It wasn’t supposed to go down this way. It wasn’t.
It wasn’t supposed to become the butt of every single joke told by late night talk show hosts for months on end.
It wasn’t supposed to make Vince McMahon look like an ass.
It wasn’t supposed to become the lowest rated program in network television history.
It wasn’t supposed to…but it did.
History will likely paint the XFL as a bad idea, a horrible brainfart in which Vince McMahon was exposed as the two-bit con artist he really is.
I’m here to tell you that history has it wrong.
This may come as a shock to some of you, but in all honesty, I thought the XFL was a really good idea. When you look objectively at the Vince McMahon’s alternative football league, the infamous XFL, you will see that the concept was, on paper, nothing short of brilliant. In fact, I dare say that anyone who claims that the league was doomed from the first time it was announced is nothing short of a liar.
You say you predicted its demise? I say your pants are on fire.
The hype and hoopla that engulfed the nation in the weeks prior to the kickoff of the season was at a fever pitch – this was something that people did want to see. They wanted more football, and the type that McMahon was promising certainly sounded intriguing: smash mouth, take no prisoners, kill the quarterback football.
No, history won’t want the world to remember that in the weeks prior to the launch of the league, everyone was talking about it. It was the number one most searched term on Lycos, and bookies were quickly figuring out just how much they could make by accepting wagers on the games. NFL legend Dick Butkus signed on, as did Jesse Ventura, hot off shocking the nation by winning the Minnesota governor. One of the largest networks on the planet, NBC, was there to broadcast the games. Even the NFL, in the midst of the almighty Superbowl, was looking on, wondering just what kind of impact this would have on its business.
There was interest in what McMahon was presenting. It was undeniable. In fact, it appeared that everything was in place for Vince McMahon to transcend pro wrestling, and become the head of one of the biggest sports organizations in the entire world.
But it didn’t happen. And the reason it didn’t happen is because the idea that was so tremendous in theory was downright laughable in execution.
It should have been a warning, an omen, that about a month prior to kick off, the XFL blimp (and yes, such a thing did exist) crashed right into the ground. For that was just what was about to befall the league itself.
Despite the fantastic amount of hype generated before the very first snap of the very first game, the basic fact of the matter is that neither Vince McMahon or his cronies never paid attention to the one thing that it needed to provide: football action that rivaled that of the NFL. While the league never actually came out and said that it would, and while it was foolish of anyone to expect that, the fact remained that with the amount of pre-launch buzz the league had generated, that is what everyone was expecting. Vince certainly didn’t do the league any favors by calling the guys in the NFL a bunch of pantywaists, as that would certainly seem to indicate that what his players provided would be a much better product.
It wasn’t. In fact, the football itself was atrociously bad. That was made apparent during the opening game of the season. The players appeared to be completely out of sync, with pass routes being run incorrectly, coverages been totally blown. Passes were dropped, overthrown; tackles completely missed. The refs seemed confused by the rules. Hell, the cheerleaders (endowed as they might be – it seemed to be a requirement for the girls to be a D-cup or larger) couldn’t even dance!
You must know a lot about football – after all, it looks like you have two of them in your bra!
In short, the football was horrible beyond description. The NFL this was definitely not.
This Bad News Bears approach to football wasn’t helped out by the announce crew of Jesse Ventura and Matt Vasgersian, who pointed out the flaws and miscues of both sides. For example, a second quarter flub in the opening game by New York/New Jersey Hitman quarterback Charlie Pulari, in which the ball simply fell out of his hands, was replayed countless times. I don’t think I’ve heard the Body laugh as hard since the Shockmaster fell through a wall.
Fireworks? Yes. Football? No.
And what of all the hyped differences that would separate the league from its more established brethren? It turns out that those were either a) blatant falsehoods or b) unwelcome, pointless changes. Let’s take a look at them:
Since the XFL was supposedly all about hard-nosed gridiron warfare, it only made sense that the rules were to be changed. Those sissies in the NFL did everything to protect their players – the badass XFL guys would be different.
For example, there would be no fair catch. After all, that was just for mama’s boys. And sure enough, in the first punt of the season, the kicking team came storming down and laid waste to the poor sap catching the ball. Hell yeah, be-yotch! That’s what this league is all about! Yaa hoo!
But then suddenly, up went a yellow flag. Then another. Even as the announcers postured about how this was the epitome of the rough and tumble world of the XFL, the call came from the refs: a penalty for not allowing the receiver a five-yard halo to catch the ball. WTF? I thought fair catches were just for those wusses in the NFL?
All access cameras
This was to be another fantastic innovation, in which the fans at home finally got to peak behind the curtain and see what really goes on at half-time. And they were no doubt thrilled to find players eating oranges and drinking water. Some guys just started at a wall. Wow, yes, this IS enthralling. I bet those wimps in the NFL couldn’t stare at the wall half as intently as the ass kicking machines of the XFL.
The sidelines reporting was even more comical. Guys would make a big run, and the reporter would run over to ask him what they thought of the play. The response would generally be standard football jargon like “we saw they were playing cover two, so we snuck one down the middle.” Sometimes, though, we got a much better answer – none at all, as the players flat out ignored the guy, usually due to the fact that they were getting ready for the next play. It was all too obvious that the guys were there to trying their most mediocre to win the game, and had no time to field stupid questions from some doofus named Fred.
The NFL was so bland that they only allowed players to put their names on the back of jerseys. Vince claimed this made the league, and I am using his choice of words here, “homogenized.” The XFL wouldn’t be quite so…ummm…milk-like, I guess, by allowing players to put whatever the hell they wanted on the back of their uniforms. Of course, everyone remembers He Hate Me (Rod Smart), but sadly few recall other less famous competitors like Chuckwagon or my personal favorite, Dar Dar Binks.
I don’t know what’s more lame – the XFL itelf or the fact that some dickweed named himself DAR DAR BINKS.
Despite the best efforts of Vince McMahon, it was obvious that the football folks involved in the league were there to do just that – play football. Though McMahon stated in interview after interview before the league began play that they’d create controversy if there was none present, it just didn’t happen because no one wanted to play that game except Vince himself. NY/NJ Hitmen coach Rusty Tillman was a perfect example of this. In the opening game, his team was down 19 to zip going to the half, which the commentary team ensured fans at home he’d go postal on his players. He didn’t, instead telling them simply to play the game and not make so many mistakes. Jesse Ventura even tried to egg the guy on during the season, and he simply ignored the Body’s grandstand challenges. He was there to coach, not be a pro wrestler.
And perhaps that’s what McMahon failed to grasp most of all: this was football, a game in which the outcomes weren’t predetermined, and one in which characters weren’t created. It was a legitimate sporting event which couldn’t be molded into what he wanted it to be, no matter how he tried. And despite the fancy jerseys and boobtacular cheerleaders, football fans showed up to see that – football.
Vince was no doubt elated with the hype he had created before the season began…but unfortunately, the hype died within the first 15 minutes of the game
When the league first launched, they had guaranteed advertisers at least a 4.5 rating. For the first game, thanks to the superb job McMahon had done promoting the league, it more than doubled that, doing a 9.5. So yes, there was unquestionably interest in the game. However, the second week, the rating dropped to 4.6, less than half what it did the first week. The next week, it dropped yet again, to a 3.1. Week four was even worse, 2.6. And so it continued on.
The saddest part of all this was watching Vince’s reaction to the world crumbling around him. As ratings started their downward spiral, he tried every trick in the wrestling book to win fans back, including what he acknowledged as a “blatant attempt to increase ratings”: he was going to take them inside the cheerleaders’ locker room. But there would be no panty shots here – instead, fans got a wacky dream sequence (written by the crack WWF creative team) in which Bruno the cameraman watched cheerleaders playing Twister with dudes dressed up in gorilla suits, and a dominatrix beat a guy wearing a rabbit suit. Perhaps the only thing suprising was that Mae Young didn’t show up (but Rodney Dangerfield did).
He also had WWF wrestlers trumpet the league like it was a success. He had his announce crew literally plead with fans to start a grassroots campaign to save the league. Trust me, Paul Heyman never looked less extreme than he did wearing an XFL hat and begging for fans to write their local newspaper and demand they cover the league’s games. It should be noted that at the time the league launched, the WWF was doing tremendous business. There was an aura around the promotion that made it feel like yes, it was ok to be a wrestling fan. Following the fall of the XFL, the WWF had reverted back to a business that was seen by the vast majority as something very un-cool. Was this due to the tie-in with the XFL, or was it due to Vince taking his eye off the ball on the wrestling end of things? In the end, the answer to that question is unimportant – for no matter what the answer is, the fact remains that the damage had been done.
Sadly, despite the best efforts of Bruno the cameraman and Paul Heyman (now with Super-Shill™ action), the league continued to spiral out of control and delved into depths that even the folks at Neilsen had never seen. Amazingly enough, the needle dipped to 1.5, which set an all-new record for the lowest rating in network television history. Name a show, any show that you’ve ever seen on network TV. ANY SHOW EVER. Whatever you just came up with, it was watched by more people than the XFL.
The mass media, who had watched McMahon trumpet the league as the second coming, was like a pack of wolves devouring fresh meat. McMahon’s appearance on On the Record with Bob Costas, in which he broke down to the point of threatening Costas with bodily harm, unquestionably did both he, the XFL, and the WWF far more harm than good. It was like watching his evil Mr. McMahon persona rise up and attempt to combat some babyface wrestler.
But this time, McMahon wasn’t the one writing the script. The world was, and the world was calling him on failing to deliver what he promised.
Because the world was ready for the XFL.
But in the end, the XFL wasn’t ready for the world.