By Cory Barker
Welcome to The Box Seats, a hopefully regular feature where I discuss televised sports. The two things I love most in this world are sports and television. I especially like sports on television. My goal is to bring up some older sports events, games, telecasts, etc. and try to think about what they meant then, what they mean now, and whether or not our infatuation with sports has changed at all. We start with the debut of the XFL, the rival football league to the NFL co-financed and operated by WWF honcho Vince McMahon.
It’s the year 2001. On screen comes a blast of bright lights and metallic sounds, as words like “smash mouth,” “controversy,” and “passion” flash by. Suddenly, “IF YA SMELL… WHAT THE ROCK IS COOKING” hits and the aforementioned superstar appears. It’s The Rock, in his in-retrospect-terrible silk shirts and sunglasses. We’re a few weeks away from the No Way Out Pay-Per-View, where The Rock is going to take on Kurt Angle for the World Wrestling Federation Championship. So he’s here to cut a promo about how he’s going to win that match. You know, because we’re watching WWF programming. We’re watching wrestling.
Wait. Why is The Rock talking about something called the “XFL?” He’s rambling on and on about being “psyched, pumped, geeked, AND cranked” about the XFL. I’m confused, but The Rock is known for his overly-elaborate and alliterative promos. He’s sizing Angle up just so he can verbally layeth the smacketh down, as The Great One says.
The camera pans outward and The Rock appears on a screen in the Las Vegas skyline. Wait. Now it pans down and The Rock’s face is on a Jumbotron at a football field. Rock rambles on a little more, and continues talking about this XFL thing—Is it what he’s going to do to Angle? Is it a spawn of DX or the nWo, two wrestling super-factions?—and then just goes away. Okay. Psychological warfare. This is really impressive, Rocky.
Rock disappears and we’re back to the rapid-fire editing, loud but formless music. Then lots and lots of fireworks. Then shots of a live crowd full of people holding up signs, wearing weird shirts, and trying way too hard to get on camera. Suddenly, Vince McMahon, cock of the walk uber-villain of the WWF, appears in the middle of this field and starts screaming in his typical hyperbolic, surely-overcompensating-for-something voice:
WELCOME TO THE XFL. ON BEHALF OF THE PLAYERS AND COACHES OF THE XFL, WE WELCOME YOU TO OUR BRAND OF FOOTBALL. WE WELCOME YOU TO OUR GAME. WE INVITE YOU TO ENJOY THE ALL-ACCESS PASS THAT GIVES YOU FREEDOM TO GO PLACES THAT OTHER LEAGUES HAVE DEEMED TO BE OFF-LIMITS.
Shit. Vince McMahon really went out and started himself his own football league. But these opening moments still mostly feel like the WWF, as do the few minutes after, with the introduction of color commentator Jesse “The Body” Ventura, former WWF performer and commentator (so he’s basically filling the same role as he did for WWF years before) and the fans of the Las Vegas Outlaws mercilessly booing the visiting team, the New York/New Jersey Hitmen. Heck, even the two team’s names, Outlaws and Hitmen, are direct references to very popular WWF superstars (the New Age Outlaw tag team and Bret “Hit Man” Hart, respectively).
This is all happening on NBC and there are men in football gear and there’s a couple of field goal posts. But this isn’t football. It’s a WWF product extension.
In early 2000, the NFL was riding high. The just-completed season saw the rise of Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts, an insane playoff game between the Tennessee Titans and Buffalo Bills that will forever be known as The Music City Miracle, and a huge surprise Super Bowl winner in the St. Louis Rams, whose victory came down to a single yard. Just two years prior, the NFL signed a TV contract with Fox, ESPN, and ABC worth around $2.2 billion a year, a cash amount literally double the previous TV deal. The growing popularity and scope of ESPN and the rise of the Internet have started to push the NFL further and further towards the top of the sports food chain (if it wasn’t there already). The USFL, the NFL’s erstwhile main competitor for football supremacy at the professional level, had been dead for 13 years.
None of this mattered to Vince McMahon, who was riding a high of his own thanks to the surging and impressive popularity of the WWF (and pro wrestling in general). Nor did it matter to Time Warner, which had just become AOL-Time Warner in the biggest new media-old media merger of a decade that would eventually be defined by such things; nor did it matter to NBC, a network part of its own major media conglomerate. Separately, McMahon, Time Warner, and NBC all wanted to start new football leagues. McMahon had been approached by the Canadian Football League about buying some teams. Time Warner, whose cable network TNT had just been pushed out of NFL game coverage with the 1998 TV contract, was looking to get back into the football business, and had been working with NBC (also missing from the new TV deal once ABC and ESPN threw their Disney money around) to make that happen.
Eventually, Time Warner gave up, but McMahon and NBC kept going. On February 3, 2000, just four days after the Rams beat the Titans in a very good Super Bowl, McMahon and NBC announced their plans for the XFL. In a New York Times story, McMahon was quoted as saying, ”If the National Football League stands for the ‘No Fun League,’ the XFL will be the extra fun league.” Despite loud cynicism and skepticism from literally everyone in the media, McMahon and NBC pressed on with their league—one that would, as McMahon promised in Vegas a year later, go places other leagues wouldn’t. That meant inside the team locker rooms, both intensely close and high above the players on the field. And based on a few early commercials, it meant perhaps inside the cheerleaders’ group shower sessions, too.
For McMahon and NBC, the XFL was a risk worth taking. The public’s thirst for football was growing and growing. McMahon had money to burn and a big enough ego to think that his brand of “sports entertainment” was what America wanted. NBC needed football back, period. The thing is, the XFL wasn’t really football—or at least good football. McMahon’s stamp on the game mostly involved tiny on-the-field changes and a whole lot of differing production and stylistic choices.
And perhaps more importantly, all the changes McMahon and his team made were done (or at least appeared to be) to make the XFL product look, sound, and feel more like the WWF. On the field, the XFL did away with the coin toss, replacing it with an “opening scramble” that forced one player from each team to run and fight over a ball placed in the middle of the field. The hope was that this would lead to some legitimate skirmishes but it never quite played out that way. Also gone: the point after kick. Instead, teams were forced to pass or run the ball into the end zone from the 2-yard line, replicating a two-point conversion procedure—except it was still only worth one point. Less important changes, like allowing cornerbacks to “jam” wide receivers at the line of scrimmage (known as “bump and run coverage”) and prohibiting a fair catch on punts, were also instituted.
Each one of these changes recalls the opening screen of that first game and the words “smash mouth,” as well as McMahon’s breathless suggestion that the XFL was supposed to represent a different brand of football. Of course, in McMahon’s mind, that meant an increased display of toughness, aggression, and physicality. The WWF rose to prominence in the late 1990s through what’s now referred to as the “Attitude Era,” a time period defined by increased on-screen violence, sexuality, and bravado. It was clear after watching the opening 20 minutes of the first XFL broadcast (and really even before) that McMahon wanted to transfer all those WWF trademarks right over to the XFL.
He succeeded. That was the problem.*
*Well, that and the fact that the players and teams were terrible.
After The Rock and McMahon gave their spiels to the Las Vegas audience and the broadcast moved more into “football coverage,” this first game (and all the other games I watched back then and/or viewed on YouTube over the weekend) still clung to the idea that mashing professional football and WWF histrionics was a worthwhile endeavor. As I said in the introduction, Jesse Ventura provided the color commentary for this opening game; even more amazingly, when the Vegas-NY/NJ tilt got out of hand and the coverage switched to a more competitive game between the Chicago Enforcers and the Orlando Rage, the WWF commentary team of Jim Ross (aka Good Ole J.R.) and Jerry “The King” Lawler were in the booth. Perhaps EVEN MORE amazing is that Ross and Lawler actually performed okay, at least in a game that went down to the wire. As you might imagine, the duo wasn’t good at providing any real advice on the x’s and o’s of football strategy, but at least they had chemistry together. Nevertheless, in the few minutes that Ross and Lawler were on during that opening national broadcast, there was lots of hyperbole (Ross’s go-to maneuver) and even more objectification of women (Lawler’s go-to). Ross sold the narratives just like he did on WWF TV, Lawler** acted like a troll (like he does).
**In a bit of real-life scary news, Lawler had a heart attack on live WWE television this past week. Thank goodness the legend, now in his sixties, is doing much better and there appears to be no life-threatening damage. He’s still kind of the worst though.
Elsewhere on the broadcast, the WWF comparisons were blatantly obvious. The camera spent a lot of time focused on the cheerleaders, who are more scantily clad than their NFL counterparts. Instead of normal shots of the ladies, the camera tended to pan from the bottom-up and zoom in on the parts you can imagine folks at home might want them to zoom in on. And unlike in the NFL, where the cheerleaders are simply shown every once in a while between plays (basically as a transitional measure), here the camera lingered on what is a performance specifically for television. The announcers even addressed the dancing and the attractiveness of the cheerleaders.
From there, the XFL brought us into those spaces that McMahon claimed the NFL wouldn’t take us: We were inside the locker room listening to the pregame speeches. We were on the field listening to the players and coaches game-plan (and later, we would receive the direct line from the offensive coordinator to the quarterback). Cameras were both closer to and farther away from the players, with one camera hanging above the field and another being operated by a cameraman right in the huddle. Before the game actually began, a chyron told us exactly how much every player was paid (read: not much). Finally, everything stopped so the players could get on the public address system to introduce themselves and dish out some trash talk.
All of this was cut directly from the modern day pro-wrestling cloth crafted by McMahon. The locker room speeches are backstage promos. The high-angle and close-up shots are often used in televised wrestling. The pay chyron mirrors the on-screen notes that remind us certain wrestling matches are for championships (or other stakes, like a #1 contender spot). The player self-introductions are just like in-ring promos, intended to pump up the audience and/or emasculate the opponent.
It was wrestling, but with people in football uniforms. Unfortunately, once the game itself got started, the XFL became football again. Very, very bad football—albeit in a telecast with different, and frankly innovative, camera angles. The opening game featured a 19-0 rout by the Outlaws (a team that went on to be pretty terrible), precipitating NBC’s cut over to the Orlando-Chicago game with Ross and Lawler. But no creative camera angles or loosened rules could make the lesser play better.
Over 14 million people watched that first XFL broadcast in 2001. It drew an unexpected 9.5 Nielsen rating. By week two, however, the NBC broadcast’s ratings dipped to a 4.6. Throughout that first season, the sports media continuously attacked and mocked the XFL for its poor play and parlor tricks. ESPN and Fox Sports rarely covered XFL games or stories. Vegas wouldn’t even put over/unders on the board because scoring was so poor. Soon after the end of the first season, NBC washed its hands of the XFL and refused to air a second season despite previously agreeing to do so. McMahon briefly pressed on, assuming he could air games on TNT and UPN, but once UPN suggested it would only continue if the WWF lost an hour of programming, McMahon admitted defeat. Wrestling ultimately was more important than football.
The XFL was born in February 2000. By May 2001, it was dead and gone. In the years since, public opinion of the XFL has only soured further.
Eleven-plus years after those XFL games were played, in light of a dramatic increase in focus on concussions and player safety in the NFL, it’s tough not to look at McMahon’s project as misguided at best and dangerous at worst. Although no XFL player got seriously injured, and much of the conjecture about the second league being more open or physical was just that, it was probably still irresponsible of McMahon to forefront the game’s violence. But that’s who McMahon is, and that’s the kind of business he likes to run.
As you may or may not know, pro wrestlers are independent contractors who are asked to work at least 300 days a year. Wrestling is not fake—it’s scripted. Many of the injuries are real. The mass of pain killers the performers take to ease all their problems on the road are certainly real. In recent years, more and more wrestlers (past and present) have succumbed to drugs, injuries, depression, or a combination of all three. In that way, the rising tide of wrestler deaths somewhat mirrors what’s been going on in the NFL. Former football players can’t handle their retired lives, either physically or mentally. Neither can former wrestlers.
Maybe, then, McMahon wasn’t too far off with the XFL after all. Wrestling and football are more aligned that maybe we’d like to admit. For one thing, the NFL actually stole some of the XFL’s technical tactics for covering the game (the sky cam, the locker room speeches, even the close-ups on the field). For another, the intense media coverage on the league has turned NFL football into a year-round entity full of storylines and good guys and bad guys, all set against the backdrop of a brutally physical competition that curbs lifespans and sends participants sailing into depression. And both the NFL and the WWE (as it’s been known since 2011, having renamed to World Wrestling Entertainment after losing a lawsuit against the World Wildlife Fund) have in recent years attempted to dial back their brutality and physicality, mostly for dubious reasons involving major lawsuits and political campaigns. But neither entity can fully remove those things, and they don’t really want to.
Ultimately, the XFL failed, but not because it made the connections between football and wrestling more explicit—only because it didn’t make the football good enough.