The XFL, a football league launched by the WWE and NBC in 2001, lasted but one season before folding. By all accounts, that season was one too many. The product was terrible, the ratings were worse. The grand vision of a new football league was a dismal failure.
Yet that view is rather skewed. The XFL's inaugural season was the most successful launch of a professional sports league in America since the USFL. Ratings were poor, but the XFL's regular season ratings were higher than those of the NHL playoffs. And despite the claims of pundits that the XFL looked a lot like their local high school team, most scouts agreed that the talent level was somewhere between Arena Football and NFL Europe.
The XFL started with grand plans and a formula for success, but the league was derailed by egos and delusions of grandeur that were impossible to overcome.
Why The XFL Should Have Succeeded
Separation Of Church And State
When Vince McMahon announced that he was starting a new football league, a fair amount of ridicule ensued. "Will the outcomes be staged?" asked some. "Will defensive backs be allowed to powerbomb and clothesline wide receivers?" joked others. McMahon quickly dispelled any notions that this was going to be scripted. It will be fun, it will be exciting, but it will be football, not theatre.
Notions that his league was going to be all sizzle and no meat still abound, McMahon asked Dick Butkus, who had been hired as the head coach of the Chicago Enforcers, to step up as Vice President of Football Operations. The tough-guy linebacker, to many a symbol of old smashmouth gridiron football, was going to be the league's spokesman, the man out front whose image was going to be synonymous with the XFL.
"We are not the WWE." The XFL stressed this point whenever possible in an effort to gain and maintain credibility. The league already had a large audience of WWE fans to tap into, and creating a credible football league would draw sports fans who shunned the theatrics of the WWE.
Competition (And Lack Thereof)
The XFL season began the week after the Super Bowl, and finished before spring training. While there are a number of sporting events during that time (NBA and NHL All-Star Games, March Madness), it's generally considered the quietest time of the year for sports. Choosing to go head-to-head with the NFL would have been disastrous, as would fighting against baseball or the NBA playoffs on weekends. The XFL had Saturday nights to themselves when it came to sports.
The XFL also made a wise decision in not going head-to-head with the NFL for talent, as the USFL had done two decades earlier. While the USFL succeeded in signing big name players from college, including three Heisman Trophy winners, the league went bankrupt after three years, sued the NFL under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, and was eventually awarded what amounted to a net sum of around one dollar. McMahon was not foolish enough to battle the most solid sports league in the world, and seemed content to act as a feeder league for undiscovered talent, much like Arena Football had become, sending players like Kurt Warner and Oronde Gadsden to the NFL.
Regional Marketing & Individual Expression
Because the XFL wasn't competing with the NFL for "name talent", they needed a way to promote the players they had This was initially done through a regionalized draft. Knowing that most of the players would not be familiar to the average fan, the XFL tried to bolster fan awareness by assigning certain universities to certain teams. Florida State was assigned to the Orlando Rage. Tennessee was assigned to the Memphis Maniax. The idea was that the fans in each market would be familiar with the players from college, and would generate more local interest.
The XFL allowed players to express themselves individually in every way imaginable, from the touchdown celebration to the name on the back of the jersey. Rashaan Shehee wore "THE TRUTH" on his jersey. It was Rod Smart, however, who became the main attraction of the new league when he chose to wear "HE HATE ME" on his jersey. Opposing players later wore "I HATE HE" and "I HATE HE TOO" on their jerseys in competition with Smart.
Innovative Rule Changes
The XFL announced a number of innovative rules which were designed to make play more exciting, the most famous being the "no fair catch" rule. Punt returners were not allowed to call for a fair catch, making them game for would-be tacklers. The XFL celebrated this rule in a commercial featuring a guy getting blindsided by a wrecking ball while he was waiting for a punt to come down.
The league had a number of other rules that differed from the NFL. There would be no pass interference; defensive backs were not only allowed to bump-and-run, but also chuck wide receivers along their routes. Receivers were allowed to legally catch the ball with only one foot inbounds. The play clock would be only 25 seconds instead of the NFL's thirty-five. And any punt that went further than 25 yards was a live ball.
These rule changes seemed innovative, and helped generate buzz about the league. Unfortunately, many of these rules were ill-advised and hampered the league's chances at success.
The XFL leveraged their television contracts with UPN and TNN, as well as NBC's desire for football on their network into a generous contract for the virgin league. No other first-year league, not even the NFL-sponsored WLAF, got the kind of television exposure that the XFL got. Although NBC was partnered with the XFL, they had fail-safes built into their deal based on the television ratings of the league. Any kind of viewership at all would be a boost for UPN and TNN -- WWE programming was the biggest ratings winner on both networks.
The XFL promised that cameras and microphones would be everywhere, and they were. Cameraman ran on the field, getting as close to the action as possible. Players were interviewed in the heat of the moment. Rather than wait for post-game cooler heads to prevail, the sideline reporting team immediately hassled quarterbacks about their last interception and captured the joy of a running back who had just scored. When Jose Cortez, who had slipped while planting for a field goal earlier in a Week Three contest, began warming up, teammate Tommy Maddox was caught on tape pleading with the coach to go for it on fourth down. Maddox later awkwardly apologized, but it made for great television. The raw emotions of players and coaches were laid bare.
The XFL also introduced an remote-controlled overhead camera designed to follow the action. After the league folded, ESPN took the idea and used it for Sunday Night Football. It's currently referred to as "SkyCam, another ESPN Innovation", but its origins lie in the XFL.
What Went Wrong
The XFL Posts The Ten Commandents In Their Courthouse
After stating vehemently that the XFL would just be another off-shoot of the WWE, McMahon decided that blending the two brands would help the new league immensely. Prior to kick-off before the season opener, Stone Cold Steve Austin appeared on the stadium's Titantron and talked smack about the folks who dissed the XFL. The Rock, Chris Jericho, Triple H, and other wrestlers also made appearances, both live and on the viewscreen. Three members of the broadcasting team and several on-field correspondents were WWE announcers or former announcers.
It was a totally unnecessary act. Fans of the WWE were already into the XFL and didn't need wrestlers to intervene. And when folks that were already skeptical about the league turned on the TV to see The Rock asking the crowd if they smelled what he was cooking, it did nothing to shake their skepticism.
Our Rules Exist For A Reason
Almost every one of the XFL's "innovative" rule changes was a complete failure.
Rather than a boring coin toss, the XFL decided to place the ball at the 50-yard-line, and have a player from each team sprint from the 30-yard-line after the ball. Whichever team got possession of the ball got to receive the opening kickoff. Innovative, right? It sounded cool, except that Orlando Rage defensive back Hassan Shamsid-Deen separated his shoulder on the season's first "scrum" and was lost for the season. It was unintentional comedy.
The twenty-five second play clock, designed to speed up play, actually resulted in the game slowing down as referees were forced to call delay of game penalties when the game clock ran out. Lack of a pass interference rule coupled with lower echelon offensive linemen resulted in holding call after holding call. At one point in the first quarter of the season's opening game, four consecutive plays were negated, twice by holding, and twice due to delay of game. Not a great beginning.
And the most celebrated rule, the no-fair-catches rule, resulted in nothing but frustration for the viewer tuning in to see someone get decapitated. Although the league would not allow fair catches, they enforced a five yard "halo" -- essentially a fifteen feet radius of space around the returner -- that could not be breached until the ball was caught. Punts typically resulted in either a halo violation (another penalty), or several players sprinting downfield, stopping and waiting for the ball to be caught, and then making a boring ankle tackle.
The XFL tinkered with its rules as the season went on, changing things like "no pass interference" to "bump-and-run within five yards of the line of scrimmage". Play improved as a result, but the damage had been done. When an NFL official was asked about how the XFL's rules had backfired, he responded, "That's why we have a Rules Committee. Our rules exist for a reason."
Short Preseason Camps
The season's schedule had been publicized before the eight teams had even been seeded with players. In the uproar over the new league, 47,000 people submitted tryout request forms for the XFL, ranging from armchair heroes to ex-NFL first rounders like Jim Druckenmiller. The league had an easier time with cheerleader tryouts than it did trying to pare down the list from 47,000 to 360. Preseason camps were short, and the season started with teams unprepared for football.
It showed. Penalties were abound for the first few weeks, as false starts and holdings ran rampant. Timing passes were off, in part because of chuck-and-run coverage and in part because quarterbacks didn't have time to work with their receivers in the pre-season. As with the rule tweaking, by the end of the season the on-field product had improved noticably, but by then there were few still watching.
When it came to game highlights, the SportsCenter crew handled them like they would any other game. The problems arose when every other two-bit sports columnist got the chance to write about the XFL. No one could resist making jokes about the new league, its owner, its players, its fans, and its ratings. While NBC and the WWE tried their best to promote the new league, everyone else condemned it to failure. Maxim, the number one men’s magazine in the U.S., ran an article entitled, "Let's Get Ready To Fumble", which twisted every quote and fact about the XFL into a (bad) joke, including the claim that Butkus "resigned three months before kickoff" (he had in fact taken a more important position in the league).
Where's My Football?
When McMahon held the league's initial press conference, he asked "Where's my football?" before promising to bring football back to its roots. That same question was on the lips of many viewers while watching the XFL telecasts.
When returning from commercial in a typical NFL broadcast, one might see a few seconds of the crowd, or the cheerleaders, perhaps a replay of the last play before the commercial, and some comments from the booth. The XFL decided to go a different route, showing mainly cheerleaders at every opportunity. So ubiquitous were the cheerleaders, in fact, that cheerleaders were interviewed WHILE PLAYS WERE BEING RUN ON THE FIELD. McMahon and the powers that be were apparently blind to the fact that football fans watch football to see... football.
As pointless as the cheerleaders were, it's easy to understand the attempt to use sexy women as a marketing tool or a ratings getter. Going a step further to ensure that viewers would change channels, the XFL interviewed fans in the stands during the game, asking questions like, "What did you think about that last touchdown?" The typical responses to these questions were frequently something along the lines of "Dude, that was so awesome, ARRRRRRR!" or, "YEAH, BABY, XFL RULES, YEAH, BABY YEAH!!!!" The interviewee's sentiment was always backed up by dozens of screaming idiots in the background. Much hi-fiving ensued.
File this under the Not Entirely Our Fault Department. The XFL set out to hire competent broadcasting teams for its games, but most announcers wouldn’t touch the league with a ten foot pole. The league managed to get veteran college football announcer Mike Adamle, and Matt Vasgersian of the San Diego Padres. The rest of the broadcasting team consisted of the WWE's Raw team of Jim Ross and Jerry "The King" Lawler, NFL washouts like Brian Bosworth, and eventually the governor of Minnesota, Jesse Ventura.
Adamle performed admirably under the circumstances -- he tried to call games professionally even when surrounded by Las Vegas Outlaws cheerleaders and asked to comment on their "puppies". Ventura, while a competent broadcaster, brought even more media attention, which may not have been what the league needed. His "feud" with Rusty Tillman, outlined further below, was either the low point or the high point for the XFL, depending on what you were watching the XFL for.
Jim Ross, who at one time was the voice of Oklahoma Sooners football, was perhaps the best of the bunch. His knowledge of the game and his delivery of the play-by-play ranked with any of the NFL’s top broadcasting teams. Unfortunately, Ross was paired with his WWE counterpart (Lawler), and while Ross playing straight-man to Lawler’s cheerleader-obsessed funny man entertained WWF fans, it led others to believe that the XFL was just the Federation in different clothing.
Brian Bosworth was simply terrible. His performance is difficult to put into words, perhaps because it was difficult for Bosworth to actually form words. Despite his experience as a linebacker, he added nothing to the telecasts, apparently feeling it was his job (and perhaps it was) to stroke the ego of the XFL every chance he got, imparting nuggets of wisdom such as "hey, you’ll only see that in the XFL", and "the XFL is the best thing in sports right now". What should have been the most exciting game of the opening week was marred as Bosworth hopelessly grasped for complete sentences during the Demons-Xtreme game. With the Demons driving with no time outs, Bosworth was literally speechless as Mike Panasuk lined up for a game winning 33-yard field goal, managing only indecipherable noises as he tried to put words on this excitement. In a brief moment of composure, Bosworth managed to shout "THIS IS AWESOME! AAAAAAAAHHH!" as the ball sailed through the uprights.
The Tillman Feud
The XFL made a great decision when they miked everyone on the field and broadcast live from the locker room. Players were recorded saying things they didn't want to be heard, and immediate rather than post-game interviews caught players in the midst of frustration, anger, and elation. If his team had won, no one would have even asked the defensive back why he got burned so badly on that deep route in the second quarter. In the XFL, he was questioned immediately, but because most of the on-field correspondents were non-confrontational, if a player became angry or refused to answer, they simply tossed it back up to the booth.
Not Jesse Ventura.
Typically in wrestling, the script writers (yes, there are script writers) build up what is called a "feud" between wrestlers. Maybe one wrestler cheated with another's wife... maybe he doesn’t like Canadians... whatever. The whole point is that the feud builds to a head and then explodes, usually at a Pay-Per-View, usually in front of a sold-out crowd who have been waiting months for the two guys to finally settle their score in the ring. Ventura chose to bring the feud into the XFL world by taking shots at Rusty Tillman.
Tillman's New York/New Jersey Hitmen were expected to be one of the XFL's better teams. Unfortunately for fans in the Big Apple, the Hitmen were big disappointments, losing their first four games. In the booth, Ventura openly questioned Tillman's coaching philosophy in series after series. Tillman responded in a post-game interview, saying that he really didn't care what Ventura said, and making a few personal digs at the Minnesota governor. Sensing a growing controversy, Ventura took to the field in the next game to interview Tillman, who declined to speak. Turning to the camera, Ventura responded, "Rusty Tillman is afraid of me!" The next week the Hitmen won, but Ventura again took the field and showered Tillman with mock praise. To fans of wrestling, this was fairly amusing. To fans of football, Ventura was aggravating. Oddly enough, the very next week the "feud" stopped, for unexplained reasons.
While all of this was interesting television, it wasn't good football, and the time for winning new fans had already passed.
But After All That...
While all of these things contributed to the downfall of the league, it was the forces who created the XFL that were most responsible for its downfall, because in reality, neither truly wanted the XFL.
NBC, partner in the XFL venture, is just as much to blame as anyone else for the demise of the XFL. After losing NFL broadcast rights to CBS, NBC had been toying around with a football replacement for years. Discussions with Ted Turner about a competing league faltered, and for a while NBC seemed content airing non-football programming.
Enter Vince McMahon. He had an idea for a new football league, but wanted a bigger television audience than cable could provide. NBC wanted football on their network, but didn’t have a broadcasting deal with any league. It was a synergistic match!
If only McMahon had known that when Dick Ebersol and NBC said "football", what they meant was "ratings". And the XFL never considered what would happen in their Saturday night games ran into Saturday Night Live. No one actually watched the show anymore, but strangely Lorne Michaels had more clout with the network than anticipated. Things came to a head in the Week 2 matchup described in another node by hashbrownie. This disaster, combined with the drop in ratings as the season progressed, led the NBC to drop the XFL like a bad habit once the season ended, and began looking elsewhere for ratings. It should be noted that NBC now carries Arena League Football, which is doing just as poorly on Sunday afternoons as the XFL did on Saturday nights.
For those not familiar with Vinnie Mac, perhaps the best word to describe him is 'megalomaniacal'. He’s a bright guy, a brilliant marketer who revolutionized what was essentially a cottage industry into a major force in entertainment. He’s also incredibly egotistical, arrogant, and confrontational, and has to be number one. Make no mistake about this: for Vince McMahon, the XFL's inaugural season was just the first step towards his eventual takeover of the NFL.
In the meantime, however, he couldn't stand to play second fiddle. While the underlings were saying the right things about the XFL ("It's sort of a minor league" and "We’re not competing with the NFL"), McMahon took every opportunity to bash the National Football League, calling it (not-so-cleverly) the No Fun League, suggesting that quarterbacks were coddled (which they were, but for a reason) and that players were "pantywaists". When asked was a pantywaist was, McMahon glared at the reporter who asked and replied, "I think I’m looking at one right now." Way to work the room, Vince.
Two forces ripped Vince apart: the ego that wanted so badly to defeat the NFL, to make his own creation the greatest force in sports; and the businessman, that knew that if it were to happen, it would have to be done slowly and probably would not be completed in his lifetime.
When NBC pulled out of the league, Vince was left with a decision. Fold the league, or forge on without the major television contract. Not long after the Los Angeles Xtreme beat the San Francisco Demons in the The Big Game At The End, the XFL announced it was folding.