A year after the demise
of the XFL
, the league is remembered as a total bust
. Co-owned by the World Wrestling Federation
, the XFL lasted one season
, earning historically low ratings for NBC in its Saturday night
time slot. It will be joke fodder forever after
What's forgotten was how damned popular the XFL was at its inception. After Week 1 early-February of 2001 Sports Illustrated put the San Francisco Demons on their cover. NBC's ratings for Week 1, a game between the Las Vegas Outlaws and the New York/New Jersey Hitmen, drew a 9.5 rating and was the coming-out party for Outlaws running back Rod "He Hate Me" Smart. The Orlando Rage's first game was so popular that they ran out of beer at the Citrus Bowl. (That's 240 barrels for 36,000+ fans, or 1.466 beers for every man, woman and child.) All for minor-league football in which the level of play was somewhere between NFL Europe and Arena Football.
But we'd seen this sort of thing before. In the 1970s, before the USFL, a businessman named Gary Davidson started the World Football League, or the WFL. It was designed to be a direct competitor to the NFL, and its owners quickly got into a bidding war with NFL owners over star players. It looked like the WFL would follow the same path as the American Football League (AFL) a decade before compete with the NFL, piss them off, merge with them and earn a quick payday but the WFL fell under its financial house of cards and folded after one season. As legend goes, after the opening coin flip of World Bowl I (and only), one of the team's captains pocketed the silver dollar, knowing it would be his only paycheck that day.
XFL fans could be faulted for myopia but not for a desire to have fun. Truth be told, the XFL had plenty of innovations that were downright brilliant. Quarterbacks and coaches were miked so you could hear what plays they were calling. (Not that you knew what "Red 48 Hot Slam" meant.) There were camera operators on the field on the field! to give you a bird's-eye view of an injured player writhing in pain. Players on the winning team got significant bonuses relative to their annual salaries for regular-season games, the per-player bonuses were a few thousand dollars, while their salaries were pre-set at about $40,000, give or take. Tell me you wouldn't like to see that in the NFL.
Still, the league was doomed. We just couldn't see it in Week 1. But in Week 2 ... the facade began to crack. I was there, I saw it in person. Curious about this renegade startup, a friend and I went to the home opener for the Los Angeles Xtreme: The greatest game in XFL history and yet the worst.
Night game at the Coliseum. My first trip there; I had just moved to L.A. six months before, and I had no desire to go to USC football games. There's a buzz in the air as we park and head inside. Tickets were $20 bucks, if I remember correctly. The Coliseum is shaped like a bowl except for a cut-away area behind the east end zone that houses the Olympic torch. Our seats are about 2/3 of the way up at about the 30-yard line.
They didn't sell seats for the west end zone, and we quickly find out why. There's an enormous television screen set up there, even though the Coliseum has its own Jumbotron. But the XFL's screen is bigger and has a better picture quality. It's about a half hour before kickoff, and the screen is showing features on the Xtreme's players, so we know who to root for.
The east end zone has a big open space behind it remember, the Coliseum was originally an Olympic track-and-field venue and in it, there's a giant tent set up. Giant letters on the roof tell us that this is the "Xtreme Zone." A luxury box, XFL style? Next to the tent is a plastic hot tub, which occasionally is put on the big TV screen. Bikini-clad models wave to us from inside it. (The next morning, the L.A. Times reports that the models were actually strippers, and that Xtreme general manager J.K. McKay said he had no idea who hired them.)
And it's gametime ... almost! At 5 p.m. Pacific 8 p.m. Eastern pro wrestler The Rock walked on the field and roused the audience with a pep talk, proudly announcing that "professional football has returned to Los Angeles" and that NFL executives who OK'd the Rams' and Raiders' departures from L.A. could take their suitcases and "shove it up their candy asses." The crowd loved it.
At about 5:15 PT, 8:15 ET, we had kickoff.
The first moment of excitement came when the giant TV screen caught on fire. To be honest, it wasn't actually the screen itself; it was something attached to the top of the frame. They turned off the TV while some poor soul climbed up there and beat at the flame with a rag. Eventually, it was all fixed, but our confidence was a tad unsettled. (Unbeknownst to us, at the same time an NBC truck lost its power, and the network had to switch to the Demons-Rage game for most of the first quarter.)
Nevertheless, we turned our attention to the game. The Xtreme looked as sluggish as they did in their season opener at San Francisco, which the Demons won on a last-second field goal. This was a bit of a surprise; the Xtreme had no shortage of star players, including former NFL and UCLA quarterback Tommy Maddox, who joined the Pittsburgh Steelers in the fall of 2001; former Tennessee-Knoxville wide receiver Jermaine Copeland; and former University of Washington running back Rashan Sheehee, who went by The Truth on his uniform back. Later in the season, the Xtreme would dominate the XFL and win the league title, but at this point, they hadn't come together as a team yet. They can hardly be faulted; the XFL had a ridiculously short training camp.
But at this point, the Xtreme didn't look good. Enforcers running back John Avery, a former first-round pick of the NFL's Miami Dolphins was running over the Xtreme defense. (It must be said that one of the Xtreme's defensive linemen had the nickname of "Deathblow.") Worse for the hometown team, kicker Jose Cortez who would earn a starting job with the San Francisco 49ers the next fall missed two field goal attempts. After his second miss, the sideline cameras picked up Maddox yelling at Cortez in anger. Great fun. The Xtreme trailed at halftime, 25-13.
Thanks to a serious injury to one of the players the game was stopped for about 15 minutes while the paramedics carted him off. I'd say that it was about 6:45 PT or so at this point; the game was running late, and on the East coast, it would probably cut into part of the late local news. But probably wouldn't go too much over, so it wouldn't push back Saturday Night Live at 11:30 p.m. ET which was important, since Jennifer Lopez was the host and musical act, and it was a pretty big deal.
We weren't counting on a comeback.
In the third quarter, I wasn't paying much attention to the game. The fans were getting really drunk now, and in the areas near the field, there was some pretty rowdy stuff going on. (This was most evident around the four "stages" on which the cheerleaders shook their booties, stages that were set up right next to the seats and had a strong strip-club feel.) Fights broke out, people were getting arrested, and on a couple occasions, groups of men chanted for women to take off their shirts. More surprising was that few women willingly did so. I felt like I was at a heavy metal concert that was on the verge of getting out of control.
Late in the fourth quarter, the Xtreme started to put it together. The Enforcers didn't hand off to Avery as much as they did in the first half (much like how the St. Louis Rams forgot about Marshall Faulk in their Super Bowl loss to the New England Patriots), and Chicago's offense kept on punting. Meanwhile, Maddox and the Xtreme offense came alive. Down by 12 points late in the game, the Xtreme scored on a Maddox TD pass with three minutes left and a Ken Oxendine run with 30 seconds left, though they couldn't convert either PAT. (In the XFL, you had to get into the end zone from the 2-yard line to earn a point after a touchdown.) We were headed to overtime.
It was way past 8 p.m. PT. It was way past 11 p.m. ET. Somewhere, Lorne Michaels wasn't happy.
The XFL had strange overtime rules. It was similar to NCAA football in that each team took turns with the ball at the 25-yard line. One team goes first, tries to score; the other team then has to answer. If the game is still tied, it goes on to a second overtime, etc., etc. Where the XFL diverged from the NCAA was that the second team had to score in the same number of plays as the first. So, if the first team scores a touchdown in five plays, the second team has to not only score a touchdown to tie, but they have to do it in five plays or fewer.
The Enforcers got the ball first. They scored on a nice pass from quarterback Tim Lester to Avery and converted their extra point. The Xtreme stalled on their drive, but on their final chance, Maddox lofted the ball up and hit Copeland in the end zone. Maddox then connected with Copeland for the extra point. Double overtime.
It was past 9 p.m. PT. SNL started on time and taped their show, because it wasn't being shown live anywhere in the country. This was the Heidi game in reverse the XFL game that wouldn't end.
Second overtime: The Xtreme get the ball first and score in three plays, with Maddox passing to Darnell McDonald for the score. Oxendine runs in the conversion. Pandemonium reigns at the Coliseum.
The Enforcers get the ball. Don't go anywhere on their first two plays. On their third play, Lester snaps the ball ... chased by the defense ... throws while being hit. The ball falls incomplete. Xtreme win! Xtreme win! Final score: 39-32. Maddox was 38 of 65 for 412 yards; Copeland caught an amazing 17 catches for 190 yards.
I look at my watch while leaving the stadium. It's 9:30 PT.
The next week, Lorne Michaels reportedly threw a tantrum in NBC's corporate offices. Can't blame him; it was his biggest show of the year, and it got XFL'd on the East Coast. The XFL, caught with its tail between its legs, quickly makes rule changes to speed up the game.
But the damage is done. Even though the game was a beauty, even though people who tuned in to watch SNL saw some damn exciting football, the ratings were down from Week 1. Week 3 ratings would be even lower. Week 4 ratings would be an embarrassing 2.6. What's more, the SNL debacle created an anti-XFL sentiment at NBC. When the ratings went totally in the tank, NBC waited for the season to end, then cut the cord.
For me, the XFL's unpredictability was part of its charm. Fires on the TV screen! Riots in the seats! Rule changes in midseason! But a corporate body can't act that way.
I went to one other game with my friend; it was a late-season battle between the Xtreme and the Orlando Rage. It was a beautiful day; I got a pretty good tan, and the Xtreme beat the holy hell out of the Rage. The hot tub was still in the east end zone, but in it was an actor playing a corporate fat cat smoking a cigar. It was incongruous. It was sad, and not that funny.
If you're interested:
Box score: http://xfl-chicagoenforcers.tripod.com/team/boxscores/week02.htm
Game story: http://www.kinet.or.jp/caesar/football/xfl/01_02_xtreme_enforcers.html
XFL vs. SNL: http://www.eonline.com/News/Items/0,1,7814,00.html