SLACKAMANIA REVIEW — 30 for 30: This Was the XFL
ESPN Films presents 30 for 30
“This Was The XFL”
A young Dick Ebersol left ABC for NBC in the mid 70s and in 1975 along with Lorne Michaels launched Saturday Night Live. It was a massive success and Ebersol became the youngest TV executive ever. Meanwhile Jesse Ventura and Bob Costas talk about Vince’s success in wrestling launching the WWF national and ending the territories and the creation of WrestleMania. Ebersol meanwhile revitalized SNL in the early 80s when it was struggling with new stars like Eddie Murphy and Billy Crystal. Together, Ebersol and Vince created Saturday Nights Main Event which generated massive ratings and increased production values for the WWF. They also maintained a great friendship and close bond. While SNME lasted on NBC till 1991 its downfall began when Ebersol took over NBC Sports in 1989. In 1996 he was named the most powerful man in sports by The Sporting News. NBC was king having broadcasting rights to NFL, NBA, MLB, Notre Dame Football, PGA, and the Olympics. However in 1998 the NFL owners got together and pushed for a mega package for the NFL to CBS and Fox for $500 million dollars. Ebersol said it was too much money and would lose $100 million a year for NBC, but realized the final season how much it meant to the network and its people, he realized that life and NBC sports would go on, but wanted something new and original. Meanwhile Vince was starting to ride high with the Attitude Era. Vince mentioned how NBC had Super Bowl 32 and then nothing so Vince was creating along with WWF office head Basil DeVito the idea of the XFL. Smash mouth football with great personalities similar to wrestling superstars. On February 3rd, 2000 Vince launched the concept of the XFL at WWF New York. Despite the announcement there were no teams, stadiums, players, coaches or TV deal created yet. Jonathan Coachman said ”what are we doing? but knew it was classic Vince” Dick Ebersols assistant watched the XFL press conference and told him immediately. After the press conference Ebersol called and told him not to take a TV deal that they’d work with NBC. On March 31st 2000, WWF and NBC announced a TV deal and 50/50 partnership. It generated notice and made the front pages of the newspapers. NFL writer Peter King said with NBC and Ebersol behind it that he knew it would be given a chance and deliver a good product. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said many in the NFL admired the fact Vince and Ebersol launched the XFL and were bold to launch it as a competitor to the NFL. After the TV was announced, they had to create commercials. With no idea or concept they had to be creative with advertisements so they centered on the XFL logo, red and black football and cheerleaders. They created hyperbole commercials to gain interest including that the XFL would include ”no fair catches” It ran wild among peoples imaginations. Bob Costas talked about how they acted like rough and tough compared to football and glimpsing into cheerleaders Locker rooms. Vince wanted cheerleaders to be a vital part of the XFL. Vince also wanted the XFL players to date the XFL cheerleaders which are forbidden in the XFL. Coachman even admits he was dating a XFL cheerleader. Bob Costas thought it was a circus and would not work but Dick Ebersol told him he would not be used in the league.
Ebersol knew it had to be different, that he couldn’t use traditional NBC announcers. In May 2000 they created a splash by adding Jesse Ventura to the broadcast crew. Jesse was Governor of Minnesota at the time and it generated even more press. NBC Lead Football Director John Gonzalez thought it was a fantastic idea it but questioned Ventura’s knowledge of football after several meetings with him. They decided to pair Ventura with Bay Area regional sports announcer Matt Vagersian as the play by play guy. Vagersian was on the rise at the time and only 30 years old, and viewed the XFL as an opportunity to get on the national stage. Coachman believes it was a great opportunity for him and that anyone they wanted would have taken the play by play gig but Bob Costas. Costas thought the XFL was such a joke he didn’t even want to be INDIRECTLY involved with it. He bashed the team names saying they weren’t football but sounded like someone was going to shoot you he thought it was a joke. In June, the XFL STILL didn’t have any players/coaches/stadiums. Basil DeVito admits they fabricated memos showing optimism of the growth and process when they had no idea what they were going. NBC Executives believed that Vince was all talk but didn’t have a grasp on what the XFL was. NBC told Vince it had to be football and not wrestling style storylines and scripts. Ebersol believed Vince would figure it out though and knew they had to be different than the NFL. To make a buzz, the XFL got a blimp unfortunately it crashed into a seafood restaurant. Vince jokes it was an omen of what was going to happen in the league. The XFL didn’t hold their draft till October and didn’t start training camp in Las Vegas till after Christmas 2000 when the league launched in early February. It gave guys not drafted in the NFL or everyday guys a chance to make a living playing football and had the same mindset. The XFL salary system was setup the old WCW PAY WINDAH (TM Dusty Rhodes) where the winning team would receive double the money compared to the loser instead of inflated individual salaries of the NFL. It gave the teams an incentive to play to win. A lot of the players and coaches didn’t care for the showmanship however and were just there to coach and play football. Among those was Rusty Tillman head coach of the NY/NJ Hitmen who had decades of experience in the NFL as a player and coach said he didn’t care for the WWF stuff. When NBC executives received the XFL playbook they felt like it didn’t reflect the league. Vince was adamant to go with the rulebook and said it can be changed during the season if needed, he was told he had one half of football to impress the viewers and if not they would be dead.
Chemish Fisher a huge football fan living in Las Vegas, was stoked for the XFL as he finally had a hometown professional team to root for. The opening week was a success. A million tickets across the 8 stadiums were sold at $25 a ticket. Tailgates occurred and the Las Vegas game was sold out which was the debut broadcast. To the players a personality they were allowed to use nicknames on their jerseys if they wanted to. Vince approved all of them but it was revealed some were bad like ”Teabagger’ Vagersian said he would have looked like a jerk and a a$$hole announcing that name on broadcast. Ebersol and Peter King talk about how opening night at dusk and the heavy traffic for the game and compared it to the scene in Field Of Dreams. Ebersol said that was last time he felt happy about the XFL. Vagersian said he was told that Vince was just an owner and not a character but on opening night he comes out and screams THIS IS THE XFLLLLLLLLLLLLLL. Which everyone hilariously imitates. Vince introduced NFL Hall of Famer Dick Butkus who introduces a scramble to the ball from the 35 yard line instead of a coin toss which was well received, but several of the players were lost to season ending injuries doing it. They introduced the X cam a sky cam based off of Madden Football video games as kids were used to them. Cameras on the field all the time were introduced even on players and coaches not in action. Vince didn’t want to pay extra or for NBCs cameramen thought and said his WWF cameramen would do it a guy named Bubba to be placed on the field despite the risk of getting hit/ Bubba never did it personally, but it was named the BubbaCam. The star of the XFL game 1 player 1 was Rod Smart ”He Hate Me” Fans chanted his name and even brought signs of his at WWF events. Smart explains the nickname is that its all mine and considers himself Mr. XFL. Vagersian said he was told by Ebersol to ignore risqué stuff if he wanted to but that Vince wanted him to promote it. Vagersian’s response was he felt uncomfortable which upset both Vince and Ebersol. NBC executives thought they were toast at the first half the game was dull and inept. Vagersian said viewers had to feel deceived. He believes even non football fans watched hoping for blood and guts but it seemed like regular football. No fair catch turned out to be just a non play, and a lack of overall personalities. Ebersol said they promised a lot and didn’t deliver. After the game Vagersian was summoned to meet Vince in his limo at the empty stadium. Vagersian jokes the scene reminded him of an old mob movie. Vince said that he didn’t get it and needed more seasoning so he was demoting him to the B team and replacing him with JR for the A-Team. Matt was disappointed but also relieved. He said the XFL looks suck and I got replaced on it so do I suck? Billy Redman of research did a double take at the ratings. 54 million viewers a 10.5 rating tuned in to opening night. The highest rated Saturday night program in over a decade, and outdrew the 2000 World Series. It did double the rating what was even promised to advertisers which drew excitement and optimism. Despite that, critics panned it for its lousy play and lame things like sexy cheerleaders and scripted events.
Going into Week 2, there was buzz of momentum keeping up after the massive rating and a heavily hyped SNL with Jennifer Lopez as host. J-Lo was white hot at the time and SNL needed a boost, so NBC was promoting it feeling it was one of the biggest SNLs in several years. The Rock introduced Week 2 game in Los Angeles. The product of play and the crowd was exciting, however 13 minutes in the generators blew and power was lost. It delayed the game which made New York panic to SNL. Lorne Michaels was supportive of the XFL as he figured it would be a great lead in for the show for a big number. They couldn’t solve the problem to fix it. Turns out someone didn’t fuel the gas tank of the generators. Vince was so upset he admitted he wanted to break someone’s neck as he trusted his guys and felt he could trust NBCs guys as well. Instead of immediately switching over to the B game they left the off the air button which likely caused millions of viewers to turn off. Vagarsian joked he was out of the Witness Protection Program and viewed the outage as his personal ”F you” I’m on the air anyways. They eventually switched to the A game as they got power back on. Unfortunately a bad injury happened that delayed the game an additional 15-20 minutes and the game got exciting by Tommy Maddox leading the charge and went into overtime which went into the start of SNL. Ebersol thought it would secure high ratings of XFL and JLo fans but it was not the case as Ebersol and Lorne Michaels got into a heated exchange over the phone. The game ended in double overtime. They had to tape the show instead of being live. The XFL lost half its audience from week 1, which Vince blames on the idiot who forgot to fuel the generators.
When March hit, they had to go up against March Madness and NASCAR which hurt the ratings, plus many had their opinions on the XFL product already and turned out. An ESPN poll at the time showed 145K voted their favorite thing about the XFL was ”nothing” Vince wanted more storylines for it and wanted a second season. Ebersol knew it wasn’t possible that it would be hard to maintain it on primetime network TV. Ratings were sinking to new lows each week. Week 7 was the lowest rated sporting event in primetime history a 1.7 and was near the lowest primetime network show ever Vince went towards the entertainment side like The Rock promos, risqué women and a ”feud” between Jesse Ventura and Rusty Tillman, and a lame angle where someone won a lucky chance to enter the cheerleaders locker run but it didn’t happen. The Rodney Dangerfield skit was considered hilarious. They even hired a hot tub full of strippers! Jesse Ventura says football isn’t the show wrestling is and doesn’t handle it clearly. Vince being a controversial figure got hammered by the media which led to a infamous interview with Bob Costas on HBO on March 14th 2001. Costas told him 75 percent of the audience dipped and it wasn’t WWF enough for its fans and lousy football compared to the NFL. Vince didn’t handle the criticism well. Coachman believes Costas didn’t want someone like Vince in his world. Costas mentioned how they risked prestige and money for it. He didn’t want NBC and his good friend Dick Ebersol ill will on it. Vince admits he was ticked off and wanted to kill him but only would have if he was 6’3 and 280 pounds. Costas didn’t believe he was going to attack him, but just be intimidating. Vince says the Costas interview was a ”Gotcha” by him. The XFL had its Million Dollar Championship Game in April at the LA Coliseum and it was poorly attended with low ratings. Vince and his crew thought there would be at least a two year commitment for it and wanted a season 2. He even told his guys they would have many years on the product and wanted to build the XFL around Rod Smart ”He Hate Me” Plans were being made for a 2nd season and meetings happened. Money was lost and ads left. Ebersol said it was a good thing that he and Vince were friends .NBC had to pay out another $50 million dollars but felt they would lose more with a second season. In May the XFL announced it folded, Vince wanted to continue on, but no one else did so it made sense for it to end it. Tommy Maddox and He Hate me were crushed by it. Chemish Fisher said it just felt wrong that he felt the Las Vegas Outlaws were meant to stay in Vegas. Coachman admits while the XFL failed, everything wasn’t a failure. The X and Bubba cams are used in the NFL as well as mic’d up cameras. Jerry Jones credits the XFL today. Vince feels kinda flattered over it. Coachman believes the XFL will be remembered at that’s a good thing. In 2016 Vince and Ebersol meet for dinner. And reflect on the XFL. Ebersol and Vince said they thought they put a good thing together and Vince says it was his fault but Ebersol said its our fault. Ebersol talks about how the media people are astonished he calls Vince the best partner he ever had, but he truly believes it. He puts over Vince as a tremendous friend and if he passed away he wants Vince to watch over his children. Vince gets choked up at the gesture and says he feels the same about him. Ebersol asks Vince would he do it again and Vince said he would not necessarily a XFL but maybe a tie in to the NFL owners or a totally different concept. Vince asked Ebersol to help but he says he has to use his own money as he retired from NBC and cant use the networks money as they laugh. Vince is certain they can find a way. They end with a I love you and a toast as we get credits on the XFL players that played in the NFL. The last XFL player to play in the NFL was Paris Lennon who ended his career playing with the Broncos in their Super Bowl XLVIII loss to the Seahawks in January 2014. Costas wraps up by saying Vince needed more humility in handling the product, Vince jokes again he wishes he was bigger so he could fight him
Final Thoughts: A fun look back at one of the biggest flops in sports history. It’s hard to believe 16 years has passed since the XFL. It was produced by Dick Ebersols son Charlie so it was more feel sorry to the league overall than critical, but it viewed Vince as vague and out of touch with what he wanted to do despite his grand vision (sounds like today’s WWE) But 2001 wasn’t all in all a bad year for Vince as he bought out WCW & ECW, dominating the wrestling industry that he set out to conquer 2 decades prior. Thumbs Up for This Was The XFL Take a watch on ESPN or on demand.