The XFL was an innovation in sports, or it might have just been a way for NBC to keep football on their network. On February 2nd ESPN aired their long-anticipated episode of 30 on 30 about the XFL and although the league only lasted one season, its legacy lives on over 15 years later.

This episode was directed by Charlie Ebersol, son of media pioneer Dick Ebersol, who also happened to be Vince McMahon’s partner in the XFL adventure.

The XFL was the first of its kind, as a sports company and a broadcast network directly partnered together on a venture. At the time fans were intrigued with this idea, and that fascination brought in an initial boom of interest from professional wrestling and football fans alike.

How It All Started

Dick Ebersol and Vince McMahon had partnered together since the 1980s when WWF began airing their product on NBC with Saturday Night’s Main Event. The partnership brought a new polish to the wrestling industry, and the two media giants continued their alliance for decades.

When Ebersol became the head of NBC Sports, he was forced to leave the WWF behind. Ebersol says that was one of the toughest things he ever had to do in his career. However, Vince and Dick would find another way to work together eventually.

NBC lost the National Football League’s contract because the NFL wanted 500 million dollars annually, and NBC couldn’t pay those outrageous costs due to the fact that they would lose money on the deal. Therefore, CBS got one division and Fox got the other, leaving NBC in the dust. Ebersol says that NBC immediately began looking for alternatives.

Little did Ebersol know that Vince McMahon was drumming up an idea not even 90 miles away. Vince wanted to present football, but he wanted to change the game into something a little bit more smash mouth, gritty, and aggressive. Therefore the XFL was born. A league with different rules, no fair catches, proclaiming that it was going to present what the NFL used to be. NBC leapt at the deal to become the host network for the XFL.

They hit the ground running and put together the entire operation in one year’s time. When a reporter asked Vince if this was an attempt to be legit, McMahon responded, “may I never be considered f—— legit”.

The fact that NBC was airing the show meant that production quality would be on par with the NFL and Vince promised that they would take fans to places that they were never allowed to go before. NBC produced a slick campaign to gain advertisers for the new league even though they didn’t really have any idea what they were going to do yet.

Nothing had been decided on, from the names of the teams, the players, or the actual game itself. The overall theme was that it was going to be rough, unlike anything fans had seen before, and there would be no fair catches.

Rumors ran rampant even going as far to speculate that steel chairs would be in play to take out running backs because nobody really knew what they were going to get with the XFL. One thing that was for sure was that Vince said the XFL cheerleaders needed to be a main attraction of the show. Vince came up with the idea that they were going to encourage the players to date the cheerleaders, and this only added to the scandalousness of the game.

Ebersol and McMahon decided to use a different commentary team than what NFL fans were used to seeing on NBC. Therefore they enlisted the services of Jesse Ventura. At the time Ventura was a sitting governor of Minnesota, but he still committed to doing the weekly broadcast. The eight teams were announced and the season was set, although there were no stadiums, no players, and no coaches.

Vince said that the XFL’s game plan was a mystery at the time, even though he could apparently talk about what he wanted to do. It seemed very clear that something was being lost between what the network thought was going to take place and what was actually in place to become a reality.

The entire training camp for the XFL’s players took place in Las Vegas and the players were only paid per diem, as they were just doing it for the opportunity to play. The XFL paid players in a very interesting way where they would pay the more successful players more, meaning if they won they got a bonus. The fact that there was no guaranteed money meant that these players had even more on the line with each game.

Although the XFL was announced to be much more different and smash mouth than the NFL, when the official rules came out they did not reflect the promotional branding idea that they had tried to encapsulate.

When all was in place for the first kickoff of an XFL game, there were excited fans tailgating and wearing colors of a team that they had never seen before.

One of the unique aspects of the XFL uniform was that they allowed players to show their individual personality by personalizing the back of their jerseys, some names that graced the back of XFL jerseys included Deathblow, He Hate Me (who happens to be one of the most famous players in the XFL’s short history) and Teabagger.

There were to be two games aired each week at the same time in different markets, an A game, and a B game.

Another unique aspect of the XFL was the fact that the opening coin toss was replaced by a scramble for the ball. These scrambles resulted in several player injuries. The statistic given in the documentary is 60% of the players who did these scrambles ended up injured. In the very first scramble during an XFL B game, a player was actually injured.

The XFL was revolutionary by bringing in the sky cam and steady cams, which were revolutionary at the time and have become staples of professional football in today’s age. They wanted to make the television presentation of the XFL to look more like a Madden video game.

However, the camera operators didn’t want to operate these cameras without an increase in pay so Vince brought in his own guys who were used to being in the middle of the action. The “Bubbacam” was actually named after a legendary WWF cameraman, although it is said in the documentary that Bubba never actually stepped on the field.

When Vince was giving direction to keep tight shots on the cheerleaders and objectify them as much as possible, Dick Ebersol had a differing opinion. The promos for the league had a much more hardcore appeal that brought fans in, but fans seemed disappointed by the lack of excitement and carnage on the field.

Ebersol says that he thought they were going to present good football, but they didn’t. He said that they promised a lot, but they didn’t deliver. However, there were still hopes that they could turn things around. Vince wanted to change things up the best he could, so he enlisted the help of Jim Ross on commentary.

In spite of leaving much to be desired, the initial ratings were outstanding for the new league as 54 million people tuned in to watch the opening game.

Where Things Went Wrong

Week two of the season was full of hope. The XFL game was leading into a big episode of Saturday Night Live where Jennifer Lopez was scheduled to host the weekly sketch comedy show.

Week one of the XFL had a great start and the Nielsen ratings were astounding, and the quality of the game for the second week was even better than the week before. But, thirteen minutes into the game, they lost the signal and went totally dark.

This created a nightmare because the initial agreement to have the games on Saturday night was to create a strong lead-in to SNL, and since there was such a massive equipment failure this meant that it risked the promising lead in.

It turns out that the reason for the loss of transmission in Los Angeles was due to the fact that they didn’t have gasoline in the generators that powered the equipment. Therefore, there was a blank screen for nearly two minutes before they switched to the B game which caused a loss in a multitude of viewers and an even greater loss of confidence for the league.

Although they switched to the B game taking place in Orlando, by the time they went back to LA to continue their broadcast time was running thin and there were people behind-the-scenes who were nervous that the game wouldn’t be over before SNL. Then an injury took place that took nearly 15 minutes to get off the field. After that, the game went into overtime.

Dick Ebersol was talking to SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels on the phone the entire time and Lorne was extremely upset about having to push his live show back due to this football game.

Suddenly the game went into double overtime. They said that Jennifer Lopez was sitting in a dressing room in New York just waiting to go on the air. The game might have been gripping, but the drama behind-the-scenes was extremely tense.

Due to these shenanigans, SNL’s viewership dropped 50% and the XFL’s ratings suffered greatly as well. The focus then went to figuring out how to drive up ratings.

The Quest For Ratings

The new idea that they went with was to go more into the entertainment side of the spectrum. They brought in sensationalism, controversial sideline interviews, and they took cameras into the cheerleader’s locker room (even though they somewhat salvaged it by bringing Rodney Dangerfield in for that segment).

By week 7, the ratings were the lowest of any show on prime-time television. There was a lot of pressure on the XFL as the ratings were down 75% from the first week of the league.

Vince McMahon was frustrated and his interview with Bob Costas made that more than obvious. McMahon got in Bob’s face and was trying to be as physically intimidating as he could in an attempt to divert the journalist’s questions about the XFL’s faults. Dick Ebersol said that this interview had “no upside” as it had no benefit for either the XFL or NBC.

The XFL’s championship game, “The Million Dollar Game” was sparsely attended and even fewer people watched it live on television, however, Vince McMahon wasn’t going to lay down.

Pulling The Plug

NBC and the XFL had signed a two-year deal and there was a guarantee that they would be coming back for another season. He Hate Me was even told by Vince himself that he would be the face of the company for years to come.

Unfortunately, there was no way to revive the public perception of the product. Ebersol and McMahon had an honest conversation and realized that their credibility had been too damaged to survive another season.

Eventually, Vince agreed to pull the plug on the fledgling football league as he saw the obvious signs that NBC’s interest in maintaining the relationship had dwindled to next to nothing. Therefore on May 10th, 2001 the XFL closed its doors as players and coaches alike found out about the league’s cancellation via Sports Center.

Although the XFL never made it to a second season, the NFL has since lifted several ideas from the now defunct league and its influence on the game can still be seen today. Toward the end of the documentary Jonathan Coachman argued that not everything that fails is a complete failure and the fact that you’re reading this right now may just prove his point.

What did you think about ESPN’s XFL documentary? Did it bring back any good and/or bad memories about the short lived football league? Sound off in the comments below.

Previous articleROH Loses Another Announcer But Gets Kenny Omega
Next articleTommy Dreamer Almost Loses An Eye
Aaron Varble hasn’t just been writing for more than a decade in various formats including sketch comedy, stand up, television, radio, and other various projects; nor is he just another professional wrestling fan with a master's degree in journalism and Tourette’s syndrome. He's always looking to explore the why not with the why and the how come along with the how. Follow on Twitter @TheVarble