Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Volume 6, Number 8: The Death of the XFL: 10 Years Later

Exactly 10 years ago today, the XFL, a professional football league created as the result of a joint venture between the National Broadcasting Company and World Wrestling Entertainment, folded after little more than three months. It had a number of things going for it that the United States Football League (1983-85) and the World League of American Football (1991-92) did not:
  1. Prime-time coverage on a major TV network. NBC, which had broadcast AFC games for years prior to being outbid by CBS for that package in 1998, gave the XFL the entire 8pm-11pm Saturday night block.
  2. Vince McMahon's slick packaging. WWE was at the height of its success, having crushed its competition, World Championship Wrestling and Extreme Championship Wrestling. And the main reason was that Vince McMahon had transformed pro wrestling from lowbrow television to mainstream entertainment. At the time, WWF Monday Night RAW was actually beating out ABC's Monday Night Football in the Nielsen ratings.
  3. A hold on the Los Angeles market. Los Angeles lost both its National Football League teams in 1995. In 2001, LA's only other pro football team was the Arena Football League's Los Angeles Avengers.
  4. A perception that the NFL was becoming too rigid, especially regarding on-field celebrations by players.
  5. A salary structure that ensured that player salaries would not escalate out of control (as they did in the USFL). The league owned all ten teams, which meant teams could not outbid one another for players (the way USFL teams did for players like QB Steve Young).
The short story is that the XFL failed miserably, both at being professional football and at being entertaining. It only lasted one season, folding after no TV network--not even the struggling United Paramount Network--wanted to carry any of its games in what would have been its second season.

But I don't do 10-second editorials. I go into detail. And beneath the failure of the XFL laid a catalog of errors:

1. No exhibition games Only 30 days to prepare for the first game of the regular season (which wasn't nearly enough time to allow for players on each team to get on the same page with one another to minimize mistakes and poor play, as well as give the XFL a chance to try out the various new rules prior to going on TV). In a new league like the XFL, each team basically functions like an expansion team because each player is playing with teammates he hasn't worked with before. The XFL should have scheduled some preseason games--non-televised, of course--in an effort to improve the initial quality of the "regular season" games, for two reasons: Ultimately, the initial quality of the play reared its ugly head in the XFL's very first game, the Las Vegas Outlaws against the New York-New Jersey Hitmen. That game could have been a lot better if the teams involved played a preseason game or two to iron out any problems they had.  Also, rule changes had to be made during the regular season, which helped destroy the XFL's credibility as a professional football league (as Adam Hofstetter pointed out in this column about failures in sports), and that whole rule change mess could have been avoided without a single fan even knowing about it.

2. Teams in only eight markets. The XFL had a team in Los Angeles, but the Midwest--home to some of the NFL's oldest teams--only had one team (the Chicago Enforcers). Did Vince McMahon expect people from Detroit, Green Bay, Minneapolis, Indianapolis and Cleveland to root for the Enforcers? Did McMahon expect people in Philadelphia and Boston--cities whose sports teams enjoy great rivalries with their New York counterparts--to give a darn about a league that had a team in the Big Apple, but none in Philly or Beantown? (By contrast, when the USFL began operations in 1983, it had teams in Boston and Philadelphia.) And at a time when Texas had emerged as a football hotbed, the XFL had no teams in that state. Dumb thinking.

3. Failure to do one single thing well. The XFL was the spork of professional sports. It attempted to do two things--to entertain and to present hard-hitting, exciting football--but it was a jack of both, and far from a master of either. As entertainment, it was cheesy; as football, it had no credibility.

4. Lack of unity between NBC and WWE. The XFL was supposed to be a joint venture these two companies, but the two parties seemed to distance themselves away from each other just as often as not. A telling example was this March 2001 interview between Bob Costas and Vince McMahon on Costas' HBO show, Off the Record:
Bob Costas: The XFL doesn't go anywhere near where the WWF goes but it is still considered a low rent form of television.
Vince McMahon: Have you seen any of the games? Tell me what is low rent about the games.
BC: Not so much within the games. The pregame show in week 1 was one of the most mindless things I've ever seen.
VM: We don't have any pregame shows.
BC: Week 1, there was a pregame show.
VM: We don't have any pregame shows, which is one of our problems.
BC: Anymore?
VM: No, we've never had a pregame show!
BC: What was the pregame show--
VM: Dammit Bob, we don't have any pregame shows!
BC: --the thing that aired in Los Angeles, New York and other markets prior to the first game?
VM: A local thing that the NBC O&Os put together of which we had nothing to do with.
Oh, so when McMahon said "we," he meant WWE, not the XFL. It got me thinking, "Hey, wait a minute, I thought WWE and NBC were supposed to be in this together."

5. A great lack of professionalism. McMahon spoke often about creating a more exciting football league, but he forgot that the XFL's would-be fans still wanted it to be professional football. What they got instead were garish uniforms (the Orlando Rage and Memphis Maniax are fine examples), nicknames on the backs of jerseys, a scoop of sleaze, a dollop of raunch, and oh yeah, players demonstrating why they couldn't cut it in the NFL.

One only wonders how the XFL would have fared over the past ten years if not for all the errors they made, if only WWE and NBC had properly taken advantage of the opportunities that they had then. Might it have developed players who failed the first time around in the NFL? After all, today's NFL teams crave players who can contribute as soon as their rookie year and are more likely to cut unproductive players after just a few years; by contrast, some 30 years ago, New York Giants QB Phil Simms did not get cut after his first five years in the league (1979-83) and went on to win two Super Bowls. And what advantage might it have taken of the NFL's current labor situation?