Tuesday, April 3, 2007

The XFL

(This post refers to American football. For the purists out there, please replace all references to "football" with "bananas.")

I was in undergrad, doing my best to avoid sports fans in general, when the XFL began, and while my memories are not as detailed as those in McMahon and Sex, Lies and Headlocks, they're informed by opinions about football and wrestling, sports and sports entertainment, that haven't changed much after these recent readings. I didn't know or care much about wrestling at the time, but had a sufficient grasp of the essentials, i.e. it was scripted, the fans knew it was scripted, and it walked an odd sort of narrative/sport line that seemed to work for pro wrestling, but seemed highly inapplicable anywhere else. (Years later I'd realize videogames had been riffing off this tension in their own way, but that was later.)

I grew up among football fans, and what I knew about that culture seemed entirely incompatible with wrestling culture. Authenticity is something to be played with in wrestling, one element working in conjunction with many others to create a spectacle, but it's invisible in football, because, well, it's a sport, and everyone treats it as such. The refs are utilized in such a way as to let them actually do their stated job of enforcing rules, and the fans treat the game itself as the center of the experience. Sure, there are rivalries, and flamboyant personalities, but mostly it's the game. And since that game is firmly within the tradition of agon, in which rules attempt to reduce all advantages that aren't based on skill, anybody who can win does, and they'd goddamned better be trying to do so. There are injuries, but few fans I knew seemed to think the game would be better with more of them; few even seemed to consider "danger" to be an appealing element of the action. If anything, injuries just screwed up the season.

So, hearing all the buzz about this new "smash-mouth football," a term I never did quite understand, I began to wonder just what the hell the XFL backers were thinking, attempting to create a new football league that seemed to be identifying itself in terms of sexier cheerleaders, a few obscure rule changes (which were always implied, if not accurately, to make the game more violent and dangerous), ridiculous "edgy" team names, and...what? Who in their right mind would want to PLAY for a league that combined the respectability of pro-wrestling with the injury rates and comparative anonymity of football? We've seen attempts at futuristic, "no holds barred" neo-football games in fiction, for the very good reason that it would be insane to attempt to do so in real life.

And, it collapsed. McMahon offers a convincing double-explanation that a) it was a calculated risk, they lost, but who can complain? and b) the media was out to get them and conspired to destroy the XFL. Fine, whatever. Sex Lies & Headlocks suggests that even Vince wasn't willing to sacrifice a half hour of Smackdown to keep it afloat, which suggests that he at least knew when to quit.

But, really, what the hell were they thinking? Are there any fans here who could explain it to me?

9 comments:

BMN said...

My original response did not go through so this will be shorter than intended.

Bottom line: Vince wanted the Vikings, then the CFL, got neither and decided this was the best way to go. I'm thinking he wanted to diversify to show the stockholders that WWFE wasn't "just" a novelty purchase in wrestling stock.

"Smashmouth football" = less protective rules and therefore "tougher." Where Vince lost his credibility was using "wide open" and "smashmouth" in the same sentence. The smashmouth era is dead, football is MORE wide-open for it and Vince showed early on that he didn't know as much as he thought he did on the subject. It made it a little less difficult to sympathize with his "media is out to get me" cries (although to be honest, he had a reasonable gripe at various points).

My take on the XFL was that it was OK to watch here and there (I watched opening night and wasn't terribly bored). But my first thought was that it wasn't as revolutionary as it was made out to be. I'm a CFL fan and it struck me as decent, but second to the CFL, and heck, maybe even the Arena League.

The only real contribution it made was the increased use of on-field cameras.

Joshua Shea said...

I was working at a newspaper as a reporter during this time and was quite friendly with the sports editor. He knew I liked wrestling and gave me shit about it, but it was well-natured.

Even though the first weekend out, XFL drew better than any other sport in the ratings, they didn't put the scores in the paper.

The editor told me it was because it wasn't as if they were putting in the scores of "minor league football." They would be putting in the scores of "Vince McMahon's minor league football" and there's a big difference between those two things.

As time went on, I think Vince realized this. Of his top four commentators, you had the Raw announce team, Jesse Ventura and a guy who once hosted American Gladiators. They switched partners, but I think it was too late. They stopped emphasizing the cheerleaders and the sideline interviewer went by the wayside. And you never saw VKM either. I would have liked to see what would have happened with a second year. The team in LA was drawing well and while it probably would have failed,I think it might have carved out a niche for the diehard football fans who will watch year-round.

Carolina said...

I thought the XFL was a great idea, and I think it's ideas like that that make Vince McMahon who he is. He took a huge gamble, and yeah, it didn't work, but imagine if it had. There really are people that would watch football year round, and it's not as if he didn't have legitimate athletes playing for his league. I know that there were several players that went on to play in the NFL after the XFL fell through. It was an innovative idea and it tried to differentiate from the NFL, which it had to do to offer an alternative. If Vince would've paced himself and waited a little longer to fully make sure this league was ready to launch, the joke would be on the media today instead of on him. Everyone's quick to make fun of the XFL in the media, but he took a risk, learned from it, and moved on from it. You win some, you lose some.

Luis Tenorio said...

I didn't take the creation of the XFL to be anything that would mean football plus wrestling. I didn't expect the league to be more dangerous, just more over the top. There are things in the NFL that annoy me. Whenever you see a player get fined, it is because of excessive celebration or antics on the field. I suppose McMahon wanted to bring the intensity of wrestling to the gridiron.
There were lots of pretty cool ideas. End zone celebrations were allowed. Players wore custom named jerseys, Rod Smart anyone? But some things did make it seem kind of dumb, the million dollar game sounded lame because it made the XFL sound second rate. I mean, a whole team playing for a million dollars? Everyone knows that lots of players in the NFL get paid more than that in a year. On paper, the idea of players who were not in the NFL playing their hearts out sounded great. That is what made the WWF over come the trials brought to it by the WCW. Sex, lies and Headlocks summed it up well. You had wrestlers with contracts with no incentive to try and wrestlers in the WWF trying to make a name for themselves. But in football, people want stars and first rate players and the public didn't see to think they were in the XFL. The WWF did have stars and the XFL didn't. Though Tommy Maddux and Rod Smart would move to the NFL, the XFL just didn't seem to execute as well on the field as it did on paper.
The XFL was not a bad idea, it is just that it would have to compete for the attention of people. It would have to go against, not just the NFL but also the NBA. There are periods of the year for different sports and Basketball takes up my attention this time of year so trying to watch that, and WWE programming and the XFL just seemed like too much for some.

Brian "Louxchador" Loux said...

I was a freshman when this came out and there was a decent buzz about the product if only for sheer spectacle. My whole floor watched the first half of the first game, then left.

That was actually true for the country. The ratings for the game started off much higher than expected, then tanked like the tech stock bubble and never came back. Their ratings record was kind of like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine at one point having the highest rating for a TV series premiere. That was the only record they would get.

I think it really didn't work because the product just felt lousy. The football was nowhere near the caliber of the NFL or even college bowl games. It was WNBA versus NBA. There wasn't even anything that "smash mouth" about it. Quarterbacks slid, people ran out of bounds, stiff tackles were rare, and people punted on 4th and short (granted this is smart play most of the time, it was just hardly the gutsy play being hyped). Even worse, the sportscasting and gimmicks were lousy, or even thought out! This is most evident in the attempt to interview offensive players in between downs, who wouldn't even answer the question because he had to dash onto the field for the next play. The fact that producers weren't even familiar with the flow of the game let me know that this venture was short lived. Most of the announce teams were just not prepared to do a 2 hour ball game. I love Ventura and Ross to death, but there is a remarkable world of difference between calling a 5 minute Khali squash and a ball game that ends 38 to 6.

Add to this the fact that the Feb-Mar sports season is hardly as dead as Vince called in his promos. March Madness was going to take away all of his later week viewers, the NBA and NHL already had strong loyal audiences.

The one thing that jumps to mind when I hear XFL is a David Letterman skit - which was an open letter to Vince about how to improve the product. The "get rid of" list was 3 minutes long and included things like "runningbacks who don't run, wide receivers who don't receive, extreme use of the word incessant, incessant use of the word extreme", while the "need more of" list was just "slutty cheerleaders".

OK, that and "he hate me". God bless every grammatically inexplicable moment of Rod Smart.

As a sports fan, the entire move baffled me. If he really wanted to, the XFL could have taken an Arena Football niche, but it was obvious with the company's taunts toward the NFL and his deal with NBC that he was gunning to become the top game in town.

It's odd that so many characters in this course have said some version of "you won't get far in wrestling if you don't understand the business." I am truly surprised that the WWE didn't see that this cut both ways when they tried to play in the NFL's sandbox.

So to answer Peter's question - I have no idea. But then again, why are Tommy Thompson and Joe Biden running for president? It is in some part the entrepreneurial spirit at work that defines what extreme type-A personalities do. It's fun to remember their broken eggs, but they do make some decent omelettes from time to time.

Omar said...

I never really watched the XFL. Not because I didn't like the idea...I just never got around to it. I don't think McMahon was trying to create a league to directly compete with the NFL or what it stood for. It seemed more of a different avenue of sports that would cater to the kind of audience he had so well cultivated through wrestling. Naturally, I wouldn't have expected diehard fans of professional sport and the NFL itself to receive the XFL to well. It was to the NFL what wrestling was to professional sports at large.

McMahon was trying to sell it as an extreme sport. It was edgier, flashier, even sexier than the NFL. It wouldn't be better, but it would be more entertaining to many.

Sam Ford said...

I never watched the XFL, primarily because I have no interest in football. However, I think the single most detrimental mistake was that Vince pushed the XFL to go to season at least one year before should have, and the company lost $400 million in all, I think it was. 2000 would have been one of the most successful years in WWE history because the wrestling product was as hot as it ever was, but the football losses offset the wrestling gains, and I'm afraid the bifurcated company focus could have had something to do with the drop that came in 2001 and that the domestic popularity has still not rebounded from.

Ismael said...

I remember when the XFL started. I wasn't really sure if it would be able to succeed or how sports fans would respond to it. I knew it couldn't really compete with established leagues like the NBA and the NFL. At best I thought it could be used as a springboard for talented athletes to get noticed and maybe have the opportunity to play in the NFL. I only caught a few games now and then and it didn't appear to be that much different than any other football game I had watched before. By the time I knew it, the XFL was gone as fast as it had come.

In the documentary, it appears that Vince praises himself for even attempting the endeavor. From what we know of Vince and his stubborn nature, he must have thought the XFL was a complete failure by ending the league after only one season. I thought Sam made an interesting comment about Vince pulling out of the XFL too early. I wonder if one more year in the XFL would've made a difference in its success. Who knows if one year couuld've caused the XFL to be around today.

wrestlingperspective said...

I wrote about this several years ago.

The XFL was simply a bad line extenstion. Mind, few line extensions are good ones, but this was of the worst sort. As I wrote in '01 ...

[i]The XFL was a line extension of the worst sort. Technically the WWF's name was never put on the product, but for all intent and purpose it was WWF football in the collective mind of the public. The skepticism was there from the outset. What does a wrestling promoter know about running a football league? Apparently, nothing.

Trying to attack the NFL, the market leader, was ridiculous. But McMahon's ego got in the way of understanding why the USFL and the WFL and every other FL have failed. He simply didn't do his homework and now he is paying dearly for it.

The XFL was a repeat of the WBF. A wrestling promoter tried to use the power of his brand to sell a different product. It didn't work and cost the company more than $35 million. But that's just the short term. The long-term damage to the WWF brand is much more costly.

The WWF means pro wrestling, but today it also means hip, over the top, edgy entertainment and slick production. The XFL didn't fit that description. When football fans watched the XFL, they didn't get what McMahon promised: smash-mouth football. So they stopped watching. When wrestling fans watched it, they didn't get what they expected from Vince McMahon and the WWF. They stopped watching and felt betrayed. The WWF's and McMahon's credibility were damaged with his core audience.

When the XFL died after only one season, McMahon's Midas touch facade was also exposed. The magic is gone. Few companies can withstand such a public beating without the core business experiencing a significant fall off. The WWF is no exception. See Zima. Heck, see the WBF.
[/i]

Full article here:

http://wrestlingperspective.com/positioning.html

All in all, it was simply a case of bad marketing and the head of a company thinking he could sell anything. You think he would have learned his lesson with the WBF...