If you’re over the age of, say, 25 then the chances are that you fondly — or not so fondly — remember the little football league that couldn’t, the XFL. It was the year 2000 when WWE Chairman Vince McMahon decided to launch his own football league, teaming with NBC to make it happen.
And from practically the very beginning, it seems the endeavor was doomed. ESPN’s latest “30 for 30” takes on the XFL and its massively disastrous first season — and looking back now, it makes you wonder how anyone thought the league could become a true alternative to the NFL. While many of its techniques — including sky cam and microphones on players — were eventually adopted by the League, there were at least seven major problems with the XFL that made it clear this particular brand of football wasn’t ready to go the distance.
1. Announcing the league before there was a league
On Feb. 3, 2000 Vince McMahon took the stage at the WWE’s New York restaurant to announce the creation of the XFL and that the first game would be played exactly one year later. The moment garnered a lot and talk with press, most notable McMahon dubbing the NFL the “No Fun League.”
There was something missing, though: Teams, players, coaches and literally everything else you need to make a football league run, including a place to actually air the games. Luckily for McMahon, then-NBC executive Dick Ebersol happened to be watching the press conference, and badly needed some football for his network.
2. The blimp crash heard ’round the world
In an effort to gain even more press, a blimp brandishing the XFL logo flew over a NFL game in Oakland, CA. Unfortunately for the XFL, even that went horribly awry when the blimp crashed into a seafood restaurant.
“I don’t remember a whole lot about the XFL blimp except that it crashed,” McMahon says with a laugh in the documentary. “Which perhaps would have been an omen for what happened to the league.”
Yeah Vince, it might have.
3. ‘This is the XFL!’
While everyone involved was convinced McMahon would be more of a background player than anything else, the first game started with him taking the field as if he were his own WWE character, proclaiming, “This is the XFL!”
“F***!” Ebersol says, upon remembering that particular moment. And from that point on, the XFL was already leaning a bit too far toward professional wrestling rather than football: When week two introduced Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, adding “Good old JR” Jim Ross and Jerry “The King” Lawler to the announced teams, it was hard to take anything seriously.
4. The scramble
When it was decided by the XFL brain trust that a coin toss to decide possession at the beginning of the game was just too civilized, someone invented the scramble. Two men would make a dash for the ball at center field, whoever got to it first would get possession. Simple enough, right?
“60% of those guys that went in the first two weeks were hurt with serious injuries,” Al Luginbill, head coach of the LA Extreme, says. Before the game could even get started, they were having to cart players off the field.
5. The lights go out in week two
While the primary game in week one wasn’t exactly all that competitive, it did garner much higher ratings than neither NBC or WWE were expecting, leading to buzz they had a hit on their hands. Unfortunately, when the better quality game was played in week two, the lights went out.
It seems someone forgot to put gas in the generators, knocking an entire professional sports game off the air. “We had no idea what happened,” McMahon says.
Luckily NBC had a secondary, though much less exciting, game to switch to while they figured it out. However, the power outage also caused an already competitive game to run long. By the time they got the power back and were able to play the full game — including overtime — the XFL had cut into “Saturday Night Live,” which didn’t sit well with anyone.
What’s worse, by the time the ratings came in NBC and WWE learned that the audience that showed up for the first game didn’t bother sticking around for week two.
6. Vince McMahon vs. Bob Costas
With the ratings continuing to spiral, and the XFL having a hard time finding footing as a legitimate sports league, the decision came to instead make it even more like professional wrestling. Cameras went into the cheerleader locker room, silly skits were put on — and Governor Jesse “The Body” Ventura was sent to the sidelines to confront the coaches.
It all came to a head when McMahon appeared on HBO’s “On the Record” with Bob Costas. The interview was more reminiscent of a wrestling feud than a talk about sports, thanks to McMahon’s confrontational attitude and Costas’ questioning why the head of WWE thinks he knows real sports.
“Bob pissed me off,” McMahon says as he remembers thinking he’d like to fight the host. “It would’ve made for great television, but I couldn’t touch him. He’s diminutive.”
In the end, an appearance that was designed to help repair how the public viewed the XFL did nothing but harm it further. Whether it was good for the league or not, I’m not so sure,” McMahon says. “But it was good television.”
At least that’s something.
7. The Million Dollar Game
The NFL has the Super Bowl and the XFL had the Million Dollar Game. Designed to be the “WrestleMania” of football, the game instead ended up being the final nail in the league’s coffin.
It was played before a stadium nowhere near sold out and a TV audience that continued to nosedive. In the end the Million Dollar Game went out with a whimper, not unlike the league itself. Shortly after the final game of the season, NBC announced it would not broadcast the second season — should there even be one — and McMahon closed the league permanently.
In the end the XFL may not have worked out like McMahon or Ebersol had hoped. But as “30 for 30” shows, it did have an impact on the way professional sports are presented on TV. What’s more, it had fans. While the league failed to catch on in a mainstream way, there were still the die-hard fans and they can’t be ignored. After all, someone had to buy all those “HE HATE ME” jerseys…
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