The untold truth of the XFL
Just because fans want football, doesn’t mean they want awful football. The XFL learned that lesson in 2001, as its single season was marred by terribly low ratings, a fixation on pro wrestling cheese and sleaze, and terrible on-field play. XFL owner Vince McMahon plans to resurrect the league in 2020 because logic doesn’t apply to him. Before he does, let’s take a look at the original XFL and learn all we can about it.
Jesse Ventura vs. 'Gutless' Rusty Tillman
Early in the season, XFL commentator Jesse “The Body” Ventura (also Minnesota’s governor at the time, which is a part-time job apparently) took issue with with NY/NJ Hitmen coach Rusty Tillman’s risk-averse style. But rather than simply analyze, he would badger Tillman, calling him “Gutless Rusty” and publicly saying things like, “If anybody is capable of blowing a 10-point lead with 7:50 to go, it’s Rusty Tillman.” The XFL even crafted dramatic promos set to Rage Against the Machine music, insinuating a politician trolling a football guy was the real story here, not some boring game.
Tillman, meanwhile, simply wanted to coach, not participate in some “storyline” nobody told him about. Once, when Ventura tried to confront him on the sidelines, Tillman simply walked away. Sometimes he’d counter with a line like “I think maybe he ought to work on taxes. … I’d be embarrassed if my state had a governor like that,” but for the most part he wasn’t interested in artificial drama that couldn’t have possibly led to anything positive. They couldn’t exactly settle the score at WrestleMania.
Tillman later expressed regret at any small role he played in the “story.” As he told the Newark Star Ledger, “I probably shouldn’t have said anything. … What’s next, breaking chairs over each other’s heads? That’s so far away from who I am. I’m not going to be a party to that.”
Cheerleaders get no respect
By Week 6, XFL viewership was in the toilet, so it launched what Vince McMahon openly called a “blatant attempt to increase television ratings.” It wound up being perhaps the most ridiculous halftime stunt in sporting history.
McMahon claimed he would send a cameraman into the Orlando Rage cheerleaders’ locker room so everyone could see them in all their glory. That would’ve been bad and exploitative enough had it actually happened, but this is Vince McMahon: He baits and switches all the time because that’s what wrestlers do. In this case, McMahon angrily threw the cameraman headfirst into the locker room door, knocking him senseless.
Somehow, everyone then witnessed to Bruno’s concussion dream in which, instead of the promised “sheer paradise” of invading all kinds of privacy, we got sheer madness. Cheerleaders played Twister with a guy in a gorilla suit, gave a sponge bath to a fully uniformed football player, stroked baby pigs while using men in wolf masks as footstools, played poker with Satan, and implied other not-family-friendly things. The whole time, everyone was either wrapped in towels or wearing more clothes than they did on the field.
Finally, someone strolled out of the steaming hot shower … and it was Rodney Dangerfield, cracking jokes that weren’t good enough for his stand-up set. At least he was wearing a towel. Jesse Ventura summed the stunt (and the league) up perfectly afterward: “Anything [McMahon] touches turns to you-know-what.” Reminder: He was a governor when he said that.
Oh, the humanity
In January 2001, a month before the XFL season began, a blimp sporting giant logos for both the XFL and a sponsor began flying over Oakland, California. Unfortunately, the zeppelin’s trip around the city ended in the only thing you could expect from something associated with the XFL: utter failure.
According to ESPN, the pilot lost control of his blimp and couldn’t steer it back to the airport. So instead, he and his student pilot abandoned ship by literally jumping out of it. (The student was fine, and the pilot got away with minor injuries.) When a grounds crew failed to tie the blimp down, it simply floated away, moving aimlessly for 20 minutes before crashing into a sailboat mast. It then careened into a power line and a nearby Oyster House restaurant.
Luckily, nobody else was hurt, and the sailboat and restaurant sustained little damage. The blimp, meanwhile, suffered roughly $2.5 million in damage. As for why the accident happened, a spokesman for the company that owned the blimp explained, “There could have been a number of reasons. An airship moves with great mass and it’s very difficult to control it.” Or, it could’ve simply been Vince McMahon’s influence turning it to you-know-what.
Live from New York, it's bad news for the XFL
Saturday Night Live is a cultural juggernaut nobody dares mess with, but in just its second week the XFL did just that. That made SNL head Lorne Michaels angry, and you wouldn’t like Lorne Michaels when he’s angry.
According to the New York Times, NBC’s Saturday night XFL game suffered delays that bled into SNL. First, a power outage occurred because generators were low on fuel. Later, a player shattered his leg and it took 14 minutes for an ambulance to arrive. Finally, the game went into double-overtime. As a result, SNL didn’t air until 12:15 a.m., 45 minutes after it was supposed to.
This, as you’d expect, enraged Lorne Michaels. For one thing, that week’s SNL featured the red-hot Jennifer Lopez as host and musical guest, making it an even more important episode than usual. Also, it was the XFL. As Michaels reportedly told an associate, he could’ve handled a delay over the World Series going into extra innings, but delaying for a joke like the XFL wasn’t something he was ready to laugh at. The fact that XFL ratings rose around 11:30 (when SNL was set to begin) made it extra-clear people wanted Lorne’s show, not Vince’s.
NBC Sports head Dick Ebersol promised he’d ensure the XFL would never interfere with SNL again. The solution, according to the Washington Post, was to cut away from the XFL at 11 p.m., regardless of the game’s progress. It was a dead simple solution for an already-dead league.
The XFL suffered bad ratings it simply couldn’t recover from, but that in itself isn’t news. Plenty of shows have bad ratings. But the XFL’s ratings crisis was so severe, the league actually set a new record for futility.
Thanks to the endless hype and genuine curiosity from the fans, the XFL actually started off strong, with a 9.5 rating in its first week, according to the Chicago Tribune. By contrast, NFL ratings at the time were typically between 10 and 11 for major network games (according to Variety) so the XFL wasn’t trailing far behind. But as ABC News reported, ratings immediately slid, reaching a 4.6 in Week 2 and a 3.1 in Week 3. It was all downhill from there, as fans quickly realized the XFL was, in the words of Eisner Communications senior vice president Abe Novic, “plain old boring.”
By Week 7, ratings had dipped to record lows — not just for the XFL, but for TV in general. As the Chicago Tribune reported, NBC’s Saturday night XFL game posted a pitiful 1.6 rating, which at the time was the lowest rating ever for a prime-time show on the four major networks. Two weeks later, according to the Washington Post, the XFL broke its own record, posting a 1.5 rating for going up against the NCAA Final Four, and for being the XFL.
McMahon actually tried to continue the league
In 2020, XFL’s second season is set to begin. But if Vince McMahon had his way, that second season would’ve happened right after the first, despite millions of fans making it perfectly clear they’d rather watch no football than bad football.
As the New York Times reported, once the XFL’s first season mercifully ended, NBC decided to pull out of its 50/50 league ownership deal with McMahon and to no longer air any games. That’s a major blow for any TV show, but Vince McMahon is nothing if not ludicrously optimistic. He decided the XFL could actually continue because its Sunday games were being aired on UPN, of all networks. That’s like getting fired from a nice salaried job at Google but thinking everything will be fine because you’ve still got that part-time gig at McDonald’s.
What’s more, according to a March 2001 Associated Press report, the XFL was actively looking to expand the league by adding anywhere from two to four teams. Yes, even though the XFL was actually offering companies free advertising near the end.
Ultimately, none of that mattered, as UPN wanted more money to carry the games for another season. The WWE head was unwilling to pay up, especially since he could no longer rely on NBC to foot half the bill. Now with no TV at all, expansion plans dried up and the league officially folded.
You get what you pay for
NFL players get paid millions of dollars, and in exchange they give fans the highest quality football possible. (Yes, even if it’s the Cleveland Browns.) The XFL, meanwhile, paid its players next to nothing, and got next-to-amateur-level football as a result.
As Arizona Republic recalled, since all the teams were league-owned, every XFL player got roughly the same amount of money. Nobody, however, got a lot of it. Quarterbacks were paid the most, earning $50,000 a year. Kickers were paid the least, at $35,000, while most other positions earned $45,000. As for bonuses, each team received $100,000 per win, divided evenly to its 38-man roster (about $2,600 each). When the Los Angeles Xtreme won the XFL Championship, it earned a $1 million bonus which, according to Fox Sports, was split among 45 players, practice squad included.
Even accounting for every possible penny a player could earn, nobody could’ve possibly roped in more than $100,000 a year at the XFL. Most earned far less — the kicker for the two-win Birmingham Thunderbolts, for example, likely earned about $40,000. Meanwhile, in the NFL, even the rawest of rookies made a minimum of $212,000 at the time, per the Houston Chronicle. As competitive as these XFL players might have been, there’s only so much quality a league can expect when paying players less than they could’ve made by going home and selling insurance.
If the failing blimp wasn’t enough of a sign the XFL was doomed, the first play of a Week 1 game needlessly causing a major injury most certainly was.
One of the XFL’s attempts to differentiate itself from the NFL was to do away with the coin toss. In its place was something they called the “Scramble.” As the St. Petersburg Times explained it, each team selected a player to race 20 yards toward the ball, which was placed at the 50-yard line. Whoever grabbed the ball first would earn his team the choice to kick or receive. The idea, according to the above video, was to make players “compete” for the ball instead of relying on the luck of a coin.
The Scramble’s fatal flaw became evident as soon as the games started. As the Daily Press reported, the Orlando Rage’s Week 1 scrambler, Hassan Shamsid-Deen, suffered a separated right shoulder while going for the ball (not the above video). As a result, he was out for the rest of the season. Oh, and he didn’t win the Scramble either.
The XFL's wishful thinking
The Sixth Day was a largely forgettable Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi film from 2000, about a guy who was cloned without his knowledge as part of a massive conspiracy involving clones taking over the world. It’s a pretty ridiculous film, especially the part where it takes place in 2015 and the XFL is still a thing.
Yes, the XFL is featured in The Sixth Day, and not as just another sport — as the sport. (How did this happen? Probably money.) In this world, the XFL is incredibly popular, with a sold-out stadium full of screaming fans. This is the exact opposite of reality, when teams were lucky to play in a three-quarters-empty stadium. Sixth Day XFL is also incredibly profitable — one star player, “Johnny Phoenix,” has recently signed a lifetime contract worth $300 million. Also, he plays for the Roadrunners, which is not an original XFL team. Who knows how many teams this wishful-thinking alternate-universe XFL expanded to?
In addition, we see all sorts of amazing XFL technology, such as Phoenix using his helmet to scan the defense, receive play calls, and apparently get warnings about what play the opposition’s running (if the giant “BLITZ” streaming in front of his face in the above video is any indication). As far as silly 2015 sports predictions go, The Sixth Day beats Back To The Future II by a mile. Future only missed the Chicago Cubs’ World Series win by one year, after all.
Not everybody was unworthy of the NFL
Over the years, the XFL has gotten a reputation as a glorified minor league for athletes who couldn’t cut it anywhere else. That’s not entirely true, as the XFL actually featured many players who were NFL-quality. Some of them were championship-quality, even.
According to The Sportster, 38 XFL players also did time in the NFL, either before or after their stints in McMahon’s league. Some had brief runs in the big league and wrapped up their career in the XFL, like Butler By’not’e, who quit football to become a minister after the XFL folded. Others went from the XFL to the NFL but struggled massively, like Rod Smart. Most famous for wearing his grammar-mangling nickname “He Hate Me” on his XFL jersey, Smart played five years in the NFL after the XFL, but accomplished just north of nothing there.
Several players, meanwhile, made the Super Bowl, either before or after the XFL. A couple, like Tommy Maddox and David Richie, even won championships in both leagues. They probably look back on that far more fondly than the whole “cheerleaders’ locker room” thing.
In many ways, the XFL was ahead of its time
Even though it only lasted a year and is largely remembered as a joke, several parts of the XFL moved on to become integral parts of the NFL experience.
As The Comeback explained, the XFL showcased concepts like the SkyCam (an elevated, moving camera that gives an overhead view of the field), players introducing themselves before the game, locker room access, and players being mic’d up on the field. The league might not have invented any of these features, but it was among the first to use them extensively, popularizing them to an extent that the NFL had to take notice. And so, years later, we’ve got an NFL with SkyCams galore, cameras in the locker room, players mic’d up on the regular (though rarely live because many players have potty mouths), and most every game starting with the players giving you their name and school. Beyond the occasional experiment, none of these things were regular parts of the NFL before the XFL. If that’s not proof that inspiration can come from anywhere, nothing is.
The new XFL will be xtremely family friendly
Much to the delight of Homer Simpson, the XFL is making a comeback in 2020. Much to the delight of parents and sponsors, the new XFL looks to be as clean and family-friendly as its original incarnation was edgy and debauched.
As Ad Age reported, during Vince McMahon’s January 2018 press conference announcing the XFL’s return, he made it perfectly clear the “attitude” that personified the original XFL would not be seen the second time around. There won’t be any emphasis on sexy cheerleaders — in fact, there are currently no plans for cheerleaders at all. There also won’t be wrestling crossovers, unlike in 2001 when The Rock would show up for games and WWE announcers called the XFL action. In addition, McMahon claims any rule changes will be designed to make the game faster and (somehow) safer. In other words, don’t expect any more shoulder-destroying Scrambles determining ball possession.
As far as the games being faster, McMahon introduced the possibility that there would be no halftime in the new XFL, and possibly no commercials either. If XFL 2020 is everything Vince McMahon says it’ll be, you’d best use the bathroom before kickoff.