was going to agree to lose money every year for rights. My core belief is that, given how out control rights fees have gotten, people are going to realize the value of owning a league. Jerry Jones has a big, beautiful stadium that is effectively empty 44 weekends a year. The need for a league is extraordinary high in that regard.”
If it were up to him, Ebersol would approach a new league more humbly, though. He cites the nickname of Saturday Night Live (which his father created with Lorne Michaels) as the not-ready-for-primetime players. “I wanted to call the film that–if you took the games off of primetime and focused on live events and the cable day games, it’d be a different story.” That echoes something that Bob Costas–one of the XFL’s most vocal critics, who kept a lot of distance between himself and the league as the face of NBC’s sports coverage–suggests in the film: If, instead of declaring “This is the XFL!” from day one, McMahon had suggested that he humbly hoped to entertain fans willing to grow with the league, the expectations might have been managed to a point that they could be met.
All of the other reasons a league might struggle, Ebersol thinks, would fade if an alternative gave fans the violence they craved in a way that didn’t over-inflate their expectations. The NFL may face a concussion crisis, but a successor to the XFL could succeed not just despite those sorts of concerns, but by embracing them.
“Football is a game predicated on violence, and the NFL is the Pepsi Cola-sanitized version of it. They asked the same question about boxing versus UFC,” he says of the concussions issue. “When the UFC got bought by the Fertitta Brothers and Dana White, they weren’t allowed in New York because it was too violent. It was illegal. Everything boxing was doing, they were doing to mitigate the violence. Well, it turns out the American public wanted the UFC way more than they wanted boxing. What Vince learned is that just because there’s a lot of controversy around something, it doesn’t mean that the public wants what the critics want. A new league wouldn’t have to go after the same sponsors, either–they don’t need Geico, or Prudential, or Viagra. They could go after people who want to be close to violence.”
If all of that sounds like Ebersol might go from documenting the XFL to starting its successor, well, he doesn’t go that far when he talks about it–he’s quick to talk about his intentions as a filmmaker, and the story he sought to tell with This Was The XFL. But his personal connection to the source material makes it hard for him to view it dispassionately, and that means that the creative product that is the film has a perspective that you’re unlikely to find elsewhere. “Ultimately,” he says, “I learned more in those four months of that league by being right up front with my dad and Vince then I did with all of my successes.”