Peter G (sinetimore) wrote,
Peter G

The XFL -- Looking Back Through Stained Glass

One of the perks of writing opinion pieces is that they aren't just opinions. They are a time capsule, a snapshot of a moment where something happened. And revisiting them can bring back all kinds of details that you had forgotten about for whatever reason. This is especially useful when it comes to politics, but has other areas of application.

Which I mused to myself about when, this week, Vince McMahon announced he was reviving the XFL. Articles mentioned a little bit of the league's history, but nothing really concrete. And then I remembered, Wait a minute! I wrote a column about that!

Actually, I wrote two. The first was towards the end of the regular season when the XFL was confirmed to be a failure. As they say in Texas, walking around dead and don't know enough to lie down. The second was after the championship game, a very short piece that, appropriately, was more of a whimper than a bang.

Everyone is talking about the league and what it could portend when it launches in 2020, and player policies in place, and such. That's fine, let them cover it. I, however, would like to swivel the spotlight onto the one year of insanity that was the first and only season. Follow me, and try not to step in the yesteryear.

Where do we begin our tale? Simple, we start with network TV. Despite all appearances, money is not everything to the major TV networks. Money from the 18-24 male demographic is everything. CBS, despite its claim as the Tiffany Network, home of quality shows, cancelled shows like Murder She Wrote and approved Survivor and Big Brother to lure those kids. ABC dumped its TGIF line-up, thinking the audience was too young and too small and they could do better. It also started having second thoughts about running Who Wants To Be A Millionaire with Regis Philbin when the demographics started skewing up. They were seeing more of their audience vanish to the cable outlets (this was before the Internets) and couldn't figure out what to do.

This made for strange events. Fox was the best at capitalizing on this group, coming up with morally bankrupt shows like Who Wants To Marry A Multimillionaire? and Temptation Island and getting people who don't think Jerry Springer is tawdry to watch. To keep the dwindling audiences and lay precious claim to bragging rights, networks make strange deals with people who promise to deliver the goods. ER episodes were sold to NBC for $13 mil an episode, and NBC could brag that they have the #1 rated show on TV. They didn't mention the ratings for ER at #1 were about 3/4 of what the ratings were for The Cosby Show when it was #1.

Saturday night is a graveyard in TV. Your only option for making a show that will survive and/or thrive there is one that caters to the audience that stays in on Saturday nights and watches TV. This is how shows like Touched By An Angel and Walker Texas Ranger get by. NBC showed American Football Conference games, but lost the rights to CBS, creating a big hole in their schedule. NBC began working with Time Warner to create a new football league that they wouldn't have to worry about losing the rights to.

Enter Vince McMahon, the head of the, at the time, World Wrestling Federation, or WWF (it is now World Wrestling Entertainment and WWE after a trademark conflict with the World Wildlife Foundation. However, this is before that went down, so just to keep the era correct, I will be referring to it as WWF for this article). WWF was big at the time, bigger than it was in the early 80's. Firmly entrenched in the Attitude Era, they firmly trounced the competing World Championship Wrestling (which got bought out by the WWF) and were untouched by Extreme Championship Wrestling (which cancelled itself). McMahon got an idea to expand into other sports when the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League approached him about buying the team. McMahon is obviously a proponent of the saying, "If it's worth doing, it's worth overdoing," as the Attitude Era can attest. He became interested in buying the entire CFL and bringing it south to America. Then, in 1999, he and Dick Ebersol, the head of NBC programming, struck a deal to form a joint venture and create the XFL. It would be owned by WWF and NBC, Viacom would carry the games exclusively on NBC, TNN, and UPN, and it would be wild. The broadcast deal was set for two years.

(Sidebar: a lot of people are under the impression that XFL stands for Xtreme Football League. According to McMahon, however, the X didn't actually stand for anything. There's a reason for that -- when the league first organized in 1999, there was already an Xtreme Football League in operation, so the organization simply called themselves the XFL and said the X meant nothing. Oh, and the original Xtreme Football League? It never had a single game, merging with Arena Football's AF2 league that same year.)

Now, keep in mind, back in the 80's, there was a start-up football league called the USFL, the United States Football League. They weren't trying to compete with the NFL. Dedicated to the idea that there was an audience for football in the springtime, they set up shop and actually enjoyed a bit of a run. It wasn't the same numbers as the NFL, but they were respectable, and enough to keep everything chugging along. But two problems soon arose. The first thing that went awry was when the USFL got some NFL players to join them. USFL teams were owned by individual people, and they were soon trying to outbid each other for the talent. Pay scales rose faster than the league income. The other was the schedule. Donald Trump owned one of the teams, and he felt the USFL could take on the NFL, kind of like the AFL did. He lobbied the other owners to shift the league's season to fall to go toe to toe with the NFL. Well, that didn't work, and soon teams were filing Chapter 11. The XFL would avoid that fate by having all teams owned by the XFL.

The first press conference, held in 2000 where McMahon spelled out his business model, was classic. McMahon sold the concept of ironman football, with brute strength running the show. There would be no fair catches, and less emphasis on strategy and more on smashmouth, in-your-face action. He said he wanted to "take the skirt and panties off the quarterback," and yes, there were people calling him out for using that phrase back in 2000. But McMahon wasn't done. One of the things he trumpeted was the cheerleaders. They would not be dressed in those conservative outfits the NFL girls wear, they would dress provocatively. Immediately, images of the cheerleaders from the movie BASEketball wearing outfits designed and marketed by Fredrick's Of Hollywood (no kidding) came to mind. Early ads showed the cheerleaders in the locker rooms, getting dressed. Later on, he said the cheerleaders would be required to date the players and if a player fumbled the ball, a camera was supposed to focus on a cheerleader and ask if the player's timing was off because she and he "did the nasty" the night before. Question: did they really think no one would have a problem with this? In any other work environment, that's called Sexual Harassment. Here, they were encouraging it. Awesome.

In order to keep the salaries in check, McMahon said they would not be recruiting NFL players or college kids eligible for the draft. Instead, the XFL would feature players who were either cut from the NFL or couldn't get signed on. This prompted the next observation from me. There is a reason those players were cut from the NFL. They aren't good players! The idea that putting a bunch of them together would equal football better than the NFL was a questionable notion.

NBC was accused of prostituting themselves. NBC, however, defended what it was doing and expected to be laughing all the way to the bank. No one asked NBC the last, hard question the press conference prompted: do you really expect to lure a group of people who almost never stay home on a Saturday night to do just that?

The first game was set for just after the Super Bowl. It came on, and it was a bit revolutionary. The cheerleaders used moves closer to the ones in The Replacements than the NFL. Players and coaches were miked and the play calls could be heard, even though no one had a clue what the names meant. But the telecasts was laughably amateurish. Minnesota Governor Jesse "The Body" Ventura, who used to wrestle in the WWF, kept repeating phrases and observations over and over and over, making Dick Vitale comparatively tolerable. The cameras kept cutting to the wrong parts of the action, but the worst was the camera angle. While the NFL showed everything from high and on the sidelines, using a three-quarter perspective to keep the action followable, the XFL had cameramen on the field behind the action, showing it from that angle. This not only made it look like a video game (and had gamers like me blanching because we KNEW that would be the next marketed product of the league), but also cut down on the audience's visibility. It became impossible to see who the quarterback saw open and was throwing to. It was like watching the sequels to Robocop: didn't know what was going on, but it was busy.

Ratings came in, and NBC crowed. It was one of the biggest shows of the week. No one bothered to comment on the fact that, according to Nielsen's, fewer and fewer people were watching as the game went on. People started watching, then searched for other fare. Also buried in this was an interesting happening here in Chicago. To counterprogram the Sunday XFL game on the UPN affiliate here, WGN showed an eight hour Arnold Shwarzenegger marathon. It scored twice the rating the XFL game got.

NBC and WWF were licking their chops. Boy, they showed the doubters. They readied the next weekend's game.

Then the bottom dropped out. Ratings for the second game were less than half those of the first game. The USFL only experienced a one-third drop in viewership between the inaugural game and the sophomore contest. And that was when competition was more focused.

Too soon to panic, sure. Too soon to worry, not at all. NBC realized the gravy train was on the wrong track. Dick Ebersol had decided to broadcast the Olympics as a tape delay, since no one in America would be watching when the Australian events were held in real time. While they still were ratings hits, they came nowhere close to the usual Olympic ratings. Advertisers who paid good money for the promised audiences demanded restitution from NBC for not delivering. Ebersol was already making good on that with refunds and free ads, now he was facing doing it again, only in greater volume, with the XFL spot buyers.

Along came the third week, with NBC trying to weather some bad PR. A guy brought his kids to an XFL game. I don't know if he was expecting family entertainment, but he didn't get that. The fans were getting too rowdy, shouting nasty things at the cheerleaders and throwing money at them. Los Angeles was also threatening to cut off beer sales if the fans didn't control themselves. Anyway, ratings were down 25% from the week before. To recap: the ratings were cut in half the second week, and then to three-fourths of that the next. Too soon to panic? Well, NBC and the XFL still thought so, despite the fact that this was a three hour block of programming. This wasn't one show tanking while the ones around survive like with the shows Suddenly Susan and Jesse, this was their entire prime time broadcast.

Now, time for the fourth week. Detractors like me who were not reassured by McMahon's claim of "This isn't wrestling, this will be actual football. No scripts," began to worry more that things would change. The league was made up of people who had this as their only chance to cash in on their football dreams. The XFL didn't have a drug policy, so steroid use was possible. If McMahon wanted to turn things around, what was to say he wouldn't encourage growth hormones or something if it created the action that delivered the audience? The fourth week Saturday night game, which I caught part of, suggested that that wasn't happening, at least not yet. But it was a chilling thought that these people might destroy their bodies just for the elusive football glory.

NBC tried something interesting during this time. During a press conference, the now bastard son of NBC was mentioned and Ebersol explained that the audience was dwindling because they didn't get it. The XFL was supposed to be a satire of the league NBC lost the rights to. Yeah, I can see that bringing viewers back.

The fourth week game featured two major market teams, the Chicago Enforcers in their first home game playing the New York/New Jersey Hitmen (which triggered another BASEketball memory, as the New Jersey team was called the Informants). The Enforcers and the Hitmen both shared the dubious distinction of being the only teams in the XFL not to have a single victory by this point. I commented to my XFL fan co-worker, "Gee, I hope somebody wins."

Catching a few minutes of the game, I saw that NBC gave in and put the camera high and on the sidelines, giving the three-quarter perspective that served the NFL well. There were also reports in the Chicago newspapers that the XFL piled all the spectators on the one side of the stadium the camera was pointed to so it would look full, displacement if you will. I did notice the cameras all seemed to be on one side of the field, regardless of who had the ball. Still, the football was very sloppy.

Saturday night ended with the Hitmen winning the game 13-0. In short, the Enforcers proved they are a Chicago sports team after all. (Chicago sports fans -- send those complaint letters to Ratings? Overnights were 2.8, each point representing about 1 mil households, and a 5 share, the percentage of active TV's tuned to the game. That's 20% lower than the week before. To reiterate, the first week was a 10.3/17. For those who have trouble with The Maths, that is a 73% drop. In fact, it finished dead last in the 18-34 demo it was after. As far as it being satire goes, I guess a joke isn't as funny the second time you hear it, or the third, or the fourth like that weekend. It was also here that the WWF had its first detractor in the ranks. I think it was Vince McMahon's wife who said they were taking the XFL games week by week instead of "We are committed to the future."

Fifth week's games were played, and the ratings were down again, but only to 2.5, so I guess that's an improvement. So the XFL decided to try something to spice things up. They changed a couple of rules to open up scoring (hopefully), and also announced that the halftime program would take place in the cheerleaders' locker room. Guess which change was mentioned first and most in the commercials. The ad campaign was stepped up, with the "news" appearing on the Chicago news radio station, which I wouldn't think is listened to by the target demo.

Week six: ratings went up .1 ratings point to 2.6. An improvement from a numerical perspective, but that's it. Still, NBC let out a breath of air because the landslide had stopped.

Or...did it?

The next week's games would be playing at the same time as March Madness. March Madness is the National Collegiate Athletic Association's playoffs, when college basketball teams gather to win prize money for the schools. Vince McMahon appeared that week on a TV show hosted by Bob Costas. Costas' show was live on HBO. McMahon shifted into WWF mode, getting in Costas' face like the wrestlers do to the camera when "calling out" their next opponents. Costas didn't seem the least phased by this display. McMahon made sure to say the media was responsible for the XFL doing so poorly thanks to its constant dumping on the league. Memo to Mr. McMahon: the media can't get rid of Jerry Springer, and what's more, your ratings started off strong despite the handwringing in the press corps. Like the movie Birth Of A Nation, good presentation, completely inaccurate in the fact department.

Week seven, history was made. The XFL pulled in a 1.6 rating. That is the lowest prime time rating in television history. Those condescending Ross Perot infomericials when he was running for President either time? They got higher. My Mother The Car? Got higher. The previous record holder was an episode of TimeCop, based on the comic book and Jean Claude Van Damme movie, that ran on July 4, 1999 and got a 1.7. Roughly 2 million people out of the entire United State Of America watched the XFL that night. Guys? The horse is dead.

At this point, an interesting thought hit me. Usually, when shows pull in poor ratings, the networks can't wait to shuttle them somewhere else. NBC was owned by Viacom, which could send the games over to one of its many cable networks. But they hadn't even though the XFL had hit rock bottom and started digging. Conclusion: there must be something in the contract preventing NBC from replacing the entire three hour program with something that might turn a profit for them. Whoever let that into the contract is probably reading the "Help Wanted" ads and buy his groceries from the dollar store about now.

Ratings for subsequent games continued around that 1.5 mark, and estimates were that NBC had lost $45 mil on the XFL. Someone finally woke up -- either that or they figured they'd lose more money keeping it on the air than dumping it and wanted to cut their losses. An NBC exec said that if ratings didn't improve during the playoffs, the XFL would be gone. Whether by coincidence or spin control, the XFL said the ratings were higher on UPN and TNN and, if dumped by NBC, they would offer the games to them. I don't know what he's talking about--I checked the UPN ratings and they were about half that of the NBC broadcasts. He also said cities approached the XFL interested in expansion teams. I found that very hard to believe.

And then, the championship, the Million Dollar Game. It pulled a 2.1 rating.

NBC did the only sensible thing -- it shitcanned the XFL. It didn't say much when NBC wouldn't even put the games on in an afternoon slot. Vince McMahon, however, said that the ratings were promising on UPN and they would talk to them about covering the rest of the games. But once the season was over, UPN said they were taking a bath in the ratings, too, so they were pulling out.

McMahon put on his best face, calling the WB Network to see if they were interested. Reports had WB executives emphasizing they wouldn't even return the phone calls. Despite this, a league meeting went on, with the coaches and staffers talking about the next season. Some players were resigned by NFL teams, probably to share jerseys during training camp before being cut again. Hope permeated the air.

Then, McMahon and Dick Ebersol, the head of NBC sports, put the gun to Lenny's head and pulled the trigger. They announced, in the words of Lou Reed, that you could stick a fork in the ass of the XFL and turn them over, they're done. McMahon said, "The blame rests on my shoulder. My vision didn't work for whatever reason. It was a calculated risk. Some pay off, some don't. This one didn't. I don't regret for one moment that we attempted this." The coaches and staffers said they didn't see it coming. I guess they don't read newspapers.

One season. That has to be the shortest time for a professional sports league. My precious American Basketball League lasted 2 1/2 years. The ABA 2000 has already passed it, although I think the Collegiate Professional Basketball League only lasted one year, too (unless it never got off the ground, in which case, it doesn't count).

So what exactly went wrong?

Pretty much everything.

I believe the biggest problem was the application of wrestling cliches into the game. Wrestling has the secondary events, like calling out the opponents and confronting before the match, getting the main focus while the actual wrestling is given the B lines. I think, in a two hour show I watched, the actual wrestling wasn't even a quarter of the activity. This is fine for wrestling, which is sort of like comic books in that you have villains, heroes, fighting for honor or love, exposition, and so on. But mixing this with an actual sport is where it goes wrong. The sports fans want to see the game and view the rest as a distraction. And since the sport isn't scripted, setting up good camera angles and manufacturing conflict can't happen. It became a race to see which would run out first -- the supply of quarterbacks or the audience.

But most telling was how the league sold itself as an alternative to the NFL. As the rules were changed to make the games more exciting, it became more like the league McMahon was trying to distance himself from. The opening scramble remained, but most everything else demonstrated that, McMahon's assertions aside, there is a reason the NFL plays the way it does. Because it works.

And so, minor league football on a major league network was done. Estimates are that NBC lost $50 million on the experiment, and the WWF lost $35 mil. NBC also lost a lot of prestige by pimping for McMahon, and suffered a tremendous take-down in the ratings race for top network. An entire evening of revenues, down the soil pipe. It's bad for some of the players. One was shown on his normal job at a Bed Bath And Beyond. The Million Dollar Game, called that because that was the prize purse to be divided up among the players of the winning team, came out to about $22,000 each. Tim Lester was the quarterback for the Chicago Enforcers. He was a math teacher at West Aurora High School, and quit that job to play in the XFL. Afterwards, he tried out for the Chicago Rush Arena Football team, and said he didn't regret the experience.

For trivia geeks, here are some vital stats from the league:

Date placed in the oven: February 3, 2000

Date it was done done: May 10, 2001

Networks: NBC, TNN, UPN

First games: February 3, 2001. The Las Vegas Outlaws 19, New York-New Jersey Hitmen 0. Orlando 33, Chicago Enforcers 29

Last game: April 21, 2001. In the "Million Dollar Game," Los Angeles 38, San Francisco 6

Most Valuable Player: Tommy Maddox, quarterback for the Los Angeles Xtreme

Most Promoted Player: Rod Smart of the Las Vegas Outlaws. Players could put names or nicknames on their jerseys. Smart's was, "He hate me," touching off jokes for weeks.

Attendance: the XFL beancounters say they sold about 1 million tickets over the 43 total games. Attendance at Chicago's Soldier Field averaged less than 17,000.

Lowest rating: 1.6 for the March 17 game is on the books, but the USA Today reported 1.5's for a couple of weeks before the playoffs.

Last rating: 2.1. That tied for 93rd that week and was the lowest of all programming on the Big Four networks. The next week, NBC ran the movie "Goldeneye". It pulled in a 4.6.

Every major writer started off by mentioning H.L. Mencken's famous quote that no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the audience. I would do it myself, but I hate being part of a crowd. I just stood outside town, watching as the exile rode off into the sunset.
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